The Tufts football team barely lost to the Wesleyan Cardinals 26–22 in a hard fought battle away from home on Saturday. Consistently one of the top performers in the NESCAC, Wesleyan came into the game with the same record as the Jumbos, at 3–1. Last year’s matchup between these two teams resulted in a thriller where Wesleyan scored late in the fourth quarter to beat the Jumbos 36–35. This game looked to be a tight one going in as the top two scoring offenses in the conference matched up against one another.
“We certainly have a lot of respect for Wesleyan. But I think our mentality was … to focus on us and to focus on what we do well,” sophomore quarterback Michael Berluti said.
The game started with a Wesleyan drive that was stopped short by the Tufts defense. The Cardinals punted the ball away and the Jumbos’ offense got underway. Tufts drove the ball all the way into Wesleyan territory to the 12-yard line. They went for it on fourth and one, but senior running back Tyler Johnson was tackled for a one-yard loss, and the Jumbos turned the ball over on downs. On their next drive, Wesleyan was held to a field goal attempt but Cardinal kicker Mason Von Jess missed from 43 yards away, and the game stayed 0–0. Tufts had a little bit more success on their following drive, picking up some good chunks of yardage with Berluti hitting junior wide receiver Jaden Richardson for a couple of first down catches. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to sustain the drive and the Jumbos were forced to punt once more. At the very end of the first quarter, Cardinal quarterback Niko Candido completed a 45-yard pass to put Wesleyan in good field position to start off the second quarter.
The Cardinals finished off their drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to take the lead 7–0. Tufts got some good momentum going as Berluti hit senior wide receiver Phil Lutz for a couple of catches. On their next connection however, Lutz fumbled the ball and it was recovered by the Wesleyan defense. The Cardinals then executed a very long drive down the field that took almost five minutes off of the clock. They ended the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass. The extra point attempt was blocked by junior defensive lineman Javier Rios and Wesleyan led 13–0 on the night. Tufts began to drive down the field as Berluti had successful throws to Richardson, sophomore wide receiver Cade Moore and senior wide receiver Jackson Butler to get into Wesleyan territory.
“Ultimately, I think our success kind of stemmed from our wide receivers just stepping up and making plays when we needed them,” Berluti said.
With less than a minute to go in the first half, the Jumbos went for it on fourth and 10 but Berluti’s pass fell incomplete, and the Jumbos did not score in the first half for the first time all season.
In the third quarter, a promising drive ended in an interception thrown by Berluti and Wesleyan took over. The Jumbos’ defense was able to bail out the offense, however, and force a Cardinals punt to get the ball back. The offense finally got going with good passes for first downs. Berluti hit Richardson for 12 yards, Moore for 13, 19 to Lutz and capped it off with a 35-yard pass to Butler for a touchdown. The extra point sailed through the uprights to cut into the Wesleyan lead 13–7. The Cardinals drove just past midfield on their next drive but the Jumbos’ defense held strong and forced another punt. The punt only went six yards and the Tufts offense set up in good field position for their following drive. Johnson picked up 20 yards and then another 17 to take the Jumbos deep in Cardinal territory. Berluti hit Richardson in the back of the end zone for an over the shoulder catch to make the score 14–13 Tufts heading into the fourth quarter.
Quarterback David Estevez came into the game for Wesleyan and ran the ball on three successive plays, picking up a total of 42 yards. The Cardinals finished the drive off with a touchdown pass by Candido. They attempted the two-point conversion but the pass fell incomplete and the score stayed 19–14, with Wesleyan leading. On the Jumbos’ drive, they faced third and nine from their own 26-yard line. Berluti hit Butler who ran it all the way into the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown. The Jumbos went for the two-point conversion and succeeded, making the score 22–19 in favor of Tufts with 10 minutes left in the game. A few short runs and a 23-yard pass put Wesleyan in good position, and they ran the ball in from the nine yard line to retake the lead 26–22. The Jumbos’ offense sputtered on their following drive, going three and out. Wesleyan was then able to run time off of the clock and forced Tufts to expend all three of their timeouts. The defense finally forced a punt with less than a minute remaining. Tufts faced 55 yards ahead of them with no timeouts to try to win the game. Ultimately, the drive was unsuccessful as Berluti was sacked on the final play of the game to seal the win for the Cardinals.
Berluti had another stellar day, going 22 for 36 for 416 yards passing and three touchdowns despite one interception. He continues to lead the NESCAC in passing yards by over 400 yards. Lutz continued his dominance, reeling in 132 more yards to add to his conference leading total of 673 yards. Richardson extended his touchdown streak, catching his sixth of the year in five games. Butler had a massive day, catching 175 yards and two touchdowns.
“Some of the key takeaways [are] to start fast, come out strong right from the beginning [and] don’t wait around. Obviously we can’t wait until the second half to try to get things going, we need to play like how we play in the second half, but in the first half. We need to play strong and we need to compete for four quarters,” Berluti said.
Despite the good offensive day, the early mistakes cost the Jumbos the win and they fall to 3–2 overall. They sit in fifth place in the conference. The Jumbos will play at home and hope to get back into the win column on Oct. 22 against the winless Amherst Mammoths.