LEWISTON, Maine -- Wesleyan got out to a 14-0 halftime lead, and a few big plays in the second half allowed the Cardinals to stay ahead of hard-charging Bates and remain undefeated, 24-22, in a nail-biter Saturday at Garcelon Field.
Backup running back Kyle Gibson rushed 32 times for 141 yards for the Cardinals, in relief of starting tailback LaDarius Drew, who ran seven times for 29 yards on Wesleyan's first series before leaving the game with an injury in the first quarter. Wesleyan QB Jesse Warren completed 14 of 22 passes for 163 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
In contrast to their run-heavy attack of the past two weeks, when they cleared 300 yards on the ground in wins over Tufts and Williams, the Bobcats were held to a relatively modest 126 yards on 42 rushing attempts. Senior quarterback Trevor Smith (Malvern, Pa.) had half of those carries for a team-high net of 47 yards, while junior slotbacks Shawn Doherty (Mansfield, Mass.) and Ryan Curit (South Portland, Maine) both found the end zone and combined for 105 yards from scrimmage. Smith put the ball in the air a season-high 38 times, completing 19 passes for 233 yards with two interceptions. The Bobcats had 24 first downs in the game, compared to 18 for Wesleyan.
Junior wide receiver Kevin Davis (North Andover, Mass.) had a second straight big game for the Bobcats, finishing with career highs of eight catches and 144 yards, including five receptions for 71 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
Wesleyan drove 72 yards on 11 plays in its opening possession. Gibson took over for Drew and picked up 23 yards on his first carry to the Bates 11-yard line. The drive was finished off by Warren's 10-yard scoring strike to Josh Hurwitz and Sebastian Aguirre's extra point.
Bates moved the ball on its first possession to the Wesleyan 24 before turning the ball over on downs for the first of three times in the game.
Bates, which entered the game third in the country in interceptions per game and first in turnover differential, got its first of three more pickoffs on Wesleyan's second possession, when Warren's pass traveled straight to senior linebacker Josh Chronopoulos (Tyngsboro, Mass.), who moved the ball up eight yards to set up the Bobcats at the Wesleyan 33. A bungled snap, however, led to a three-and-out.
Bates was driving again as the first quarter moved into the second, but again the Bobcats couldn't make it past the Wesleyan 24, where the ball was turned over on downs. The Cardinals took over the ball and kept it for the next 8:39, driving 76 yards on 16 plays, capped by Warren's 7-yard touchdown toss to Teddy Baker for a 14-0 Wesleyan lead. The Cardinals kept that advantage going into the intermission, despite only holding an 11-10 advantage in first downs to that point.
Bates received the ball to start the second half and moved from its own 39 into the Wesleyan red zone, after a 24-yard keeper by Smith and a 14-yard pass interference penalty called on the Cardinals. Smith hit senior Ryan MacDonald (Melrose, Mass.) on a slant for nine yards, taking Bates to the 4, and Smith gave Bates a new set of downs at the 3 with a one-yard gain. On third and goal from the 2, Doherty took a handoff and sprinted to the outside, beating Wesleyan's defense to the left-side pylon to put Bates on the scoreboard. Junior kicker Charlie Donahue's (Plymouth, N.H.) point-after attempt went wide left, keeping the difference at 14-6.
The teams then exchanged three-and-out possessions, and the Cardinals had the ball again at their own 40. Gibson ran for 15 yards to advance into Bates territory, and on first down from the Bates 45, Warren bought some time with a play-action fake, then lofted a pass down the middle and into the end zone, where Jay Fabien jumped and outfought Bates junior safety Andrew Kukesh (Exeter, N.H.) for a 45-yard touchdown, putting Wesleyan ahead 21-6, a lead the Cardinals took into the final quarter of play.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, with Wesleyan in a 3rd and 4 from the Bates 43, Warren's pass toward the right sideline was picked off by Bates senior cornerback Kyle Starr (Concord, N.H.), who never broke stride in his race up the left side for a 59-yard touchdown that got the home crowd roaring again and closed the gap to 21-12.
Bates' defense came up big again shortly after: sophomore linebacker John Durkin (Rye Beach, N.H.) stopped Gibson for no gain, and on the next play he tied up Te'Rhon O'Neal for a 2-yard loss on a reception in the Cardinal backfield. Warren's 40-yard punt was downed at the Bates 29.
The Bobcats then crept closer, putting together a 61-yard, 9-play drive featuring connections of 13 and 19 yards between Smith and Davis. On 3rd and 4 from Wesleyan's 6, Wesleyan freshman Alex Daversa-Russo wrapped up a scrambling Smith four yards behind the line of scrimmage, so the Bobcats settled for a 27-yard field goal attempt by Donahue. Donahue split the uprights, making him 5-for-5 this season on field goal attempts. With 9:46 left in the game, Bates had closed the gap to within one score, at 21-15.
Wesleyan responded with an enormously important scoring drive of its own, however. The Cardinals reached midfield on runs of nine and eight yards by O'Neal. Wesleyan called timeout on 2nd and 6 from the Bates 40, after which Warren found Kevin Hughes for a 34-yard pickup, taking Wesleyan to the Bates 6. The Bobcats kept the Cardinals out of the end zone, thanks in great part to two straight tackles by Durkin -- first stopping Gibson for a 2-yard loss, then limiting O'Neal to a yard on 3rd and goal from the 5. Wesleyan settled for a 21-yard field goal by Aguirre for a nine-point cushion at 24-15, with just 3:38 left in the game.
Bates moved the ball into Wesleyan territory on a 24-yard reception by junior Ryan Curit (South Portland, Maine), but the Bobcats seemed all but out of the game when Smith was intercepted by Donnie Cimino on a deep ball down the sideline.
Yet the Bobcats received new life on the Cardinals' next play, an unbelievable effort by Bates sophomore linebacker Gilbert Brown (Gloucester, Mass.). Brown sprung seemingly from out of nowhere to snag Warren's screen pass from nearly 10 yards. A facemask penalty against the intended receiver on the play put Bates on Wesleyan's 1-yard line with 2:16 left. Curit punched it in from there, and Bates had very suddenly closed the gap to 24-22 with 2:08 left.
A Warren incompletion and two big tackles by Chronopoulos, both stopping Gibson for short gains, forced Wesleyan to punt the ball to Bates, and Warren's 17-yard kick was downed at the Bates 19, with 1:21 still on the game clock.
Bates' last-ditch drive was successful in advancing the ball to the Wesleyan 31, thanks to catches of 16 and 14 yards to Davis and 13 and seven yards to Curit. Jon Lis broke up a pass intended for freshman receiver Harrison Murphy (Whitinsville, Mass.) on first down, and with 13 seconds left, Smith threw another incompletion, then was sacked by Vinci with five seconds left.
Both teams called timeouts before the game's final snap, on 4th and 10 from the 31. With three Bates receivers lined up to the left, Smith threw to Doherty, who was crossing over the middle on the right side of the field, near the goal line. Before Doherty could even get close to the ball, he appeared to be knocked down, but no penalties were called, ending the game in frustrating fashion for the home team.
Hughes led Cardinal receivers with five grabs for 61 yards. Zach Vinci and Nik Powers had two sacks apiece for the Cardinals; Vinci tied Jon Kim for the team lead in tackles with seven, while Powers made six tackles, four of them for a loss.
Chronopoulos had a game- and career-high 13 tackles (11 solo), including three for a loss, to go with a forced fumble and an interception. Kukesh made nine tackles, and Durkin made seven, including three for a loss.
Bates takes on its second straight undefeated opponent next Saturday, with a 1pm game at Middlebury (4-0). Wesleyan hosts Amherst (3-1) Saturday at 1pm.