To become the best, one must beat the best. That philosophy drives Randolph-Macon College football not to begin their seasons with easy-to-beat opponents, but against a top-flight quality team.
Saturday, the Yellow Jackets christened the 2013 season by hosting Johns Hopkins, the preseason #17 team in Division III, according to D3Football.com, trying to avenge a 36-13 loss to the Blue Jays one year earlier.
Though the spirit was willing, on-field execution was weak at critical times, and Johns Hopkins left Ashland with a 38-14 victory at Day Field, a final score not indicative of the Jackets’ play.
Randolph-Macon couldn’t have started the game much better. Freshman Deshaun Rogers (Lee-Davis) took the opening kickoff 33 yards to the Johns Hopkins’ 47-yard line. Six plays later, quarterback Zac Naccarato found tight end Matt Williamson in the end zone from 10 yards out and, with only 2:34 gone, the Jackets led 7-0.
The Blue Jays responded as quarterback Robbie Matey and the bruising running back J.D. Abbott drove the ball down to the Jackets 28. On fourth down and 1, they went for it. Abbott fumbled, and Rogers recovered, ending the scoring threat.
But for as early in the game as it was, the very next play changed everything. Sophomore tailback Chris Davis ripped a big run into Johns Hopkins territory. It was called back due to a holding call on the outside by Williamson. From there, the Jackets went into a hole, seemingly unable to recapture the magic of the first drive.
After a 49-yard punt by Tracy Murden, the Blue Jays marched 89 yards in 11 plays, methodically striking against the Jackets’ defense. Matey’s first of two touchdown passes, a 7-yarder to Ryan Finkel, tied the game at 7-7 after a quarter.
“The holding call…that was a killer. That killed the momentum and put us in a pretty tough spot,” Randolph-Macon head coach Pedro Arruza said. “I’m not saying we lost the game because of that, but that was a key play in the game.”
Another Macon three-and-out was met by another Blue Jays touchdown drive, as Matey found tight end Brendan Hartman for a 16-yard strike to give Johns Hopkins the lead for good at 14-7. The Jackets put together an 11-play drive, but a fake punt on fourth and 12 at the Johns Hopkins 36 fell short. The teams went to intermission at 14-7.
Johns Hopkins seized control out of the locker room, scoring a touchdown on their opening possession in just 2:07, then adding a Nick Campbell
26-yard field goal halfway through the third quarter. It was 24-7, and the Jackets still couldn’t find the offensive rhythm.
Finally, as desperation set in, the Jackets struck with 7:19 left in the game on a 45-yard touchdown screen pass from Naccarato to starting tailback Will McGhee, who was held to 15 yards rushing. There was hope at 24-14.
The Blue Jays immediately quashed any Jacket faithful hopes of a come-from-behind win, punching in two touchdowns in five minutes to set the final margin.
Matey was 31-for-42 for 318 yards and two touchdowns for the Blue Jays (1-0), four-time defending Centennial Conference champions. After their easy win over Randolph-Macon at home a year earlier, Matey noted his team took nothing for granted during their trip to Ashland.
“If you are in the weight room with us in the spring, you know that we don’t get overconfident. We practice like we’re the underdog,” Matey said, praising his offensive line, which includes two All-Americans, for giving him tremendous pocket protection throughout the game.
Matey was sacked once, while Naccarato went down three times and found his pocket collapsing constantly.
“We played hard, but we beat ourselves. We shot ourselves in the foot offensively. We didn’t do a good job of keeping our defense off the field,” Naccarato opined.
The junior finished 17-for-27 for 243 yards and two scores.
The statistics show the clear advantage of the Blue Jays; 35 first downs to Randolph-Macon’s 13. They outrushed the Jackets 194-29 yards, only punted twice, and held the ball for close to 34 minutes to Randolph-Macon’s 26. Still, a look beyond the numbers gives Arruza hope from what he saw at Day Field Saturday.
“The positive is there’s a lot we can find to yell at these guys about on the film. And I told them in the locker room, ‘By the end of the year, can we be as good as they are?’ And I believe we can, I really do,” Arruza stated.
His confidence was rock solid for a coach who just lost his home opener by 24 points, and it should be. He notes the 126th team in school history has less chemistry and ego issues than the 2012 squad. There’s plenty of football to learn, and to be played.
“We’ll rebound from this, we’ll get better and use it as a learning experience. We’ll be a lot better next week and the week after,” Arruza said.
The Jackets will get a good chance to continue team bonding, with back-to-back road games. First, they travel to Averett University in Danville this Saturday. The following Saturday, they go to the northern tip of West Virginia northwest of Wheeling to face Bethany College.
Randolph-Macon defeated both teams in 2012. Their performance in these two games will give Arruza, the players, and Jacket fans, more of a barometer as to how 2013 will unfold.
(The Randolph-Macon at Averett game can be heard Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on WHAN, 102.9 FM and 1430 AM.)