With the energy that the Yale and Lehigh football teams have right now, sparks are sure to fly Saturday when blue and gold helmets collide.
This weekend, the Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 Ivy) host Div. I-AA No. 18 Lehigh (4-1) in a game where the Elis’ hard-earned momentum will be on the line. Since this is the Bulldogs’ last match-up with a non-Ivy League opponent, Yale needs to work out most of their kinks before heading into games with Ivy teams like the University of Pennsylvania. Having won their first game against a nationally-ranked opponent Oct. 2, versus then-No. 11 Colgate, the Bulldogs want to repeat that success against the Mountain Hawks by holding steadfast on defense and by converting every chance on offense.
According to Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki though, it is not going to be an easy game for the Elis on either side of the gridiron.
“We are going to have to play really, really well,” Siedlecki said. “On offense, they don’t turn it over. They have a lot of weapons. On defense, they can put pressure on the quarterback with four guys rushing. They have a lot of sacks and a lot of interceptions.”
Balancing the offense, capitalizing on turnovers and forceful pass rushing are not techniques that are limited to the Mountain Hawks. In fact, the Bulldogs won 24-14 last weekend at Dartmouth by doing much of the same — using both their run and pass game to score and force five turnovers. For turnover margin per game, the two teams differ by only .05 with Lehigh having a +1.80 and the Bulldogs having +1.75.
Both teams are also led by strong signal-callers. The Elis’ Alvin Cowan ’05 currently averages 184.8 passing yards and 2.25 touchdowns per game. For the Mountain Hawks, Mark Borda throws for 217.2 yards and 2.4 touchdowns on average. While Cowan has his favorite targets in wide receivers Ralph Plumb ’05 and Chandler Henley ’06, each with over 70 yards in catches per game, Borda prefers to spread out his throws with eight players having over 17 yards receiving per game.
The Mountain Hawks may have a slight edge in the air, but the Bulldogs have a small advantage on the ground. Tailback Rob Carr ’05, who made the Ivy League Honor Roll this week, has rushed for 546 rushing yards this season. Meanwhile, Eric Rath, the Mountain Hawks’ leading rusher, has rushed for only 457 yards. Adding Carr’s 256 yards off of kick-off returns brings him to 817 all-purpose yards, which ranks him second in the nation in Div. I-AA.
Although some may be satisfied with these numbers, Siedlecki said there is still room for improvement.
“We’re still missing some connections on offense,” Siedlecki said. “But we’ve been really efficient in the red zone against pretty good defenses.”
Cowan agreed, adding that the Bulldogs have not quite had the kinds of success they had last year.
“I still feel there is another level we can get to offensively and a good win versus Lehigh could do that,” Cowan said. “As cliché as it sounds, we really need to concentrate on one week at a time.”
On the defensive side of the ball, both teams like to utilize linebackers and defensive ends to put pressure on the opposing passer, besides forcing fumbles and picks. Leading the Mountain Hawk pass rush is defensive end Tom Alfsen, who is a possible candidate for the Buchanan Award, awarded to the best defensive player in Div. I-AA football. Alfsen currently has 11 tackles for a total of 43 yards lost and 7.5 sacks. In order for the Elis to execute their offensive strategy, the offensive line led by captain Rory Hennessey ’05 will have to give Cowan the time he needs.
Besides a strong line, Cowan said that keeping Alfsen and the Mountain Hawk defense off balance is crucial.
“We will try not to put ourselves in a position where [Alfsen] can come in and basically tee off on a standing target,” Cowan said. “I will try to run the ball a little bit and use draws and bootlegs to keep them off balance.”
Besides rushing the pass, the Mountain Hawks will heavily rely on their secondary, which Lehigh head coach Pete Lembo said is the strongest facet of their team.
“It’s critical that they have a good game because they will be matched up against a Yale skill group that has a lot of confidence,” Lembo said.
For the Bulldog defense, Ben Breunig ’05 must continue contributing to the defensive momentum that has fueled the Elis. The linebacker leads the team with 41 tackles. Yale will have to exploit an offensive line that has allowed 15 sacks on Borda. Defensive end Brandon Dyches ’06 currently has the most sacks on the team with three.
Since Yale and Lehigh have comparable philosophies and records, Saturday’s game may well come down to the wire. In this kind of situation, the team with the better field position on average may end up coming out on top with a win. Come crunch time, the Elis have the edge because of their strong special teams. Punter Tyson Crawford ’06 is averaging 37.6 yards a kick, which ranks him second in the Ancient Eight.
Whether or not field position plays a role Saturday, a two-game winning streak and a solid week of practice have given the Bulldogs the confidence they need to compete against one of the division’s best.
“We had a good week before Colgate and we got the win,” Cowan said. “Lehigh is probably the best team on our schedule and everybody understands that. Guys are stepping up. Hopefully we can pull out a win.”