And then there was one.
For the second straight game, the Yale football team entered the weekend attempting to distance itself from its rivals with perfect Ivy League records, and for the second straight game, it succeeded. The difference this week: Yale was the only team that did.
With last week’s being “Separation Saturday,” two of the four teams with then-untarnished Ancient Eight records dropped from the ranks of Ivy perfection. This week, Cornell’s unexpected victory over previously undefeated Princeton (6-1, 3-1 Ivy), combined with Yale’s (6-1, 4-0 Ivy) commanding 21-3 triumph over Columbia (3-4, 0-4 Ivy), leaves the Elis alone at the summit of the Ivy League leaderboard.
The Bulldogs don’t appear too troubled by this new-found solitude.
“It feels pretty good to be at the top of the league, but we’re a long way away from where we need and want to be,” cornerback Casey Gerald ’09 said. “We have one goal this season, and until we reach that goal we can’t afford to feel great about where we are.”
Once again this week, the Elis’ continued development became strikingly obvious as the game progressed — albeit after a slow start. The young Bulldog defense held Columbia to only 54 yards rushing and only a single field goal, and standout tailback Mike McLeod ’09 registered 129 yards himself, becoming the first player in Yale history to run off six consecutive 100-yard games.
Whether because of steady rain throughout the first quarter or the tenacious Lions defense, Yale’s first three drives of the game were clouded with penalties, and none resulted in the Elis’ advancing past the Columbia 38-yard line. But the Bulldog defense saw to it that Columbia would incur similar difficulties, and the home crowd witnessed the first scoreless opening quarter played at the Yale Bowl this fall.
Columbia scored its first and only points of the game early in the second quarter following an impressive drive that advanced the Lions to Yale’s 13-yard line. Just as the Lions began to set their sights on the end zone, defensive lineman Joe Hathaway ’09 pressured Columbia quarterback Craig Hormann into an intentional grounding penalty and forced the Lions to settle for a 41-yard field goal.
With less than two minutes remaining in the first half, the Bulldogs recorded their first successful drive, using a series of McLeod runs to overcome their poor starting field position and to advance the ball into Columbia territory. An acrobatic 14-yard catch by captain Chandler Henley ’07 followed shortly by an 11-yard reception by wide receiver Ashley Wright ’07 put Yale in prime scoring position, and McLeod took care of business from there. Finding a huge opening down the right side of the field, McLeod registered his 11th rushing touchdown of the year, giving Yale a 7-3 lead heading into halftime.
The second half opened up with both teams driving the length of the field, only to settle for unsuccessful field goal attempts. The back and forth ended midway through the third quarter when linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 read a slant route beautifully, intercepted the ball at midfield and raced up the left sideline, evading a number of Lions on his way to the goal line.
“The quarterback threw a quick slant, and I was right in the passing lane,” Abare said. “Luckily the ball came my way, and with a couple of nice blocks from [Brendan Sponheimer ’07] and some of the other guys I was fortunate enough to take it back all the way.”
Columbia’s late-game offensive production was almost nonexistent because of an aggressive and unyielding Yale defense. Half of the Lions’ second-half drives ended in their own territory, and no drive advanced further than the Yale 23. Defensive tackle Jared Hamilton ’08 ended the Lions’ last possession with authority, smothering a Columbia rushing attempt in the backfield. He followed it up with an encore on the next play, taking down Hormann for a drive-ending nine-yard sack. With 10:35 left in the game, it was the last time the Columbia offense would touch the ball.
“I was able to slip through the offensive linemen since towards the end of the game their blocking wasn’t as crisp,” Hamilton said. “I had been trying to set up an inside move all through the game, and it finally worked. I gave a head fake and then came up underneath the offensive tackle. The quarterback was right there, and I hit him.”
A methodical, disciplined 17-play, 10-minute drive by the Yale offense led by McLeod and Matt Murray ’07 shattered any thoughts the Lions may have had about mounting a comeback. With five seconds remaining in the game, Murray capped the drive from one-yard out, leaping over the Lion defense for his first career touchdown.
“The touchdown was just a simple dive play up the middle,” Murray said. “I knew the defense would be pinching in, so I would have to jump over the top.”
Along with marking the Bulldogs’ sixth consecutive win and boosting them to the top of the league, this victory serves as a clear indication of the ever-growing maturity of the team. Columbia, a team that leads the nation in turnover ratio, came up empty-handed against the efficient Eli offense. Last season, opponents’ comebacks seemed to inevitably result in a Bulldog loss and even earlier this year would necessitate late-game Eli heroics to pull off the victory. The Columbia game marked a decided shift toward a team that adamantly denies its opponents even the slightest hope of victory.
“We’re exactly where we want to be, but we also know that we have a bull’s-eye on our back,” Abare said. “We’re ready for the challenge and know that being in first doesn’t mean anything until the end of the season.”