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Week 1 Football Preview - Wesleyan vs. Colby

Photo by Steve McLaughlin
Photo by Steve McLaughlin

The 2019 NESCAC football season kicks off tomorrow, September 14th, as Wesleyan University and Colby College square off on the gridiron for the 42nd meeting all-time. The Cardinals hold a 24-17 lead in the series which dates back to 1927 and have won nine-straight entering today's contest. During the current winning streak, Wesleyan has outscored the Mules 285-130.

Last year, the Cardinals took a commanding 28-7 lead with just 1:45 to play in regulation before the Mules scored two quick scores in just over a minute. Wesleyan went on to win 28-20 in Waterville, Maine behind 269 yards of total offense from quarterback Mark Piccirillo '19. The senior quarterback went 15-24 for 166 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception, while also rushing 17 times for 103 yards and one score. Running back Glenn Smith '21 added 72 yards rushing on 11 attempts and one TD, and 26 receiving yards on three catches including a score.

The Cardinals totaled 361 yards of offense with 166 through the air and 195 on the ground, and recorded 24 first downs. The defense sacked the quarterback three times for a loss of 17 yards, including two from preseason All-American Taj Gooden '21, while Sam Green '19 recorded the team's lone interception.

Colby recorded 344 yards of total offense with 277 passing and just 67 rushing. Quarterback Matt Hersch went 23-40 for 277 yards, three TD, and one INT. Running back Jake Schwern rushed 21 times for 66 yards, and wide receiver Jibri Woods caught three passes for a game-high 95 yards including a 63-yard touchdown. The Mules sacked Piccirillo once and Nick Hall recorded an interception that he returned 22 yards. Both teams registered six penalties which amassed 101 total yards.

The 2019 campaign marks the 137th season of Wesleyan football as the Cardinals look to conclude the fall with an eighth-straight winning year. Last season, Wesleyan finished 5-4 with wins over Middlebury (52-21), Colby (28-20), Bates (44-13), Bowdoin (24-0), and Little Three archrival Williams (21-14). The Cardinals fared better on the road last season as they went 3-1 in away games and 2-3 in home contests.

Offensively, Wesleyan ranked fifth in the NESCAC in scoring (23.8) last year and sixth in total offense (312.3 yards/game). They threw for 169.0 yards per game and rushed for 143.3 per contest while recording 13 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing scores. The Cardinals also led the league in 3rd-down conversions (62-140) and finished third in time of possession (31:38/game). Piccirillo led the offense with 1,371 yards passing, 13 TD, and 4 INT while also posting a team-high 488 rushing yards on 113 attempts and three touchdowns. Other offensive leaders consisted of Smith (124 att/482 yds/4 TD), RB Sean Penney '21 (56 att/213 yds/4 TD), WR Dario Highsmith '20 (35 rec/407 yds/2 TD), and WR Hallvard Lundevall '20 (18 rec/357 yds/4 TD).

Defensively, Wesleyan ranked fourth in scoring (17.7 points/game) and total defense (267.4 yards/game), while surrendering just 80.3 rushing yards per game and allowing 187.1 passing yards per contest. They led the league in both defensive touchdowns (3) and sacks (29) while recording nine interceptions and three fumble recoveries. The unit is led by junior defensive lineman Taj Gooden, who was named a First Team All-NESCAC selection and a 2019 Preseason All-American. Last year, Gooden led the conference in tackles-for-loss with 17.5 and finished second in the NESCAC with nine sacks. He concluded the year with 35 tackles (3.9/game), a forced fumble, a pass break-up, and a blocked kick. Cole Harris '19 led the team in tackles a year ago (61), followed by Brandon Morris '19 (55), Kearney (45), Ben Thaw '20 (39) and Gooden. Kearney and Thaw also led the team with two interceptions each.

Colby finished the 2018 campaign with a 3-6 record with wins over Hamilton (23-21), Bates (21-6), and Bowdoin (30-14). The Mules were shut out twice last year, in their season-opener against Trinity (35-0) and later in the year against Tufts (48-10). Colby went 2-3 at home a year ago but just 1-3 on the road.

The offense finished towards the bottom of the NESCAC rankings in several categories as it averaged 14.6 points per game on 275.8 yards of total offense. Colby was ninth in the league in passing (160.8/game) and ninth in rushing (115.0/game), while throwing for just seven passing touchdowns and rushing for 10. Hersch, who started behind center last year as a first-year, went 141-233 for 1,342 passing yards, seven TD, and five INT. Senior running back Jake Schwern carried the load as he rushed 234 times for 971 yards and nine touchdowns. Devin Marrocco, a freshman running back, was second on the team in rushing yards with 63 on 16 attempts. Tight end Ethan Smith led the team in receptions (27) and receiving yards (274) as a sophomore while catching one TD pass.

On the defensive side, Colby finished sixth in scoring, allowing 28.2 points per game. The Mules finished eighth in total defense, surrendering 391.1 yards per game while allowing 156.4 through the air and a league-worst 234.7 on the ground. Colby forced 13 turnovers with seven interceptions and six fumble recoveries but totaled just seven sacks which also ranked last in the NESCAC. The unit was led by linebacker Marcus Bullard, who totaled 55 tackles as a sophomore, and linebacker Will Terzi who finished second with 46 tackles in his first collegiate season. LB Sean Godin and DL Nick Wilcox led the team with two sacks each, and Wilcox recovered a team-high two fumbles. Colby was also the least penalized team in the league last year, averaging just 3.9 per game and 33.8 penalty yards per contest.