On the surface, this year’s football team appears strikingly similar to those of years past, but a crucial intangible quality sets this squad apart — its adamant refusal to lose close games.
“We’re at a point now where we expect to win, and in close games that might not have gone our way last year, people are able to step up and make the plays to win the games for us,” middle guard Brandt Hollander ’08 said.
Returning to the Yale Bowl for the first time since September 16th, the Bulldogs (4-1, 2-0 Ivy) provided home fans with an unwanted thriller, allowing a two-score lead to slip away in the fourth quarter. The Elis waited until overtime to finally defeat Lehigh (2-4) for the first time since 1989, 26-20. For Yale to win in such dramatic fashion was perhaps only appropriate, after being denied five consecutive times by the Mountain Hawks before this long-awaited triumph.
For the fourth straight week, every component of Yale’s football team seemed to make significant improvements, each fulfilling a role as a cohesive unit and complementing one another effectively. Lehigh was perhaps the most solid all-around team the Elis have encountered this season, but Yale showed no signs of being intimidated, ganging up with archrivals Princeton and Harvard to extend the Mountain Hawks’ Ivy League losing streak to three.
Lehigh recorded the only first quarter score after blocking a 36-yard Eli field goal attempt. The Mountain Hawks wasted no time in marching down the field, and sophomore placekicker Jason Leo finished off the drive by nailing a 19-yarder to go up 3-0.
Yale responded with an impressive display on its next drive. The continued maturity of quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 as a first-year starter and the leadership of captain Chandler Henley ’07 allowed the Bulldogs to make good on several key third down situations to set up their first score. Looking at third-and-seven from the Lehigh 35, Polhemus fired a bullet from the shotgun to Henley between two Mountain Hawks for a 19-yard gain. Henley finished with eight catches and a career-high 122 yards receiving on the day.
“Chandler played great this week,” Hollander said. “I think his experience and ability was particularly evident as he was able to consistently get open and make big catches to sustain drives. It really boosts the whole team when the captain is out making big plays over and over again, it makes everyone want to play up to his level.”
Two plays later, Polhemus showed his versatility as he sprinted down the right sideline, beating a slew of Lehigh defenders to the goal line.
While the first Yale score resulted from fine offensive execution, the next one came as a result of great defense and special teams play just three minutes later. As was the case so many times throughout the day, the Bulldogs held star quarterback Sedale Threatt in check and forced a Lehigh punt. Wide receiver Jordan Ferrell ’10 darted off the corner and spiked the attempted punt back more than 30 yards, where it was recovered by linebacker Michael Woodson ’07. Though the offense wasn’t able to get into the end zone, Alan Kimball ’08 drilled his first of two field goals and extended the Eli lead to seven.
Yale set the tone in the second half right from the get-go. Polhemus threw a pinpoint pass down the right sideline to running back Mike McLeod ’09, which turned into a 44-yard gain for the sophomore standout. A few plays later, McLeod would plow into the end zone behind the offensive line to give the Elis a 17-6 lead. McLeod would finish the game with a career-high 204 yards rushing — fourth most in school history — somehow outdoing last week’s outstanding 198-yard performance.
“When you combine that strong of an offensive line with a running back like Mike, it’s something that as a defense you appreciate having on your team, because it’s almost unstoppable,” cornerback Casey Gerald ’09 said.
Just as the Bulldogs appeared to be running away with the game, they found themselves in a situation all too familiar, allowing Lehigh to close the gap and to make things interesting. Threatt marched his team up the field with an impressive combination of passing and running, leading to the Mountain Hawks’ first touchdown six minutes into the third quarter.
Yale was able to muster a field goal on its next possession, but that would be the Elis’ last score in regulation. Lehigh quickly rallied once more, and tailback Marques Thompson punched in a one-yard touchdown with just over 10 minutes to play. Threatt found tight-end Landon Maggs for a two-point conversion, which tied the game at 20.
The intensity was palpable on both sidelines as the teams entered overtime, with the Mountain Hawks getting the first shot at the end zone. A solid defensive effort on the part of the Bulldogs, punctuated by Hollander’s sack of Threatt on third down, forced Lehigh to settle for an unsuccessful field goal attempt.
Henley stepped up grandly once again, starting Yale’s overtime possession with a 20-yard reception. McLeod took care of business from there, leaping over the entire line to register his ninth touchdown of the year and to give Yale its fourth consecutive victory.
“In years past, [comebacks] kind of took the wind out of our sails, but this team is different,” Henley said. “We’re resilient. In overtime, we knew it. We just wanted it more.”