October 17, 2006

Football mauled as Bears get revenge

Hosting its archrival Wash U in the UAA opener, football had a lot at stake Saturday. Costly turnovers and defensive lapses cost them once again and put their hopes of repeating as league champs in serious jeopardy.

In front of a boisterous homecoming crowd, the Maroons (2–3) proved what a difference a year makes, falling 26–7 to Wash U (4–3). After falling behind early, Chicago was never able to establish any real rhythm on offense while the Bears’ rushing game ate up yardage and the clock. The win ended the Maroons’ one-year reign atop the UAA standings and returned the coveted Founders Cup to the visitors from St. Louis.

The game started out ominously enough for the home team, who were coming off a bye week after a 33–9 loss at the hands DePauw October 1. After receiving the opening kick, the Maroons’ offense went on a quick three and out, giving the Bears the ball on a punt at the Wash U 45 yard line. The visitors proceeded to put on an offensive clinic, driving inside the Chicago 10 and showcasing a bevy of weapons.

With fourth-year quarterback Pat McCarthy running the option and running backs third-year Gabe Murphy and fourth-year DaRonne Jenkins joining him in the backfield, the Bears overpowered Chicago’s run defense. McCarthy displayed a deft passing touch with a number of short completions.

“They played a lot of two tight end sets—they ran a power game against a blitzing speed defense. If they make their blocks, they control the game and they did that,” head coach Dick Maloney said.

In what would become a running subplot throughout the game however, third-year kicker Michael Elliot was short with the field goal try and the Maroons escaped unscathed. They would squander the opportunity though, as dropped passes sabotaged an otherwise promising drive.

Complicating things for the Maroons’ offense was the noticeable absence of third-year running back Nick Schey. The team’s leading rusher and offensive spark plug carried the ball twice for seven yards in the first quarter and was not heard from the rest of the game. Suffering from a recurring ankle injury, Schey knelt on the sidelines for much of the contest. While second-year Chuck Little showed his mettle with some tough runs through traffic, the loss of Schey proved to have a tremendous effect on the home team.

“Any time a starter and all-league player is unable to play, it’s a loss,” Maloney said. “The best situation is to have both healthy, with both gaining playing time and showing their stuff.”

Both defensive units stepped up after the opening drive and neither squad was able to muster much for the remainder of the quarter. With the score knotted up at 0–0 at the end of the first period, the game had all the makings of a tough defensive battle with field position destined to play a determinant factor in the outcome.

After one quarter the Maroons looked primed to defend the Founders Cup successfully for the first time since 1993. That bubble burst before halftime.

Thanks to the continued ineffectiveness of the Chicago receivers, the Bears received the break they needed to jump ahead. On the first play of the quarter, Little couldn’t handle the ball on an attempted option. After a 31-yard return on the fumble, Wash U needed only two passes to punch the ball into the end zone, capped by a Jenkins six-yard touchdown run. The PAT by Elliot was blocked, but the damage had been done. Down 6–0, the score seemed like more than that to a quiet Maroons’ offense.

With neither team managing to take hold of the ball game, the squads exchanged turnovers. Jenkins ended a promising Bears drive with a fumble while Chicago handed over an unfortunate interception on a pass that clanged off the hands of the intended receiver and into the waiting arms of second-year defensive back John Grit.

Finally, with 1:47 left in the quarter, the Bears got their eye on the prize once more. Looking at second and eight from the Chicago 45 yard line, Wash U ran a trick play. McCarthy faked a handoff to Murphy, then hit wide-open fourth-year Nick Lizanich by the right sideline for an easy six. Elliot continued his miserable day with a missed PAT, but the damage had been done. A promising Chicago no-huddle attack on the ensuing possession fizzled near midfield and the whistle for intermission was blown with the visiting Bears on the fast track to victory up 12–0.

“We had to do something to mix things up. Wash U switches the defensive line all the time, so it keeps them out on the field a little longer. It gave us a shot in the arm and gave us a chance to see if we could get that spark and change the momentum; football is a game of momentum,” Maloney said. “At halftime we weren’t very happy, but we felt that with better execution we had a chance to get a win.”

The second half played out much like a repeat of the first quarter, only this time the Bears capitalized on their opportunities. The visitors made it a seemingly insurmountable 19–0 lead with a Murphy scamper around the left side from eight yards. Perhaps having found some weakness to exploit on the game tapes, the Bears ran relentlessly around the left side, catching the Maroons pinching in to stop the power running game up the middle.

“I thought they ran very hard,” Maloney said. “They competed when they had to and they were very patient. They were very happy controlling the ball.”

In the fourth quarter, fourth-year QB Matt Rinklin and the Maroons began to press harder for a score, but the result was more of the same, and a Wash U game-sealing touchdown. Throwing into triple coverage in a bid to connect with third-year wide receiver Mike Albian, Rinklin’s pass was picked off by fourth-year defensive back Joe Shaugnessy, who returned all the way for a 52-yard touchdown.

With a late score on a Rinklin bootleg, the Maroons did manage to end the game on a high note and bring a little life to their supporters in the bleachers. The ramifications of the loss, however, will be felt long after the bruises from the defeat disappear.

Having padded their offensive statistics against relative lightweights Concordia and Macalester (a combined 3–10 in 2006) the vaunted Wash U defense (12th in the country) stifled Chicago’s spread attack. The South Siders managed just 135 yards of total offense on the day—206.6 below their average—including -2 yards rushing.

Little carried the ball 15 times for 41 yards for the Maroons. Rinklin ended the day at 19 for 38 with 137 yards and two interceptions. It was not the big game he needed to have, although, to be fair, he suffered from a number of drops and deflections.

“Matt gave us a chance to be successful,” Maloney said. “He gave us a chance to win but I don’t think it was his best performance.”

“We had a lot of missed opportunities. When you’re playing a ball-control team, you only have so many chances. You can’t turn the ball over and drop passes.”

The Bears meanwhile produced a relentless if imperfect offensive strategem, accumulating 293 yards while controlling the ball more than 10 minutes longer than the hosts.

The two-headed backfield of Murphy and Jenkins combined for 131 yards on 24 carries for the Bears, to go with two scores. Murphy, who had various stages of effectiveness, finished 12 for 26 for 140 yards and one touchdown toss. Defensively, Chicago’s injury-riddled defense was worn down by the Bears ground game, and proved unable to come up with a decisive turnover.

At this point last season, anything seemed possible. With nothing to lose and a stunning league opener under their belt, the Maroons were taking advantage of a fresh start to overwhelm the UAA. This year, with a revamped Carnegie Mellon (6–0, 1–0) off to its best start since 1990, the competition only gets tougher from here. If the Maroons hope to stay in the league race, they will need to do a 180 from where they now stand.

“We’re behind the eight ball, but we are perfectly capable of beating Carnegie. We’ll need to execute very well,” Maloney said. “They’re a good football team, but I think it’s an opportunity for us to show how well we can play.”