October of 1993 was the last time the Cardinals left Amherst, Mass. as victors in football. Nine years later, in 2002, Cardinal football notched its most recent football victory over the Lord Jeffs on Andrus Field.
With history against them this Saturday, Oct. 19 at Pratt Field in Amherst, it seemed as if the first Little Three matchup of 2013 might spell the end of the Redbirds’ wonder season. But one thing the Cardinals made clear with their 20-14 win is that they do not subject themselves to history; they dictate it.
From the onset of the game, it was clear that the affair was not one-sided, much like in the Cardinals’ prior four wins. Both teams entered the contest undefeated on the season, and both entered with two of the most highly potent offenses in the NESCAC. Despite being evenly matched on paper, the Cardinals still had something to prove. Season after season, the Cards displayed flashes of brilliance, but no Wesleyan squad could manage to step up at the crucial moments and deliver the decisive blow to its fierce rivals from Amherst. As Head Coach Mike Whalen describes, this was all a part of the process of building a stellar, tough squad.
“I knew that this team was going to be built in stages,” Whalen said. “The first step would be to establish ourselves as the best of the rest. I’ve always felt that the three best programs in the league were Amherst, Williams, and Trinity, and so our first goal was to get to four wins and have a winning season. Then once we achieve that goal, step up and try to compete and hopefully defeat teams at a higher level. We were able to do that Saturday.”
With cowbells rattling in the stands, the Cardinals kicked off against the Lord Jeffs in front of a raucous crowd of over 2,300 at Amherst’s Homecoming game. In their opening drive, the Lord Jeffs looked to be the better side as they trounced the usually stellar Wesleyan defense with an 82-yard drive for the game’s opening touchdown. Although Wesleyan answered in its ensuing drive with a field goal by sharpshooting kicker and reigning NESCAC Special Teams Player of the Week Sebastian Aguirre ’14, the Lord Jeffs roared back down field when they took possession and moved the ball to the Wesleyan 23-yard line.
Leading up to the matchup against Amherst, Whalen strenuously remarked to his team time and time again that games like these would be decided by who steps up in the key moments. Safety Devon Carrillo ’17 took that message to heart and leapt to make a crucial interception in the Cardinals’ endzone, which ended Amherst’s drive and shifted momentum squarely in favor of the Cardinals’ defensive unit.
From then on, the Cardinal D was much more effective in limiting Amherst’s offensive chances, while Wesleyan’s own offense was struggling to chip away at the Lord Jeffs. With four minutes to play in the first half, Captain Donnie Cimino ’15 came away with another impactful play, blocking a 21-yard field goal that would have spread the Lord Jeffs’ lead margin to 10-6 entering the half.
“I think for us the blocked field goal by Donnie was a big, big play,” Whalen said. “It gave us the opportunity to stay within our range without feeling like we had to score right away.”
Although the Cardinals were behind at halftime for the first time in their 2013 campaign, they were hardly discouraged.
“We talked all week about this being a 60-minute game,” Whalen said. “Regardless of whether we were up by two touchdowns or down by two touchdowns at any point, the game was going to come down to the fourth quarter and we were going to have a chance to win the game. At halftime really we didn’t make any major adjustments. We just told the guys we were going to have to play for the full sixty and some guys were going to have to make some plays.”
For the remaining two quarters, the Cardinals were simply the better team at Pratt Field. Trailing 7-6 at the half, the Cardinals fired back in the third with their first touchdown of the day, scored on a five-yard carry by LaDarius Drew ’15. With running mate Kyle Gibson ’15 seeing limited time due to injury, Drew, also playing in pain, paced the Cardinals offense with 87 rushing yards on 25 carries.
Quarterback Jesse Warren ’15 delivered another complete performance for the Cardinals, delivering 14 of his 17 attempts and connecting with wide receiver Kevin Hughes ’14 for what would prove to be the Birds’ game-winning score. Despite accumulating just 150 passing yards—well under his season average—Warren was a steady force for the Cards as he continued his season without any interceptions.
Even when the Cardinal offense came to life, the defensive effort never slowed down. The Cardinals received a surprising boost from newcomer Justin Sanchez ’17, who made a name for himself with a team-high seven tackles and two interceptions on the day. Sanchez’s stalwart efforts not only secured a victory for the Cardinals but also earned him NESCAC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
With a six-point lead going into the closing minutes of the match, victory was never firmly in the Cardinals’ grasp. Although the team had come so far to shock the home crowd, they still had to withstand the final powerful attacks from a Lord Jeffs team that knows how to win. Behind the support of the Wesleyan faithful in attendance, the Cardinals eventually held out to ruin Amherst’s Homecoming with their first victory against Amherst in 20 years.
Despite getting off to their best start in over two decades, the Cardinals still have work to do. As monumental as a win over Amherst is for the team, the Birds can still aspire for even higher greatness. The Cardinals will continue on their path with a road meeting against their northern rivals from Bowdoin this Saturday, Oct. 26.