Since last year, Lords football players have had September 7, 2019 circled on their calendars. “We better beat Catholic,” cornerback Bobby Strunk ’22 said in the week leading up to the game. Part of the anticipation came from its location and timing: The season opener is always exciting, and having a game in Washington, D.C. allowed easier travel for a large portion of the athletes’ families. Adding to the anticipation was the chance to see Head Coach James Rosenbury II’s system play out in a live game. The most exciting part, however, was the quality of their opponent. With a 26-game losing streak, the Lords looked at the Catholic University of America Cardinals, whose only victory last year was a 20-14 win against Maine Maritime Academy, as a prime candidate to finally end their 1,077-day skid.
As a result, the Lords were able to draw one of their largest crowds ever, despite being so far from the hill. Among the nearly 600 registered guests in attendance were college faculty, college officials, athletic department officials, over 20 alumni who had attended Kenyon with the current senior class and President Sean Decatur. Even against the high hopes of attendees, the game exceeded all expectations.
After a promising drive early on ended with an interception, the Lords almost entered a tailspin that could have derailed them for the rest of the game. Between multiple special teams miscues, untimely penalties and three turnovers, the Lords were lucky that Catholic was only able to put up 17 points, despite starting on the Kenyon side of the field three times. The only bright spot for the Lords was a beautiful end zone pass from quarterback Thomas Merkle ’20 to tight end Matt Jolliffe ’20. Even the one moment of celebration for the Lords was followed up by another miscue, as kicker Ryan Cooper’s ’20 point-after attempt was blocked, holding the Lords to six points. Entering halftime, the Cardinals had a 17-6 lead.
Despite the disappointing score, spirits remained high in the locker room. “It didn’t feel like we were out of the game,” Merkle said. “We knew exactly what we had to do, Coach Rosenbury laid out exactly what to do … we came out with the energy we needed to get ourselves back into that game.”
Coming out of halftime, the Lords defensive line played superbly. Thanks to a muffed Catholic kickoff and a strong run defense, the Lords started their first possession of the half at midfield. On this drive, Merkle connected with Jolliffe for another long reception, putting them on the 4-yard line. While the offense stalled out near the goal line, Cooper was able to convert a chip-shot 21-yard field goal to make it a one-possession game.
Following yet another three-and-out, the Lords had the ball with a chance to tie the game. After 25 yards in three plays by running back Jimmy Andrews ’21 put the Lords at the Catholic 36-yard line, Merkle saw a clear mismatch when analyzing Catholic’s pre-snap defense.
The Cardinals had man coverage on Andris Balodis ’20, the sole receiver out to the right, with one safety helping on the right side. This was not the first time they had seen this coverage, and Balodis, a former high school quarterback, alerted his offensive coordinator Andy Allison. “We ran that same play in the second drive of the game,” Balodis said. “They had the same coverage except I got pressed [on the line of scrimmage] and I kinda got held up. [Justin] Bosch ’21 took away that safety on the first play but I was never able to get off press. So I told coach [Allison] on the sideline, ‘we need to run that same play again. I’ll get off press, I’ll release outside and we’ll get a big play.’”
This time Balodis succeeded, allowing Merkle to throw him a beautiful pass in the back of the end zone that only he had a chance at. “It was just, get my eyes on the safety,” Merkle said, “and if he dove down to one of our under routes, just let it go and let Balodis make a play.”
Due to the missed extra point earlier, the Lords needed to score a two-point conversion to tie the game. Fortunately for the Lords, the Cardinals defense did not anticipate them going for two, and no one lined up on the left side. Merkle hurried the snap and ran to the empty side of the field, scoring easily.
“It was essentially just a numbers game,” Merkle said. “They were completely not lined up at all, they had no idea what we were doing, so I just quickly snapped the ball and ran into the end zone. [The play] was not really designed for me to do, but that was, I felt, the smartest play at the time.”
With the game tied at 17, the Lords defense didn’t skip a beat, only giving up serious yardage on one quarterback scramble before forcing a punt.
After back-to-back scoring possessions from the offense, Allison and Rosenbury made a risky decision that did not pay off: On 1st-and-10 from the Kenyon 39-yard line, the Lords ran a trick play that involved Balodis throwing a pass while sprinting to his right. Balodis could not reach his man, and his pass was intercepted and returned to the Catholic 47-yard line.
The teams then traded five consecutive drives with no offense, as both rushing attacks were shut down. That changed when the Lords got the ball back with six minutes left in regulation.
On this drive, Andrews continued his brilliant performance. He ended the day with 153 total yards, 123 of which came on the ground. It was the first time a Lord had a 100-yard rushing game since Seamus McCurren’s 136-yard performance in week 7 of the 2017 season. While only one game, the change highlights a new philosophy in Lords football: Under former Head Coach Chris Monfiletto, Merkle would often throw 50 times or more a game, with the team seldom running the ball.
“We felt good about our run game… and we saw something today,” Rosenbury said. “They were giving us some lanes, and our offensive line was doing a great job of moving those guys up front, and Jimmy [Andrews] was really doing a good job of making those guys miss.”
Due to their methodical rushing attack and Catholic’s poor clock management earlier in the half, the Lords were able to get a first down inside the 10-yard line with 33 seconds left. Rosenbury was not taking any chances. “I didn’t want to risk another [turnover],” he said.
The Lords instead ran the ball up the middle one more time and let the clock run down to four seconds. With hundreds of Kenyon fans on the edge of their seat, Cooper overcompensated for the ball being placed on the left hash mark, and pushed the 24-yarder to the right.
Despite the miss, Rosenbury still believes in his kicker’s potential. “I’d make the call again,” he said. “10 out of 10 times, I’d make the call again.”
College football overtime rules stipulate that each team gets a chance to possess the ball 25 yards away from the end zone. If the first team scores, the second team has to score more to win, or the same to send it into another overtime. After losing the coin toss and starting overtime with the ball, Andrews capped off his career-best day with a 12-yard touchdown run.
Catholic needed to respond with a touchdown and the extra point to send it to double overtime. The Cardinals decided that they were going to try to win in the trenches, handing off the ball to running back Andrew Comeau five straight times to open the drive, forcing a 4th-and-4. For the second time, the Lords were one play away from winning the game. Finally dropping back, Catholic quarterback Brady Berger struggled to find an open receiver, but was able to scramble to the outside to pick up the first down, then connect on a touchdown pass three plays later.
Catholic started with the ball in the second overtime, and scored in two plays on a beautiful touchdown pass from Berger. The Lords needed a response to keep their hopes of a victory alive.
After a three-yard rushing loss on 2nd-and-2, the Lords faced a critical 3rd-and-5 from the Catholic 20-yard line. Merkle dropped back, and found Jolliffe on the left sideline to catch the ball at the 1-yard line. “I just ran my route, saw what the safeties were doing, and realized I was getting the ball,” Jolliffe said. “I could’ve been on the 15[-yard line], I could’ve been in the back of the end zone; all I knew is I wanted to catch that ball.”
The catch marked the seventh time Jolliffe converted a third down, either via yardage or drawing a penalty. That, along with his 155 yards, earned him the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) Offensive Player of the Week, and the tight end spot on the d3football.com Team of the Week. No Lord had earned either honor since 2016.
After punching the ball in with an Andrews rush, Rosenbury knew immediately that he wanted to end the game quickly. “Their guys were tired, our guys were tired,” he said. “I told coach Allison when we started that drive ‘when we score, we’re going for two; we’re going to win the game right now.’”
For the third time, the Lords lined up with a chance to win the game—however, this time the game would end regardless of the outcome. The Kenyon sideline took a timeout to consult the offense on which play would work best. They decided on a rub route to the left, where both wide receivers cross past each other in an attempt to have the defensive backs take themselves out of the play by running into each other.
“Coach Allison said, ‘what are you guys comfortable with?’ and generally in that situation is where I speak up and said we could do this [play] or this [play],” Merkle said. “It was really Bosch and Gage Anzulavich ’22 that stepped up and said ‘this has worked for us in practice all week, we feel comfortable with it.’”
It worked perfectly and Bosch caught the ball on the 1-yard and fell into the end zone. The Lords won 32-31. Kenyon’s sideline erupted in cheers.
“I don’t know the words to describe [my reaction],” Merkle said. “I turned, took my helmet off and tried to find some of my teammates.”
“I sprinted from the other side of the field all the way across to give [Bosch] a hug,” Jolliffe recalled.
“It was a wonderful feeling,” Balodis said. “We finally got it done.”