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Week 1 Preview - Wesleyan vs. Middlebury

Photo by Jonas Powell '18
Photo by Jonas Powell '18

Wesleyan and Middlebury meet for the 49th time on Saturday in a historic rivalry that dates back to 1907. The Cardinals own a 24-22-2 advantage but have lost the last two meetings by a total of six points. The last five games between the two NESCAC rivals have been extremely close with the point differential just 18. The largest margin during that stretch was an eight-point victory by Wesleyan in 2014. Also, the longest win streak in the series is just seven, owned by Middlebury from 1956-to-1962.

Last year, the Panthers jumped out to a 20-7 lead in the first quarter at home. However, Wesleyan's defense held Middlebury's prolific offense to just 10 points over the next three quarters. Despite a rally by the visitor's, which included a 14-7 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Panthers held on for a 30-27 victory.

Both teams were led offensively by players who have since graduated. For Middlebury, quarterback Jared Lebowitz went 22-of-44 for 352 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Despite his strong passing numbers, he was sacked five times and finished the game with nine rushing attempts for -16 yards. For Wesleyan, wide receiver Mike Breuler shined as the senior hauled in 15 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns. The 15 catches set a Wesleyan program record while QB Mark Piccirillo '19 set two of his own. The quarterback from Shelton, Conn. went 39-of-53 for 427 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. The 39 completions and 11 consecutive completions were both good for new program records.

Despite the loss, Wesleyan's offense outgained the Panthers 446-to-384. The Cardinals had 23 first downs to Middlebury's 20 as they gained 427 yards through the air but just 19 rushing. The home team threw for 352 yards and rushed for only 32. Wesleyan also held a 35:18-to-24:42 time of possession but the Cardinals' committed 12 penalties for 111 yards, while Middlebury committed eight for 61. Defensively, Shayne Kaminski '18 and Brandon Morris '19 led the Cardinals with nine tackles each while Kaminski recorded a sack and Morris broke up a pass. Wesley Becton and Aaron Slodowitz each recorded 10 tackles for Middlebury, while John Jackson led all players with two sacks.

Wesleyan posted historic numbers offensively in 2017, breaking 18 program records, and looks poised for a seventh-straight winning season entering this fall after a 6-3 campaign a year ago. Head Coach Dan DiCenzo enters his fourth season at the helm of the program and boasts a 17-8 (.680) record entering today's game. Despite losing the 2017 NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year, Breuler, to graduation, DiCenzo has the luxury of Piccirillo returning behind center. The senior quarterback and co-captain owns 11 program records and is the program's all-time leading touchdown scorer with 42. Last year, Piccirillo led the league in passing yards per game (295.2), completion percentage (70.4%), completions (233) and passing touchdowns (20). He was also a threat with his feet as he led the team and finished sixth in the NESCAC in rushing with 474 yards (52.7/game) and four scores. Wesleyan's offense in 2017 ranked second in the conference in total yards per game (417.8) and passing yards per game (303.3), and fourth in scoring (26.7 points/game).

Defensively, the Cardinals return the NESCAC's top tackler from a year ago in senior co-captain Brandon Morris. The linebacker from Davie, Fla. finished the season with 95 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and two breakups. He has played in 24 career games while compiling 165 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Morris led a defense that ranked second in the conference in scoring, allowing just 16.1 points per game, and finished third in total yards (305.1/game) and passing yards (186.1/game). In all, nine players earned All-NESCAC a year ago and five return this fall.

Middlebury finished 7-2 a year ago to place second in the NESCAC and returns 10 starters on offense and more than half of its starting defenders. The Panthers paced the league in total offense (419.1 yards) and were second in points/game (32.6), while the defense led the NESCAC with 31 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, and three touchdowns. The team outscored its opponents 293–190 over its nine-game schedule. Middlebury is led by Head Coach Bob Ritter who enters his 18th year at the helm of the program and owns a career mark of 88-49. His teams have won 38 of 49 games over the past six seasons.

Despite the loss of Lebowitz to graduation, the Panthers return senior quarterback Jack Meservy who started the final three games of 2017 and finished the year with 964 yards, eight touchdowns, and three interceptions. He'll look to connect with two-time First Team All-NESCAC wide receiver Conrado Bankey often as the senior owns 19 career touchdowns to rank third in program history, while his 1,780 yards receiving are fourth-best. A very experienced offensive unit also features senior running back Drew Jacobs, senior wide receiver Jimmy Martinez, junior wide receivers Maxim Bochman and Maxwell Rye, and junior tight end Frank Cosolito who earned first team all-conference honors a year ago. The starting offensive line also features tons of experience with four senior and one junior.

The defense looks to be very senior-laden as well with defensive linemen Roman Trevino (11 tackles, 3 TFL) and Ian Blow (22 tackles), linebackers Kevin Maxwell (52 tackles, 6.5 TFL) and Clay Hunt (14 tackles), and corners Matthew Daniel (24 tackles, 6 break-ups) and Bobby Ritter (37 tackles, 4 break-ups). Last year's unit allowed 21.1 points and 339.8 yards per game while surrendering just 187.9 yards through the air and 151.9 on the ground.

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