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Football team fumbles in season opener against Williams

September 21, 2018

I’ve been accumulating a list of pithy yet uplifting one-liners to open the story about Bowdoin football’s first victory in three years. “Gameday in Brunswick began with the campus enshrouded in a thick, gloomy mist. By game time, the fog had burned off to reveal a breathtaking September day.” Just imagine the possibilities.

Well, they can wait.

Somewhere in the constitution of athletic platitudes is enshrined the principle of the equality of all victories: in plain terms, “a win’s a win.” This is a lie. What would it have meant for a rejuvenated Bowdoin squad to triumph over a perennial foe in its home opener before a crowd of hopeful friends and family, snapping a dismal losing streak and announcing its phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes? We can only speculate.

But enough of that. Following a 41-6 thrashing by the Williams Ephs, Bowdoin football is facing a different yet equally pressing question: is a loss a loss?

It’s true that an autopsy of the Polar Bears’ performance would expose many of the same maladies that have killed the team the last two seasons: an overpowered defensive line, spotty pass coverage in the secondary, poorly executed plays on crucial third downs and a metastatic collection of minor yet cumulatively fatal mistakes, including poorly snapped balls, dropped passes and a missed field goal attempt.

There were some new ailments, too. Starting quarterback Austin McCrum ’21 looked like a player who hasn’t taken a snap in a game since his senior year of high school, passing for only 73 yards on 10 completions out of 25 attempts, including an interception. He rushed for six yards on seven attempts. You do that math. Bowdoin’s only scoring drive was led by Griff Stalcup ’21, who replaced McCrum in the fourth quarter and threw for 64 yards.

Did Bowdoin suffer from some bad luck? Probably. On the second drive of the game, the offense took advantage of its dynamic quarterback duo, running a reverse play that involved McCrum handing off the ball behind the line of scrimmage to Stalcup, who completed a seven-yard pass downfield. A flag was thrown on the play and Bowdoin was charged with an illegal forward pass, resulting in a five-yard penalty and a loss of the down. The drive ended in a three-and-out Bowdoin punt, and Williams scored on their next possession.

The caveat? The rule cited by the officials as justification for that penalty doesn’t exist. The play was perfectly legitimate. Whoops. Counterfactuals are seductive, and a call the other way would likely have done little to change the course of the game. But momentum matters in football, and Bowdoin these days needs all the momentum it can generate.

So was this loss just another in the Polar Bears’ bleak 15 game skid? Not exactly.

No team relishes the moment when a coach tells his player that they played like crap—which is the polished version of what Head Coach J.B. Wells said to his players in the post-game huddle.

But for this group, for whom wins are otherwise so scarce, there was, even in this dressing-down, a little victory.

In years past, Wells told me he would have found a way to put a positive spin on an otherwise disheartening season-opening shellacking, telling his players that there were subtle signs of improvement, or that even in defeat there can be progress. But not to this team. To them, he served it up straight, unadorned, raw.

Why? Because they could take it. Past teams, he said, would have withered under the weight of untempered criticism. But this team—“they care.” And that, despite what the scoreboard might say, makes a difference.

The Polar Bears will have another chance this weekend as they travel to Vermont to face a Middlebury team that suffered its own disheartening loss to Wesleyan this past weekend. For both teams, it’s a big one. The game after a defeat, as any competitor knows, is crucial: 1-1 is a foundation, 0-2 is a hole.

It will require the offense, again led by McCrum, to shake off the cobwebs, the defense to find its footing and the whole team to know that it can, and must, play better football than it did last week to avoid the hole. In the meantime, I’m holding onto my list.

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