Tartan football defeats Thiel to secure perfect 10–0 season

Just like last year’s regular season finale, the Tartans and Tomcats put win-loss records, playoff dreams, and personal statistics aside and simply brawled for 60 minutes.

“The game wasn’t over until it was over,” head coach Rich Lackner said. “It was a great team effort.”

Last year, the 5–4 Tartans battled tooth and nail through three overtimes with 9–0 Thiel before falling just short at Gesling Stadium 50–48 as the Tomcats secured their first-ever playoff spot. In an ironic twist of fate, this year it was the 9–0 Tartans who outlasted 5–4 host Thiel to clinch their first post-season berth since 1997.

By consistently grinding out short yards and first downs through Thiel’s front seven, Carnegie Mellon clawed out a 14–0 late-fourth-quarter lead. Thiel snuck right back in the game when quarterback Billy Blankenship lofted a pass to a wide-open Marc LaScola in the back of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown pass that cut the deficit in half.
The Tartans had built that lead mostly on the ground and mostly on the back of the University Athletic Association’s (UAA) leading rusher, workhorse Travis Sivek. Last week, the junior became the second player in school history to top the single-season 1000-yard mark, but he had not finished compiling milestones.

After diving over a pile of Tomcat defenders on the opening drive for his 12th rushing touchdown, Sivek gave the Tartans a quick 7–0 lead. As the game wore on, Sivek carried the ball a season-high 40 times for 172 yards on the way to becoming Carnegie Mellon’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing Mike Campie’s 1996–1999 mark of 2910 career rushing yards.

“I said it last week [after topping the 1000-yard mark],” Sivek said. “I’d like to thank everyone who I’ve played with, this year and in the past. Everyone gives it their all every game.”

Despite Sivek’s historic day and the valiant effort by the defense — holding Thiel’s potent offense to just 140 yards — the game’s most critical play came from a seldom-used special teams unit.

After LaScola’s touchdown, 3:33 remained in regulation — plenty of time for the Tomcats to manage another score and pull even with the Tartans.

Thiel opted for an onside kick, but Carnegie Mellon’s “hands team” proved worthy of their nickname when first-year wide receiver Brendan Howe snatched the ball after it glanced off one of his teammates.

“Knowing we had the ball, in their territory, with three minutes to go in the game, and knowing what we were able to do with Travis, we felt pretty good that we could get him up through there and get some yardage,” Lackner said.

Sivek did just what his coach asked of him. Six straight carries from the junior, followed by an eight-yard effort from junior running back Robert Gimson, produced two Tartan first downs. With less than a minute showing on the clock, the offense ran two final plays to close out the Tomcats and escape Greenville, Pa. with a 14–7 victory.

The victory over a solid Thiel team not only cemented a bid for a postseason spot, but also fortified the Tartans’ big-game nerve.

Saturday’s victory was just the second time this season that Carnegie Mellon defeated an opponent by fewer than 10 points; the UAA championship-clinching defeat of Washington University was a 10–7 overtime victory. The Tartans cruised through their first eight games by a 30–8 average score.

The excitement that infused Thiel’s Alumni Stadium Saturday afternoon should serve the Tartans well once the “second season” begins.

“We made some mental mistakes today,” Sivek said. “I think it’s good to get those out of the way now, rather than in the playoffs. It’s good to be in that atmosphere before you go into the playoffs.”

That unique playoff atmosphere — along with the Millsaps College Majors — arrives at Gesling Stadium on Saturday as the NCAA Divison III playoffs commence.

“Playoff teams are pretty special football teams,” Lackner said. “They’re there for a reason. It’s going to be a great challenge for our kids. But our kids came to Carnegie Mellon because of challenge. They came because they wanted to challenge themselves academically, and they wanted to challenge themselves on the football field. So an opportunity to play in a national playoff game is something they absolutely relish.”