Saturday marked new career highs for an Eli quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but the Bulldogs’ powerful offense was not enough to put away Lehigh in regulation.
The offensive statistics would seem to suggest a Yale blowout, and the defense did their part in keeping vaunted Lehigh quarterback Sedale Threatt in check. Yet the scrappy Mountain Hawks of the Patriot League battled back against a home team that found itself settling for field goal after field goal, and it would inevitably take a bevy of standout individual performances to put away the visitors for good.
The Bulldog offense fashioned a two-pronged attack, hitting Lehigh hard with bruising halfback Mike McLeod ’09 and then turning to the air as a change of pace. Yale led decisively in the battle for possession, holding the ball for over 36 minutes, including for over 12 minutes in the third quarter.
“The goal of any good offense is balance, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now,” said captain and wide receiver Chandler Henley ’07, who set a career high with 122 receiving yards on 8 receptions. “When we run so well, it sets up the pass.”
Bulldogs quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 had a career high with 236 yards on 18 of 26 passing and, for the second straight game, did not turn the ball over. McLeod dominated in the open field, forcing several Lehigh missed tackles. With the offensive line opening up solid holes, McLeod finished with a career high 204 yards on 40 carries along with two touchdowns. McLeod also got into the action on the receiving end, finishing with 51 yards on three catches, including a spectacular 44-yard catch to start off the second half. He has rushed for a total of 574 yards in the Bulldogs’ last three games, averaging upwards of five yards per carry along the way.
Along with Yale’s punishing ground game, Lehigh was also susceptible to the air attack, and Polhemus exploited their vulnerability with a constant barrage of play-action passes. The Elis’ repeated bootlegs were almost always effective, with Polhemus’ faking the handoff to McLeod and then rolling out in the opposite direction, often finding Henley and other receivers sitting along the near sideline beneath Lehigh’s soft zone coverage. The quarterback’s mobility was even more apparent when pass plays broke down and he was forced to scramble, once resulting in a 17-yard touchdown run to put the Bulldogs on the board.
Although it was Threatt’s unmatched speed that put the Mountain Hawks over the top last season, this year, his celebrated speed failed to threaten the Bulldog defense.
Threatt was held to 34 yards on 10 carries and only 189 yards passing. Because the Elis have faced several mobile quarterbacks already this season — most notably San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson, who rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown against Yale on Sept. 16 — the team was well-prepared for Threatt, defensive lineman Brandt Hollander ’08 said.
“It’s really something we’ve had to work on,” Hollander said. “But we’ve done a lot better with bringing some pressure up the middle and being able to still contain [the quarterback] along the edge.”
While the Bulldog offense was efficient on the whole, repeated struggles in the red zone allowed the Mountain Hawks back into the game in the third quarter. Of the eight times the offense moved into the red zone, they scored only three touchdowns. To add to their frustration, an Eli touchdown in the third quarter was negated because of a holding penalty, and the team had to settle for a field goal instead.
“In the red zone you really can’t have penalties, and we had a few big penalties,” said wide receiver Ashley Wright ’07, who had two catches for 19 yards on the day. “We just have to polish a few things up, and we’ll be fine.”
Henley said the Elis could have put the game away by converting more red zone opportunities instead of relying on the field goal.
“We definitely need to put the ball in the end zone and not be kicking field goals and missing field goals,” he said. “We’re lucky to win.”
The Bulldogs attempted four field goals, but kicker Alan Kimball ’08 connected on only two of them. His first kick was blocked, while his last, the potential game-winner at the end of regulation, sailed wide left, hitting the camera booth near the back corner of the end zone.
Clearly, there are a few kinks to be worked out. But the Bulldogs’ raw offensive talent, coupled with a team-wide drive that seems to get stronger every week, should keep the team in contention as it faces its most formidable challenge in Penn this weekend.
“It’s been a growing process all season,” said Henley, “and this week we were good.”