LEWISTON — Bates has revived its program by latching onto floating footballs out of crisp, autumn air, and by jarring them loose and taking advantage of friendly bounces off grass and FieldTurf.
The Bobcats followed that same recipe in pursuit of a colossal upset Saturday afternoon at Garcelon Field, forcing and recovering Wesleyan fumbles on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter.
Offense took advantage of the short field and cashed in the first to make it a one-score game, but a three-and-out, followed by their own giveaway, sent the Bobcats reeling to a 24-10 defeat.
“We really pride ourselves on getting turnovers,” said senior linebacker Josh Freedland, who coaxed the first Wesleyan fumble and scooped up the second for Bates. “Tufts game we lost, we didn’t get any turnovers. Last week (against Williams) we got a handful of turnovers and won, so we know that’s big.”
Bates (1-3) trailed by two scores, its offense showing few signs of life after Drew Korn’s 23-yard field goal to cap the opening series of the afternoon, when Wesleyan (4-0) went sloppy on consecutive plays and let the Bobcats back in it.
Lou Stevens ran down an errant lateral and fell out of bounds for an eight-yard loss. Then on second-and-18 from his own 12, Wesleyan quarterback Jesse Warren fired a quick slant to tight end Ben Kurtz.
Freedland’s hit knocked the ball free, and fellow senior Adam Cuomo covered it up to the delight of an overflow Parents and Family Weekend throng.
Quarterback Patrick Dugan’s keeper advanced Bates to the 3, and a late hit out of bounds by Wesleyan moved it a yard-and-a-half closer. Dugan subsequently scored on a sneak with 11:29 left. Korn’s kick made it 17-10.
“They’ve been giving us a chance all year,” Bates coach Mark Harriman said of coordinator Chris Kempton’s defense. “We had that misstep against Tufts, but that was really more of an enigma than what we really are all about. That’s who we are.”
Wesleyan converted third-and-short on its next possession before sending in sophomore Devon Carrillo, who success as a wildcat QB provided a successful change of pace to senior Warren’s aerial attack throughout the game.
Pat Gilligan and Mark Upton combined to meet Carrillo at the line of scrimmage. Again, the ball popped out. This time Freedland fell on it with 9:25 to go.
But the ensuing series went nowhere, with Mitch Godfrey and Dee Simons collaborating on a sack of Dugan to force a punt. Bates stopped Wesleyan’s ensuing series before the Cardinals’ Justin Sanchez returned the favor with a fumble recovery deep in Bobcats’ territory.
Warren (24 for 38, 262 yards) immediately went up top to Jay Fabien for 20 yards and an insurance touchdown with 4:39 left.
Bates also had two giveaways in the first half – Alex Sakhno’s fumble recovery and apparent TD return that was nullified by an illegal block, and Donnie Cimino’s interception of Dugan.
“We had our opportunities. You can’t win with those type of turnovers,” Harriman said. “You go back to just field position and things like that. Defense played a lot of snaps, and they’re a good offense. Sooner or later they’re going to get an opportunity.”
The Bobcats were held to 164 total yards at a clip of 2.7 per play. Junior slot back Shaun Carroll accounted 96 of those in all-purpose fashion.
Wesleyan harassed Dugan, who was filling in for injured senior Matt Cannone, to 5-for-13 through the air. And his relative inexperience was only the tip of the iceberg.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys playing offense,” Harriman said. “We’ve got two sophomores playing offensive line. We’ve got two sophomore dive backs. Freshman and sophomore slot. So we’re young. We’ll get better.”
Reigning conference co-champion Wesleyan entered the game as the highest-scoring team in NESCAC, but Bates shut out the Cardinals until a lengthy march in the final 90 seconds of the first half.
Warren was 5-for-9 on the drive, all to Fabien and Josh Hurwitz. The latter’s 21-yard grab on third-and-3 from Bates’ 45 was a crucial component.
Hurwitz’s other catch was good for 12 yards to the 1-yard line. Warren spiked the ball to stop the clock before Kyle Gibson barreled in for the TD with 13.5 seconds remaining.
Ike Fuchs, who was part of four ill-fated field goal tries on the day, split the uprights with the extra point to give Wesleyan a 7-3 halftime advantage.
“They just made some good plays,” Freedland said of the sequence.
Bates snuffed out a fake field goal try to end the Cardinals’ initial drive of the second half, but three plays for a net minus-four yards couldn’t get the Bobcats out of brutal field position.
Wesleyan took over after a punt at the Bobcats’ 47. Warren’s deep slant to Kurtz on third-and-17 kept the drive alive, and a 16-yard scamper by Carrillo ultimately led to Stevens’ 5-yard scoring plunge.
“I think they had two or three big plays and that was it,” Freedland said. “They had a couple of big third down plays. We have to clean that up. Third-and-17 they converted. You can’t give up those big third down plays and expect to win.”
Stevens’ catch-and-run for 27 ignited Wesleyan’s next series, setting up Fuchs’ field goal, also a 27-yarder, on the first play of the fourth quarter.
In addition to the failed fake, Wesleyan missed two field goals and had another stifled by a bad snap.
Both defenses dominated lengthy stretches of the day. The Cardinals made 13 tackles for loss. The Bobcats: Eight, including two each by Upton and Gilbert Brown.
“They’re undefeated. I think they won the conference last year,” Freedland said. “We just went to-toe-to-toe with them for four quarters. I know the score is 24-10, but I think it was a lot closer than that.”