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MIT’s brilliance on football field leads to undefeated season

Because of academic responsibilities, MIT players are limited to two hours of practice a day, which they make the most of.
Because of academic responsibilities, MIT players are limited to two hours of practice a day, which they make the most of.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

CAMBRIDGE — The starting quarterback is a future rocket scientist — as in, really, a rocket scientist. Seventeen of the 81 players were high school valedictorians. The coach readily admits that he guides charges with IQs above his own, but takes solace in knowing he can still teach them a thing or two about solving the intricacies of 100-yard equations.

It is one of the most unconventional and perhaps improbable championship football teams that New England has known. The MIT Engineers, riding a perfect 9-0 season, on Saturday play in their first postseason game in school history.

How a collection of elite students reached this point is, in no small way, a matter of chemistry, though perhaps not the kind learned in the labs of their world-renowned university.

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“The hurdle is that they are very analytical, at least a lot of them,’’ said Chad Martinovich, the Engineers’ sixth-year coach. “You have to constantly remind them not to overanalyze things. Just tell them to play — a read-and-react type of deal.’’

Quarterback Peter Williams has thrown for just over 957 Smoots this season — 1,761 yards, for those without the requisite MIT converter — and 16 touchdowns. A 6-foot-3-inch senior from Portland, Ore., Williams owns virtually all the school’s passing records. His major? Aerospace engineering.

“Because he’s so smart, we can throw a lot at him, mentally,” said Martinovich, a former quarterback at Hobart College. “It’s what makes him such a good quarterback. He has an arm, he can move . . . and when things go crazy and there is adversity, he is unfazed.’’

One of 33 varsity sports at MIT, which offers one of the nation’s most robust Division 3 sports programs, the football team remains, as star running back Justin Wallace says, “on the down low.’’

Home games at Roberts Field averaged 958 in attendance this year, about 20 percent short of capacity. There is a marching band, but it doesn’t have a name and is made up of a mere handful of musicians. There is also a fight song, assured Phil Hess, MIT’s director of sports information, though his quick search in the athletic office failed to produce a score or lyrics.

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“I don’t mind it,’’ said Wallace, a computer science and engineering major from Chicago who amassed 1,445 rushing yards and 16 TDs this year, adding to his bevy of school marks. “I’m not one for the spotlight.’’

The polite but stoic Wallace was at his most animated when discussing MIT’s offensive line — a stout, efficient group of run blockers — and one of his classes in computer science.

“It essentially involved building a processor at a hardware level,’’ he explained. “A lot of it was very interesting and cool to do. Just last week, for one of the projects, we built a six-stage pipeline processor in a simulator and then tested it out on circuit boards.’’

This is the Engineers’ first undefeated season since going 3-0 in 1881, and they will carry their first New England Football Conference title into Saturday’s playoff tilt (noon kickoff) vs. Husson University in Bangor, Maine. A grand accomplishment for a program that had only been playing at the varsity level since 1988 after 10 years as a club team. (MIT had disbanded its football program in 1901, prior to reviving it as a club sport in 1978.)

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MIT’s undefeated season

Game Score Winning formula
vs. Pomona-Pitzer 28-18 Engineers win season opener for fifth straight year
vs. Becker 38-14 MIT scored 21 points in the second quarter
vs. Salve Regina 48-26 First time MIT has started a season 3-0 in modern era
at Curry 49-20 MIT has 462 yards total offense, 311 on ground
at Nichols 52-20 Peter Williams throws five touchdown passes to lead rout
vs. Western New England 35-34 MIT blocks extra point attempt in final minute to preserve victory
at Endicott 34-29 First victory over Endicott in MIT history (12 games)
at Maine Maritime 55-37 Justin Wallace sets MIT record with 6 touchdowns
vs. Coast Guard 24-13 24-point first half paves way for MIT's first undefeated regular season

At any of the country’s Division 1 programs, a football team with a 9-0 record and a bountiful 363-201 scoring differential would make the players rock stars, gridiron gods. Not at the school where the motto is “Mens et Manus,’’ Latin for “Mind and Hand’’ (and not handoffs).

“I’ve met people from different schools — Boston University is just across the river, BC is around here, Northeastern, even Harvard,” said Anthony Souffrant, a senior defensive back from Grafton. “As much as I hate to say it, we are definitely the nerds of the group.

“I guess we kind of embrace that role. We are athletes here and play football for fun. We are not here to get the Division 1 scholarship. We are not here to go on to the pros. I am out here to have fun. It is what drives me . . . to finish my work, and go to the exams, do all the work.”

Upon arriving on campus from his home in Longmont, Colo., said sophomore linebacker Anthony Emberley, he met other MIT students who were unaware the school even had a football team. Martinovich encountered the same thing when he took over the program in 2009. Now both feel that is changing among a student body of some 4,500 undergraduates and 6,500 graduate students.

MIT football players must walk through “MIT Academic All-America Hall Of Honor” to get to the field. Pictured: Running back Luke Gray, a freshman from North Hampton, N.H.
MIT football players must walk through “MIT Academic All-America Hall Of Honor” to get to the field. Pictured: Running back Luke Gray, a freshman from North Hampton, N.H.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

“I definitely wish we had a big stadium, packed, and everyone planned their Saturday around the big football game like it is at Alabama or any of the state schools,’’ said Emberley. “But I knew that’s not what I was signing up for when I came here.’’

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Like all sports at MIT, football is ostensibly restricted to two hours a day, specifically 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, when no classes are scheduled. It is the school’s activity window. Be it for sports, music, or other club activities, academics go dark. For Martinovich and his crew, this means 120 minutes — no more, no less — of solid, organized practice out on Roberts Field at Steinbrenner Stadium.

Because of academic rigor and tight schedules, it is typical to find MIT players with laptops and notebooks open, sitting at their lockers in the football dressing room by mid or late afternoon. Rather than studying game tapes, they are digesting school work. For a player like Souffrant, a math major, that might mean keeping pace this semester with courses that include Discrete Mathematics, Computational Engineering, and Accounting.

“You have to be very efficient because we don’t have them very long each day,’’ said Martinovich. “We try to meet with the quarterbacks when they have free time, but we have to be flexible.’’

Emberley, a sophomore, is not sure where his career will lead. The seniors, said Martinovich, typically have job offers, often with starting wages exceeding $100,000, soon after season’s end. A few this year reported to training camp with full-time jobs already in place for the spring.

“Along with football, the thing I’m most passionate about is entrepreneurship,’’ said Emberley, a computer science major. “I would say my number one goal in life is to eventually create something, come up with something that, you know, changes the world for the better.’’

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Maybe that is not rocket science, either. But as football and worldly X’s and O’s go, not a bad alternative.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.