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Amherst escapes Bates for 14-6 win in opener

The Bates defense gang-tackles Amherst's Brian Ragone during Amherst's season-opening 14-6 victory over the Bobcats on Sept. 20, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Bolte / clariusstudios.com)

AMHERST, Mass. -- Only a failed two-point conversion with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter kept the Bates College football team from pulling off an upset win at Amherst College. That and Amherst's subsequent 42-yard touchdown run with 1:06 to go gave the Lord Jeffs a 14-6 victory in the teams' season opener on Saturday at Pratt Field.

Bates (4-4 in 2013) was outgained by Amherst (7-1 and NESCAC co-champion in 2013) in total offense, 339-232, but the Bobcats had an advantage in time of possession in each quarter, for a 36:21 to 23:39 edge overall. Amherst had the fourth best offense in the NESCAC in 2013 in terms of both scoring and yardage, and the Lord Jeffs were arguably the most balanced offense in the conference: second in the league in passing offense and fourth in rushing offense.

The Bobcats' defense forced four Amherst fumbles, recovering two. Senior safety Ryan Newson (Stanhope, N.J.) forced one of those, in addition to two interceptions and a career-high-tying 10 tackles. 

Neither offense could generate much momentum all game long, with Amherst's 10-play, 54-yard drive in the first quarter holding up as the lengthiest. With the exception of Amherst's Gene Garay's 21-yard touchdown catch from Alex Berluti in the first quarter, the contest turned very much into a battle of field position, particularly as the second half wore on. 

A combined eight straight series ended in punts until the clock dwindled down under the 6:00 mark. Senior David Kurey's (West Chester, Pa.) 42-yard punt was returned seven yards by Garay before Newson sprung the ball out of Garay's hands and Bates senior Pat Gilligan (Marblehead, Mass.) fell on the ball. 

Bates took over at the Amherst 35 and converted a first down on a 6-yard completion from Cannone to junior receiver Mark Riley (Needham, Mass.), who caught a career-high eight balls for 64 yards on the day. A 5-yard out to Riley set Bates up for a 4th and 2 at the Amherst 16, and the Jeffs called timeout. 

Cannone then faked out the entire Jeffs defense with a naked bootleg, gaining 14 yards before being forced out of bounds at the 2-yard line for a first down -- Bates' longest run of the game. Sophomore running back Ivan Reese (Savannah, Ga.) was stopped at the 1 on first down before Cannone pushed behind his line and got the ball over the goal line for Bates' first score of the season.

Head coach and offensive coordinator Mark Harriman opted to go for the potential game-winning two-point conversion, rather than attempt a game-tying extra point kick, which likely would have sent the game into overtime. Cannone took the snap and rolled to his left, then lofted a throw intended for sophomore Tyler Janssen (Glastonbury, Conn.) into the back of the end zone, but an Amherst player won the jump ball and came down with the catch, keeping the score at 7-6.

Kurey sent Bates' subsequent onside kick attempt out of bounds and short of the required 10 yards, enabling the Jeffs to decline the penalty and take over the ball safely at the Bates 42 with 1:16 left. In position to run out the game clock, Amherst immediately surprised Bates on their next play from scrimmage, as Nick Kelly found nothing but open space on the left side of the field, romping 42 yards for the score. Phillip Nwosu's extra point gave Amherst its final margin of victory at 14-6.

On Amherst's second play from scrimmage, sophomore linebacker Mark Upton (Winthrop, Mass.) stripped the ball from Jackson McGonagle and Bates senior captain Gilbert Brown (Gloucester, Mass.) recovered, giving Bates the ball at the Amherst 29. The Bobcats advanced the ball to the 9-yard line, but ultimately settled for a 26-yard field goal attempt by freshman Drew Korn (Stow, Mass.), which was blocked at the line of scrimmage by Jamie Spears to keep Bates off the scoreboard.

Berluti completed 20 of 29 passes for 190 yards. Kelly's score gave him 77 yards on 9 attempts to lead all rushers. McGonagle, Garay and Brian Ragone combined for 16 catches and 179 yards. Amherst's defense was headed by Chris Tamasi's 14 tackles (7 solo) and Ned Deane's 12 tackles (5 solo).

Cannone rushed 27 times for a net of 57 yards and a touchdown, leading five Bates backs with five or more carries. Cannone also completed 17 of 31 passes for 113 yards and three interceptions, one of them on a Hail Mary pass to end the first half. 

Upton (11 tackles, 9 solo), Newson and sophomore Ben Coulibaly (Philadelphia, Pa.) were Bates' defensive standouts. Coulibaly had eight tackles (7 solo), including two for a loss.

Kurey had an outstanding game, with nine punts traveling an average 42.3 yards per kick, including a 61-yarder, the second longest of his career. Kurey stuck three punts inside Amherst's 20-yard line, with one downed by sophomore Brandon Williams (Gardner, Mass.) at the 4.

The Bobcats travel to Tufts next Saturday, starting at 1pm, to go for their fifth straight win against the Jumbos. Tufts ended its 31-game streak of losses today with a 24-17 win over Hamilton.