Congrats to Williams on destroying Wesleyan on Saturday, earning at least a share of the NESCAC championship and earning the right to Walk (see photo below, and video here).  But that is just the appetizer for what is sure to be a tougher test at Amherst.  Last year, a 6-1 Williams team hoped to spoil the perfect season of 7-0 Amherst; they came agonizingly short.  This year, the roles are reversed.

Where to begin recounting how much is on the line for both teams?  For 6-1 Amherst, a chance to earn some redemption after a discouraging loss to Trinity last week, breaking its 14 game winning streak; a tie for the NESCAC championship; a chance to beat Williams twice in a row for the first time since 1986; and the first home win vs. Williams for any member of the Amherst team.  For 7-0 Williams, a chance to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss to Amherst; a chance to win a solo NESCAC title for the first time since 2006 (the Ephs’ most recent undefeated season); and of course, new coach Aaron Kelton’s first Amherst game.

Williams leads the all-time series vs. Amherst, 70-49-5.  Previous posts on the history of the Amherst-Williams football rivalry, including links to various stories of interest, can be found here and here.  Amherst is first in the NESCAC in scoring offense with an astounding 38.6 points per game; Williams is not far behind, at 37.4.  Williams has the edge in defense, giving up only 13 points per game, as compared to Amherst’s 18.3.  Williams leads NESCAC by a wide margin in total offense, while Amherst has been more opportunistic, leading the conference, also by a wide margin, in turnover margin.  Williams previews the game (including viewing information) here, Amherst, here, the Chronicle of Higher Education (!) here, iBerkshires, here, the New York Times, here and here, and Fanhouse, here.   [By the way, I will be attending my first Amherst-Williams football game since the 1997 48-46 classic, which will likely never be topped for drama.  If you’re at the game, say hello — I’ll be the crazy shirtless guy painted head-to-toe in purple, and engaging in fistacuffs with the “Lord Jeff” … perhaps].

Below the break, my extended game preview, featuring key players to watch.

Key players for Williams:

  • MLB Dylan Schultz ’12 — Co-Captain as a junior, Eph legacy, Mt. Greylock alum who grew up watching Eph football, arguably the best defensive player in NESCAC, Williams’ leading tackler, big, fast, tough and the heart of the team.  If the Ephs win, a good bet for NESCAC defensive player of the year.
  • LB / DB Pat Barren ’11 — likely the key to Williams’ defense tomorrow.  Uber-fast hybrid playmaker is all over the field: he has already returned an INT for a TD in a huge situation, as well as forcing / recovering several fumbles, and trails only Schultz in tackles-per-game.  Considering Amherst’s “blur” offensive system, which involves a ton of quick-hitting short passes and averages an astounding number of plays-per-game, Barren is almost certain to be involved in several important plays.   If he accumulates lots of tackles within five yards of the line of scrimmage and/or forces a turnover, that is a sign that the Ephs are able to control Amherst’s tricky style of play.
  • DTs Colin Curzi ’12 and Ben Halbower ’12 — unheralded duo who will graduate in 2012 as four and three year starters on the interior line, respectively.  Keys to Williams’ stellar defense vs. the run, they don’t accumulate many stats, but they clog up the middle so the LB’s can make plays and collapse the pocket vs. most teams.  Curzi was first-team all NESCAC as a sophomore, which is rare in football, especially for a lineman.   If they can occupy Amherst’s interior linemen, it will allow the Ephs’ stellar core of linebackers to wreak havoc.
  • RB Ryan Lupo ’11 — Williams’ workhorse and the second-leading rusher in NESCAC.  If he gets 100 yards on the ground, it’s a good sign for Williams’ chances, as the more physical Ephs will want to control the clock to let their defense rest, much like Trinity did last week.
  • QB Pat Moffitt ’11 — three year starter, outstanding at connecting on deep balls down the field, leads NESCAC in numerous statistical categories including QB rating, and has already set the Eph record for TD’s in a season.  A leading candidate for NESCAC offensive POY.
  • WR Darren Hartwell ’13 — perhaps the fastest player in NESCAC, leads the conference in receiving yards, receiving TD’s, and punt return yardage, and has already set the record for Eph receiving TD’s in a single season.  If Amherst doesn’t punt away from him, look for Hartwell to break at least one big return.  The Eph receiving core is extremely talented — both opening day starters (BJ Griffin ’12, who in high school was the top receiver for Andrew Luck, the likely top overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and returning all-NESCAC receiver Bryce Bennett ’11) are injured and missed the Wesleyan game (although either could return vs. Amherst).  Physical 6’4 juniors Tomas Kearney ’12 and J.C. Stickney ’12, who present a tremendous size mismatch for all opponents, have each had huge games when defenses focus too much on Hartwell, and if either Griffin or Bennett can return, that would provide Moffitt with even more dangerous downfield options.
  • TE Jon Carroll ’11 — Co-Captain, one of the top tight ends in NESCAC, has a knack for making big catches (including two TD’s vs. Wesleyan) and truly excels as a lead blocker.  Seemingly all of his catches come either at the goal line or in crucial third and fourth down situations.  Figures to make at least one important play for the Ephs.

Key players for Amherst:

  • OLB Jeff Katz ’11 — 24 year old with a physique rarely scene in NESCAC, all conference last year, former pro athlete, just plain nasty.  Need to keep him out of the offensive backfield.
  • DE Kevin Ferber ’12 — extremely fast for a DL, one of the top sack-masters in NESCAC two years running, the defense will need to be aware of his position on the field during all passing plays.
  • ILBs Matt Pieterse ’13 and Brandon Quinn ’11 — Pieterse led Springfield in tackles as a frosh, is nearly doing the same for Amherst as a sophomore.  Gutty Amherst co-captain Quinn made an incredibly quick return from a severe knee injury to play vs. Trinity last week.  Both are key to stopping Williams’ running game.
  • DB Evan Rosenstein ’12 — has a knack for making big plays and has forced several big turnovers, but Amherst’s boom-or-bust secondary has proven vulnerable to strong passing attacks.  Rosenstein also plays well vs. the run, and is Amherst’s leading tackler.
  • P/K Matt Rawson ’12 — top kicker in NESCAC, and a big advantage for Amherst.  Williams has struggled at times in the kicking game this season, employing a committee approach.  If Amherst wins, look for special teams to play a big role.  Rawson will likely try to neutralize Hartwell by booting towards the sideline.
  • QB Alex Vetras ’11 — Co-Captain, a three year starter, owns nearly every major Amherst QB record, uber-efficient, rarely turns the ball over and excels at running Amherst’s precision passing attack.  Along with Moffitt and Wesleyan’s Shea Dwyer, one of the top contenders for NESCAC offensive player of the year.
  • WRs Andre Gary ’11 and Andrew Reed ’12.  Smooth receiver / returner Gary has destroyed Williams in the past.  Reed is Amherst’s closest approximation of Hartwell, a tall, fast WR who makes big plays on both offense and special teams; averages over 20 yards per catch, and scored on a 70 yard TD vs. Williams last year.  Williams can’t let Reed get behind the secondary.  Reed, by the way, is but one of four mutli-talented twins involved in this game, all of whom figure to see a lot of playing time — juniors Andrew and Will Reed for Amherst, awesomely-named sophomores Hill and Ladd Hamrick for Williams.
  • RB Eric Bunker ’12 — Amherst’s top running threat, who has exploded onto the scene as a Junior.  Will be highly motivated after being out-dueled last week by his younger brother Evan, Trinity’s star frosh RB.

In addition, almost every year in an Amherst-Williams game, a frosh comes seemingly from out of nowhere and has a break-out performance to help his team to victory and establish himself as a future star.  The best candidates to do so for Williams are DB Andre Lafontant and highly-touted RB Alex Scyocurka, who has lived up to his pre-season hype after choosing Williams over Amherst, BYU, Boston College and Brown.  For Amherst, RB Ryan Silva (whose older brother plays in the NFL) or LB Eric Telles (Scyocurka’s high school classmate) could each have a break-out game.  Scyocurka has a particularly bright future: with his combination of speed, elusiveness, and power, he is the most talented frosh RB I’ve seen play for Williams, and would be a strong NESCAC ROY candidate but for the Trinity Bunker’s insane season.

Prediction: if Williams does not lose the turnover battle and has no glaring special teams errors, I expect them to win the game, as I believe they have more weapons on offense and and a deeper, more experienced defensive unit.  Williams will, however, have to be very prepared for Amherst’s difficult-to-defend high octane blur offense (which scored SEVENTY vs. Tufts earlier this year), and, as always, take care of the ball on offense.  The Ephs have also been hurt by penalties all season long, and need to avoid mental mistakes in important situations, especially playing in hostile territory.  I’ll go with Williams 31, Amherst 24, in what should be a classic.

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