There are no playoffs in Ivy League football, but for all intensive purposes, Yale’s playoff run begins this Saturday.
In order to win the Ivy League Championship, the Bulldogs likely need to win every single one of their five remaining games, all of which are against Ivy opponents. Yale (3-2, 1-1 Ivy) enters the meat of its season this weekend when it hosts the University of Pennsylvania (4-1, 2-0).
The Quakers are currently atop the Ivy League and have yet to lose in Ancient Eight play.
The Bulldogs are in a tough bind — no team has won the Ivy League title with more than one loss since 1982 when Penn, Harvard and Dartmouth tied.
But the task is not insurmountable. The 1999 Bulldogs, who claimed the Ivy League Championship, began their season with a loss to Brown. That team eventually won six straight Ivy contests, finishing the season 6-1 in the Ancient Eight.
Current Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki was at the helm of that championship squad.
“These next five games are like the playoffs for us,” Yale linebacker Kenneth Estrera ’04 said. “We’re going to play it like it was a five-game season.”
Another piece of history that will help the Bulldogs this weekend is the fact that in its last four contests against the Quakers, the home team has won every game. Yale’s two wins over Penn — in 1999 and 2000 — both came at the Yale Bowl.
But the Elis will need more than statistics to get them past Penn this Saturday. The Quakers boast one of the best defenses in the league, allowing only 24 yards total from the two Ivy League opponents they have faced thus far — Dartmouth and Columbia. Penn’s defense is especially tough on its opponents’ rushing game. Currently, Penn ranks second among Division I-AA programs for rushing yards allowed, averaging only 57.2 yards per game.
“[Penn] creates big plays in long yardage situations,” Siedlecki said. “They are aggressive and they put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. That’s what they did to us last year.”
The contest to which Siedlecki was referring was a 21-3 route the Bulldogs suffered last season at Franklin Field. The Penn defense sacked then-Yale quarterback Peter Lee ’02 10 times and held the Elis to only 19 yards rushing. That devastating loss precipitated a five-game losing skid for the Bulldogs that claimed the remainder of Yale’s 2001 season.
Although Penn graduated their all-time top passer and rusher last season as well as many of their defensive starters, the Quakers have not shown any real weaknesses in their first two Ancient Eight contests this season.
On defense, the triumvirate of strong safety Vince Alexander, linebacker Travis Belden, and defensive end Chris Pennington all return for the Quakers. Alexander is currently sixth in Division I-AA for interceptions with four picks on five outings.
“Their best player is the strong safety, Alexander,” Siedlecki said. “He and their captains Belden and Pennington make up a great defense.”
On offense, the Quakers will rely on senior wide receiver and co-captain Rob Milanese. Milanese, who currently ranks 17th in the nation in receptions, has 31 catches for 456 yards and three touchdowns. Penn also leads the league in total points scored against Ivy opponents with 93.
“Milanese will be a major challenge,” Siedlecki said. “He can beat you deep or he can turn a five yard catch into a big play. The key is to not let him create big plays.”
The Quakers might have the upper hand on paper, but once Penn takes the field they will have their hands full this weekend. The Elis’ pass defense is eighth in Division I-AA while their total defense is 19th. The defense is also coming off one of their best performances last week, stopping a high-powered Lehigh offense three of four times in the red zone.
“[The Lehigh game] was definitely something we need to build off of,” Yale safety Barton Simmons ’04 said. “They have a great back and we did a good job of containing him. We’ve got the athletes and the talent to be a really good defense. We really have a lot of confidence that we can shut teams down.”
On offense, the Bulldogs can also draw confidence form their productive outing against a tough Lehigh defense. Yale quarterback Jeff Mroz ’05 completed 24 passes of 48 attempts for a total of 223 yards. Mroz has completed 56 of 98 pass completions this year with 729 yards and four touchdowns since replacing injured quarterback Alvin Cowan ’04. Before last week, Mroz did not have a single interception.
Mroz’s accomplishments since replacing Cowan have not gone unnoticed in the Ivy League.
“[Mroz] has done an outstanding job,” Penn head coach Al Bagnoli said. “It’s very rare to be a backup guy and not have an interception till his third [start].”
If the Elis want to come out on top this weekend, they will need another big performance from running back Robert Carr ’05. Despite a tough game against Lehigh last week in which he only managed 65 yards on 22 carries, Carr is still second in rushing, fourth in all-purpose running, and sixth in scoring in Division I-AA.
Speaking to the decline of Carr’s numbers in the past few games, Siedlecki urged a dose of realism.
“Everything is relative to the opponent you’re playing against,” Siedlecki said. “[Lehigh’s] defense played a great game. Maybe we’ve created a little bit of unrealistic expectations [for Carr].”
One significant problem Yale needs to address is the play of its long snapper, Jesus Salinas ’04, whose high snaps in the last two games have cost the Bulldogs dearly.
“The biggest problem we’re having with the punt is the snap,” Siedlecki said. “If you look on the tape, seven out of nine of those are high. It’s a bad habit [Salinas] has developed and we’ve been working with him to help him break it.”
Despite the fact that Penn has beaten both of the teams Yale has lost to, Dartmouth and Lehigh, the Bulldogs remain confident that they can be the first to expose the chinks in Penn’s Ivy armor.
“We played competitively with Lehigh and the game could’ve easily gone our way,” captain Jason Lange ’03 said. “In the Penn game, Lehigh could’ve beaten Penn. They missed a field goal at the end. So I don’t worry [it].”