Although Wesleyan’s football team was not able to win its game against Middlebury this week, they showed a lot of promise on both offense and particularly defense, the strength that they hope to build upon for the rest of the season. Offensively, Mark Piccirillo ’19 was at the center of the Cardinals’ success, passing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns and completing nearly 75 percent of his passes. But unfortunately for Wes, their run game, which was a crucial element of their offensive game plan, never really got rolling. Their defense had similar struggles, but after a difficult first quarter, they only gave up 10 points for the rest of the game. However, that effort was still not quite enough to come away with a coveted road victory.
The first quarter started slowly but picked up speed rather quickly as the Middlebury offense scored 20 points, with the Cardinals struggling to contain them on defense. The Panthers scored first, with a 70-yard passing touchdown (but missed the extra point) after Wesleyan failed to score on the opening possession. Then, the Cardinals quickly responded, scoring a 52-yard touchdown of their own through the air to take a 7-6 lead. The Panthers would then score on the ensuing kickoff, and the Cardinals would never quite recover.
The rest of the quarter, Wesleyan’s offense sputtered. One drive culminated with an interception and another with a punt. Middlebury would score again on a 40-yard drive, taking a commanding 20-7 lead. Despite tallying a sack and a forced fumble on defense, the Cardinals were flustered to start off the game. The Panthers were able to methodically drive down the field for two touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, the Middlebury defense was able to contain the Cardinal’s offense, forcing a fumble and coming up with a key interception. Both offenses struggled mightily in the second quarter. The Cardinals produced the only score with a 23-yard touchdown to senior Mike Breuler to cap off a nine-play drive, while the Panthers failed to make any significant offensive progress themselves. Both defenses played well in the second quarter as they limited their opposing offenses. In total, the two teams had four sacks (three by the Red Birds and one by the Panthers).
The third quarter was an offensive struggle, with four punts and one field goal over five total drives. Penalties were a big issue for both the Cards and the Panthers, directly leading to punts on three separate occasions as both offenses sputtered and couldn’t recapture the success they endured in the first half.
However, the fourth quarter was exciting right from the beginning. Starting only 26 yards away, the Dirty Birds could smell Middlebury’s end zone. But between a penalty and timely defensive prowess by the Panthers, the Cardinal’s offense was once again stifled. Counter-punching Middlebury did not hesitate, scoring an immediate touchdown to take a 30-13 lead. Despite the tough challenge ahead of them, the Cards did not falter and kept fighting. Immediately after the Middlebury touchdown, Piccirillo threw dart after dart, going 84 yards in a six-play drive that lasted just over two minutes. After a successful onside kick, the Cardinals quickly scored again. Piccirillo picked apart the Panther’s defense with just one incompletion on the way to the end zone for another touchdown, making a 17-point deficit transfigure into a 3-point one.
Now shortly trailing behind at 30-27, the Cardinals’ defense was able to force a punt. But on the very first play of the next drive, Piccirillo’s luck seemed to fade as he threw an interception that Middlebury returned for 31 yards. Yet again, the Cardinals stopped the Middlebury offense from gaining a first down, but there simply wasn’t enough time on the clock. The Red and Black finished with a 30-27 loss to the Panthers in a close and epic NESCAC duel.
Despite the Cardinals outgaining the Panthers (451 yards to 394 yards), claiming more possession time (35:18 to 24:42), more sacks, and a higher efficiency on offense, Wesleyan was let down by their running game, penalties and turnovers. Counting penalty yards, the Cards barely outperformed the Panthers, 512 yards to 505 yards. And if we include their interceptions, the Panthers were often facing a short field to score.
However, it was a close game and the first game of the season, so while the Cardinals do not yet have a tally in the win column, they clearly showed promise on offense with a sterling passing attack. Their defense held up well after the first quarter and generated a lot of pressure up front, resulting in 5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Next week’s contest will be home against Tufts at 6pm, who beat Hamilton in overtime 35-28 behind a potent offense in their first game. Based on what the Cardinal defense showed it could do in the last three quarters of Saturday’s contest, in conjunction with their potent offense, a win should undoubtedly be in the cards.
Jacques Slaughter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.