Don’t forget about the defense

As the old adage goes, offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

With just three weeks left before the 2007 Ivy League champion is crowned, the Bulldog defense has proven that it is championship quality, holding opponents to a league-best 12.4 points per game. Heading into the season, many Elis believed this year’s defense had a chance to do better than the 2006 Ivy League champions.

“I think our defense will be even stronger because of how experienced and smart the guys are,” quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 told the News before the season opener against Georgetown. “We have a lot of great players on the defense and what makes them so good is that they have that football instinct and that nose for the ball which results in so many big plays and turnovers.”

With the fourth-best turnover margin (+12) in the nation, the Bulldogs have lived up to Polhemus’ lofty preseason billing. The Elis also rank third in the nation in points allowed per game and fourth in yards allowed. Despite having played only seven games, the Bulldogs have already recorded 16 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, forcing more than three turnovers per contest. The mistakes are not just coming in garbage time, either. Of the 16 interceptions, four were picked off in the Yale red zone.

And the stats tell only half the story. In the last two games, the Bulldog defense has bailed out a shaky offense with big plays and timely stops, continuing a season-long trend of coming through in the clutch. Against Penn, the Elis shut down the third-best rushing offense in the Ivies on the one-yard line to preserve a triple-overtime victory. And in a surprisingly close first half against Columbia, the Bulldogs made up for five offensive turnovers by forcing three of their own to keep the Lions off the scoreboard.

“We were pretty prepared for [Columbia quarterback Craig Hormann],” captain Brandt Hollander ’08 said. “We tried to get a little pressure up front and it was tough conditions for Craig. It was a rainy game and he had to play from behind.”

Despite losing starters Steve Santoro ’09 — whom departed wide receiver Ashley Wright ’07 jokingly nominated for the Heisman Award before the season — and Jay Pilkerton ’09 to injury, the Bulldog defense completely dominated the Lion offense, coming within a few minutes of a shutout.

A big factor in the Elis’ impressive defensive performance has been the offense’s ability to control the clock. The Bulldogs lead the nation with an average possession time of 35 minutes, allowing their defense to stay fresh well into the second half. The results speak for themselves. The Elis have only given up 43 points in the second half this season — eight more points than Dartmouth allows per game.

The Bulldogs have put together an opportunistic defense that forces turnovers without gambling on blitzes or stunts. Despite a relatively simple defensive scheme, the Elis continue to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, refusing to let them find a rhythm. Columbia quarterback Craig Hormann came into last Saturday’s game averaging 271 passing yards per contest but was held to just 155 yards against the Bulldogs.

“They’re good on defense, and they’re good on offense, and they’re solid on special teams,” Columbia head coach Norries Wilson said. “They line up and play and they don’t make mistakes.”

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