The Yale offense made a habit of stalling out on Saturday, but the Bulldogs’ stifling defense — and their newfound knack this season for pulling out close games — proved just enough to squeak by powerhouse Penn.
While the Bulldog defense managed to keep the Quaker offense out of the red zone for eight consecutive possessions, the Yale offense was stifled drive after drive, none of which went for more than 20 yards in the second half. In all, both teams swapped possessions for over 35 minutes without breaking the 14-14 tie established midway through the second quarter.
Each offense sought to establish the running game in order to control the clock, but neither team’s vaunted halfback proved to be much help. Although Mike McLeod ’09 and Penn counterpart Joe Sandberg gave solid performances with 122 and 125 yards, respectively, they were not game-changers. Additionally, neither offense had enough of an air attack to serve as a strong change of pace to the run.
The Bulldog offense found most of its success when quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 used his mobility as he did during last week’s win over Lehigh, when Polhemus capped off an impressive day of rushing by running in a 17-yard touchdown. Yale again used play-action bootleg passes with Polhemus finding receivers tucked under Penn’s zone coverage. But his bootlegs grew predictable — on a third quarter fourth-and-two at the Penn 25, Polhemus faked the handoff and turned to roll left only to be smothered by a blitzing Penn safety who had sniffed out the play. On the game, Polhemus had only 115 yards in the air on 11 of 22 passing.
And unlike the Lehigh game where Polhemus’s arm proved just as effective as his legs, the struggles of the Yale offense on Saturday made the Eli quarterback try to do too much with his mobility. In the second quarter, Polhemus threw the ball up for grabs while scrambling, only to have Ashley Wright ’07 wrestle the ball away from a Penn defensive back. Then the sophomore quarterback fumbled the ball away after a 16-yard scramble inside the Penn 30-yard line to kill a promising fourth-quarter drive.
“Turnovers hurt,” said fullback Joe Fuccillo ’08. “We want to protect the football and drive defenses down.”
Fuccillo said two injuries to the offensive line — tackle Darius Dale ’09 and guard Tom Woznicki ’08 both went down mid-game — presented an obstacle for the offense to overcome in the second half. The lack of scoring might indicate that the Quaker defense dominated the Bulldog offense, but Fuccillo said the Elis still felt able to move the ball and avoid getting trapped deep in their own territory.
“We still were very confident,” Fuccillo said. “We were moving the ball [and] we just kept plugging at it. We kept field position the whole entire second half, and that was really important in the third quarter because we didn’t have the wind.”
As the Yale offense struggled to put points on the board, Penn’s offense similarly went nine possessions and nearly three quarters without scoring. The Bulldog defense did not dominate but managed to do enough damage control to limit Sandberg’s impact while challenging Penn to convert on third down — which the Quakers only did nine times in 18 attempts.
“We feel like we do a pretty good job stopping the run, so we thought if we could try to take away the run and force them to pass, we’d have a lot of success,” said lineman Brandt Hollander ’08. “We were able to get them enough out of their rhythm that it worked out.”
The Bulldog defense did appear vulnerable to one play — a clever and speedy halfback pitch to the outside that was an effective Quaker weapon on third-and-short — but that was largely it. Unlike the Elis’ past opponents, Penn had little mobility at the quarterback position. Hollander said this allowed the Bulldog defense to focus on generating a pass rush and forcing second-and-long for the Quakers, as opposed to having to worry about containing the quarterback in the pocket.
Penn — to whom Yale had dropped 12 of its last 14 meetings until Saturday — was thought to have been Yale’s most formidable opponent this season, and the Bulldogs proved victorious despite their offensive sluggishness. Having cleared their highest hurdle even without a top performance, the Eli squad appears primed and ready to gun for the Ivy League title.
“It really came down to this game,” Hollander said. “We think we have a championship-caliber team this year, and we really needed this win.”