Bowdoin football’s season-opening loss to Hamilton was a game of almosts. The offense almost clicked. The defense almost kept the game within reach. The Polar Bears almost came out on top.
But almost is still almost, and the Polar Bears still fell, 37-24, in their first game under the direction of head coach BJ Hammer and his staff.
Hammer’s presence was, nevertheless, evident. After trailing by 11 points at the half, Bowdoin took the lead with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter on a two-yard touchdown run by Nate Richam-Odoi ’20. As a point of comparison, the Polar Bears led in the fourth quarter only once last season, in the team’s sole victory over Bates.
That wasn’t the only improvement. In 2018, Bowdoin lost to Hamilton 62-27 and surrendered 505 yards of offense. This time around, Bowdoin narrowed the gap and allowed only 403 yards. Offensively, they put points on the board in every quarter. The number of times that happened last year? Zero.
Tactical errors can be fixed in a week, but lackadaisical effort cannot. Of Bowdoin’s major mistakes, most were of the fixable variety, said Hammer.
“I was pleased with the way we played, hard, with effort—we fought. We’re gonna clean a lot up, but those are first game things,” said Hammer. “It’s just cleaning up our run fits on [defense]. You can’t drop balls on offense, you can’t have bad snaps on special teams, but those are little things that can easily be picked up.”
Bowdoin’s strategy had few surprises. The first seven consecutive touches of the game belonged to Richam-Odoi, who finished the game with 21 carries worth 61 yards.
Bo Millet ’21 looked like his usual dominant self, hauling in six catches for 70 yards. Aside from a dropped ball or two, he set the tenor for Bowdoin’s offense. As for the dropped balls—as Hammer said: fixable.
Linebacker Joe Gowetski ’20 showed that, if anything, he’s getting better with age. He led the defense with nine tackles, two for losses. Remember those negative plays that Hammer prioritizes? Bingo.
The improvements to Bowdoin’s offense were clear from the first drive of the game. Starting out from their own 35 yard line, the Polar Bears strung together a 13-play, 49-yard drive to set up a field goal by Michael Chen ’20. It was as good as anything they produced last season.
After surrendering two consecutive touchdowns to some shoddy coverage in the secondary, the offense sputtered to life in the second quarter with another 13-play, 57-yard effort that ended with Brendan Ward ’22 punching the ball into the endzone to draw the Polar Bears within four, 14-10.
For much of the first half, Bowdoin’s defense continued its usual program of perplexity, allowing the Continentals to match each of Bowdoin’s scores with one of its own, and Hamilton led 21-10 heading into the half.
But in the beginning of the second half, the defense showed flashes of brilliance, forcing three consecutive three-and-outs to start the period. The final effort nearly culminated in a safety, not once but twice, thanks to a monster punt by Chen that plopped Hamilton on its own one yard line.
The apex of Bowdoin’s effort came with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, with the offense taking over at its own 25 yard line. After making use of four first downs to move the ball to the Hamilton 35 and facing a fourth and six, quarterback Austin McCrum ’21 connected with wide receiver Aidan Israelski ’22, who broke enough tackles to get to Hamilton’s one yard line. Richam-Odoi did what he does best: score. And McCrum somehow managed, while getting crushed by a Hamilton linebacker, to fling an improbable underhand flip to Greg Olson ’21 to complete the two-point conversion and put Bowdoin up by three, 24-21.
It was, in the end, too sweet to last. The defense returned to its feast of misrule, and Hamilton running back David Kogan ’20 broke through the Bowdoin line on the next two drives to extend Hamilton’s lead to 34-24. After McCrum got picked off with five minutes to play—one of his few mistakes of the day—the folding chairs began returning to their carrying cases.
It was sloppy, as first games often are, and it was dispiriting, a feeling that Bowdoin football knows too well. But it was not more of the same.
Aside from Richam-Odoi and Millet, two figures shone forth as beacons of hope. The first was McCrum, who looked more like the starting quarterback that Bowdoin needs. He completed 24 passes on 43 attempts, good for 229 yards and one touchdown, and he added one t?uchdown himself on the ground. Last year, he averaged 156 yards per game in the air while posting a number of efforts that didn’t break into the triple digits. So 229? That’s improvement.
The second was Chen, who averaged 40 yards across five punts, including a 54-yarder in the second quarter. He drilled his only field goal attempt from 29 yards and was otherwise accurate and collected, even when the ball appeared to be snapped for someone twice his height.
Things that change always present themselves more readily than things that stay the same, and time will reveal whether the new or the old will prevail—beginning on Saturday, when the team takes on last year’s champion, Trinity (who dropped their season opener to Tufts).
In the end, a new coaching staff means many things: new systems, new practice routines, new play calls. But it also means a new chance to impress.
“I think [the new staff] just being around makes us play a lot harder,” said Richam.
Is harder enough? Almost.