By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Ivy League’s football championship trophy isn’t overly large but weighs roughly 40 pounds. Dartmouth College coach Buddy Teevens lugged the silver cup and its attached, gridiron sculpture off the field Saturday at Brown Stadium using both arms and some obvious effort.
“Light as a feather, huh, coach?”quipped head equipment Mike Bissaillon as Teevens shuffled past with his load. He received a broad grin in response and a few seconds later, the visitors locker room exploded with cheers as the coach crossed the threshold.
The Big Green’s 52-31 victory over Brown on a sunny and crisp afternoon meant it shared a second consecutive Ancient Eight title. In 2019, the last time the league staged a season, the co-champion was Yale. This time, it was Princeton, with the Tigers and No. 20 Dartmouth each finishing 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the Ivies.
The league doesn’t use tiebreakers, although the first would presumably be head-to-head competition and the Big Green beat Princeton in Hanover two weeks ago. The split championship engendered not a whiff of sadness on the Dartmouth sideline, however, where players, coaches, staff, parents and plain old fans mingled joyously after time expired.
Dartmouth won back-to-back titles for the first time since capturing three in a row from 1990-92. The Big Green owns 20 Ivy League crowns, more than any other school.
“We knew they were going to put up points because they’re a great offense,” said guard Jake Guidone, part of a line that helped Dartmouth average 9.8 yards per carry Saturday, the program’s highest such number in at least 50 years. “We knew we were going to have to put up points to come out on top.”
That’s partly because the Bears (2-8, 1-6), entered with star passer E.J. Perry sixth among NCAA Football Championship Subdivision players with a total offense average of nearly 350 yards per game. It’s also because the Boston College transfer was confronting a Big Green defense weakened by the Covid-related absences of three starters, including linebacker Jalen Mackie, the Ivies’ leading tackler.
Also missing were cornerback Isaiah Johnson, standout strong safety Nico Mermigas and starting receiver Isaac Boston. All were officially listed as “not available”, but their absence was widely understood to be tied to the pandemic after a player was hustled off Memorial Field during Thursday’s practice by medical trainers who donned masks moments before.
A Dartmouth staffer confirmed every playing and non-playing member of the program was tested again this week in addition to the regular two weekly tests. The person requested anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly discuss team matters.
“At first it was panic because we had a Covid situation at the beginning of the season and then we were safe for nine weeks and it hit again,” said senior nose guard Luca Di Leo. “We kept testing this week and two or three more guys went down.”
Friday, Big Green players watched a highlight video and were energized to discover a Zoom clip of Mackie and Mermigas offering encouragement added to the end.
“We wanted to play hard for the guys who couldn’t,” Di Leo said. “We had to bring this home for them.”
Teevens, the Ivy League’s most valuable player as a Dartmouth quarterback in 1978, shook more hands than a politician after the game, receiving congratulations, hugs and back slaps from former teammates, past players, current competitors’ parents and four of his own eight siblings. Always polished in public, the 32-year bench boss nonetheless looked a tad overwhelmed.
“With the Covid threat and the uncertainly and all the different stuff that went along with it, it’s been a long season,” said the coach, who hits the national recruiting trail in less than a week. “We had our backs against the wall after that (Oct. 22 loss) to Columbia and couldn’t afford to drop off.”
Connor Davis’ 39-yard field goal gave the visitors a 24-17 lead a minute before halftime. Dartmouth received the second half’s opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in six plays, scoring on senior Derek Kyler’s 24-yard pass to tight end J.J. Jones.
“That’s huge, because it kind of buckles an opponent,” Teevens said. “We talked about that at halftime, coming out fast and going right down the field to put some points on the board. That’s hard to overcome for them and uplifting for our team.”
The Big Green embarked on a longer scoring march midway through the third quarter, this one covering 89 yards in eight plays, the last a 7-yard run by Kyler, who faked a sweep handoff to Zack Bair in one direction and easily scored going the opposite way. One of Davis’ seven extra points made the score 38-17.
Dartmouth’s other quarterback, Nick Howard, provided his team’s next touchdown on a 1-yard run just 4 seconds into the final stanza. The junior tied a program record with 15 rushing touchdowns in a season, a mark set 92 years ago by Al Marsters.
The play that drew the most excited response from Big Green players, however, came with nine minutes remaining when senior Keegan McHugh sprinted for a 65-yard touchdown, his team’s longest scoring run of the season.
“Keegan found his place on special teams and it was awesome to see him take off, because he’s been waiting for that moment,” Di Leo said of a player whose father competed at Temple and whose grandfather suited up at Maryland and with the New York Giants.
Said McHugh: “I hit that sixth gear I’ve always had in my back pocket. It might have been the fastest I’ve ever ran, although I almost tripped when I checked at the 20 to see if there was someone behind me.”
Dartmouth’s first-half scoring included a 1-yard Howard run and a 60-yard touchdown pass from Kyler to running back Noah Roper, who slipped out of the backfield unguarded and up the left sideline. Jonny Barrett later hauled in a 15-yard pass from Kyler, who completed 18 of 24 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns and went from the scout team to becoming one of the best signal callers in school history.
“I think I got hit maybe once while passing,” said Kyler, who also ran six times for 79 yards. “Otherwise, there was nobody near me all game. I tell (the offensive line), if you give me time, I’ll make it worth it.”
Howard’s only pass was intercepted but he ran 15 times for a team-high 80 yards, often lowering his shoulders and blasting Bears backwards.
“I was lucky to be part of a championship two years ago, but I had more to do with this one, so it means a little bit more,” said Howard, who lost his mother, Mimi, to cancer earlier this year and choked up while discussing her absence. “I owed it to my teammates to keep pushing on every play.”
Barrett caught five passes for 69 yards and a touchdown and Paxton Scott and Dale Chesson each had four receptions for a combined 49 yards. Roper ran four times for 66 yards.
Senior linebacker Tanner Scott, playing with a cast on one hand and injuries to an ankle and a shoulder, had a game-high 13 tackles, seven of them solo stops.
“Tanner’s hard-nosed, man,” said Cross’ roommate and fellow linebacker, Thomas Hennessy. “He’s been through so many injuries, but I knew he wasn’t coming off that field. He’s like Frankenstein out there.”
Perry, the nephew of third-year Brown coach James Perry, completed 35 of 48 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown.
Notes: Dartmouth senior defensive lineman Seth Walter suffered a dislocated right shoulder during the first half and returned to the sideline in street clothes after intermission… The 12 fifth-year players on Dartmouth’s roster went 35-5, the best four-year stretch in program history… Mackie’s replacement was Hennessy, from Lewiston, Minn., a town of 1,800 people. Hennessy barely saw game action before this season, undergoing two knee surgeries but starting twice during his final campaign… Freshman Davis Golick punted twice, averaging 37 yards per boot… When Dartmouth won at Brown during the 2019 season finale, it had to hold aloft a plastic trophy that might have come from a toy store. This time, the real deal was on hand and athletic director Peter Roby presented it to captains Kyler, Cross and Robbie Mangas, who stepped into the role for Mermigas… Guidone, who will seek to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision for his final season of NCAA eligibility, is one of many Dartmouth players with a final exam Sunday. His is for a class in Russian Folklore… Dartmouth’s 52 points were its second-most against Brown. The best output came with 62 in 1903, the same year the Big Green won at Harvard in the dedication game for the Crimson’s new, concrete stadium… Teevens improved to 4-43-1 when opponents have scored 30 or more points. He was Dartmouth’s coach for the 1990 and 1991 championship seasons before leaving to coach at Tulane. John Lyons coached the 1992 title team… The Big Green defense set an FCS record for fewest average yards allowed per completion at 8.46… Dartmouth set a completion percentage record this season at 68.8 percent, just ahead of its 2019 mark of 68.1… The Big Green had only three passes intercepted all fall. It also managed that feat during 2018 and had five tosses picked off during 2019. Starting in 2011, Dartmouth has not had more than seven passes intercepted during a season with the exception of 2016, when 15 were snared by opponents.
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