It was not the first undefeated season in program history, but it may well have been the most decisive. The 8-0 campaign of Coach E.J. Mills and company concluded memorably with a resounding 31-18 victory over host Williams. The road to that point, however, was a deceptively arduous one that the Jeffs traversed with skill, toughness and all-important luck.
That toughness showed when starting quarterback Brian McMahon ’12 was unable to play due to an injury that had sidelined him for all of 2010. As a result, Blake Grauer ’12 stepped into the starting spot for the Jeffs’ opener at Bates. He would need help from standout rusher Eric Bunker ’12, solid receivers and a deep offensive line. Defensively, expectations would be high for a corps of seniors featuring Kevin Heller, Kevin Ferber and Evan Rosenstein.
Amherst dispatched the Bobcats despite Grauer’s struggles in his first start (three interceptions, 83 passing yards). Just before halftime, the game was tied with Bates outperforming Amherst in total offense. But the Jeffs scored off of a crucial Bowdoin turnover, and they proceeded to shut out the Bobcats over the final 30 minutes. The Jeffs triumphed, 20-7, but questions persisted about the effectiveness of their offense.
Against Bowdoin, wet conditions further hindered the Jeffs’ passing game. Again, however, their running game and defense came to the rescue, propelling Amherst to a 20-3 victory. Polar Bears’ quarterback Grant White helped the Jeffs’ cause with three interceptions, and Bunker amassed 134 yards on the ground. Even so, the sloppy affair included 75 yards in penalties against the Jeffs.
The following week, the Jeffs met Middlebury and its vaunted offense. Fortunately, the Jeffs’ own offense also rose to the occasion. Five Panther turnovers set Bunker up for 130 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and Grauer threw for 193 yards with two touchdowns. Matt Rawson ’12 also kicked his 23rd career field goal, a program record. Again, the Amherst defense came up big, limiting the Panthers to seven points in the second half. The Jeffs moved to 3-0 with a 48-28 victory.
The Jeffs kept climbing against Colby, who fell 31-7 on just 241 yards of total offense. The team showed no complacency on Homecoming Weekend against Wesleyan, as McMahon returned to the starting lineup and did not disappoint. He threw for 205 yards and a touchdown, and Bunker was again dominant, gathering 176 total yards. Sam Clark ’13 led all defenders with 12 tackles and a “pick-six” to break the game open en route to a 24-10 victory.
Facing 0-5 Tufts, the Jeffs took care of business by a 30-0 score, but the next weekend’s opponent, the 6-0 Bantams of Trinity, would be well equipped to ruin the Jeffs’ season. They featured plenty of size up front as well as their own “Bunker”— sophomore running back Evan — who averaged 98.5 yards per game. They handed Amherst their first loss of 2010 and had given up a measly five points per game.
In the first half, the Jeffs held their own — and more. Amherst led 21-0 at halftime after two touchdowns from McMahon (one rushing and one passing) and one from Bunker. A critical roughing the kicker penalty also halted the Bantams’ momentum after a defensive stop. Demoralized, Trinity allowed two long scores to open the second half, a 75-yard run by Bunker and a 60-yard reception by Mike Samela ’12.
With a 35-7 advantage late in the third quarter, the Jeffs inexplicably faltered while Trinity regained life. It began with a blocked punt and subsequent touchdown run.
On the Jeffs’ next possession, Matt Paskalides intercepted McMahon; a Bunker run cut the score to 35-21. Amherst failed to eat the clock, and Paskalides came up with a second pick. The Bantams converted a fourth-and-goal from the two to make it 35-28.
Looking for insurance, the Jeffs drove to set up a short field goal try. Incredibly, Trinity’s special teams came up big again, blocking the kick and giving the Bantams a chance to complete their comeback. But, as the Amherst crowd sat stunned, the Bantams made a mistake of their own. With 2:12 to go, a pass from Ryan Burgess was pulled down by cornerback Landrus Lewis ’13, who also recorded nine tackles on the afternoon. With a 35-28 win, it was time for a sigh of relief — and on to Williams for a chance at perfection.
The achievement of that perfection was decidedly anticlimactic. Unlike in 2009, the Ephs were no match for the Jeffs, who scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. Heading into halftime up 24-6, the Jeffs never wavered. Ferber scored on a fumble recovery early in the third quarter, and, by the time the Ephs scored again, the game was all but out of reach. Ferber finished with 4.0 sacks and eight tackles, while Doug Gebhardt ’12 led all players with 14 tackles.
As “Jeff Nation” stormed Weston field, they had ample reason to celebrate. It was only the third 8-0 season in modern Amherst history, and none had ended this way — by beating the Ephs on the road so convincingly— since 1964.
Besides Rawson’s kicking record, Bunker set a single-season program mark for rushing touchdowns, while Ferber’s 11.0 sacks were also a new high. Ferber also became the first Amherst player to be named a Div. III first team All-American. He stands as the only NESCACplayer named to the team this year and the only one ever to receive two selections. For his fiery leadership, Mills was also named the MasterSports College Coach of the Year.
In 2012, their last season on the “old” Pratt field, the Jeffs have only one goal: to complete a season somewhere nearly as memorable as this one. After 2011, though, that will be a tall order.