According to Princeton head coach Roger Hughes, all the numbers go out the window in a rivalry game. In the 130th edition of college football’s second-oldest rivalry, that was exactly what happened.
Although the Tigers dominated the Elis statistically last Saturday, Yale still managed to escape Princeton Stadium with a 27-6 win, marking the largest margin of victory over the Tigers in 17 years.
The Bulldogs recorded 12 fewer first downs, 56 fewer rushing yards, and 89 fewer total yards than the Tigers. The Elis held the ball for only 11:58 in the first half, gained only one first down in the first quarter and did not reach the red zone until late in the fourth quarter.
“It was just a real battle for us offensively,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “They defended us real well. They always seem to have a real good plan against our run game.”
Before last Saturday, the Bulldogs led the nation in rushing yards per game with an impressive 306.9 average. The Tigers, however, managed to hold All-America candidate Mike McLeod ’09 to just 107 yards on the ground on 36 carries.
Princeton’s rushing defense and McLeod’s broken toe contributed to the star tailback’s averaging an anemic 3.0 yards per carry. Throughout the game, the Tigers were selling out against the run — often bringing eight or nine men to the box — and daring Yale to beat them through the air.
For the entire first half, the Ivy League’s lowest-ranked passing offense lived up to its reputation. Quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 attempted five passes and completed one for a meager 13 yards. With the rushing attack averaging fewer than 2.4 yards per carry, the Bulldog offense looked stagnant.
To make matters worse, the Tigers were clicking on all cylinders. Princeton used its spread offense to perfection, employing a balanced rushing attack to pick up over 110 yards on the ground in just the first two quarters.
Before Saturday, the Bulldogs were giving up only 93.2 rushing yards per game. Princeton quarterback Bill Foran did his best Polhemus impersonation, leading the Tigers with 42 first-half rushing yards. He avoided the Bulldog rush and consistently made plays with his feet.
“He’s very elusive,” linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said of Foran. “I don’t know how many missed tackles I had on him today — I’m not looking forward to the film. Yeah, he’s very elusive, a tough guy to contain, and he’s got speed.”
Despite the huge statistical disparity between the two teams, the Bulldogs ended the half tied at 3-3. The Elis benefited from two key Princeton turnovers inside the Yale 3-yard line that kept the Tigers off the scoreboard and allowed the Bulldogs to score their only points of the half.
The Bulldogs woke up after halftime. On the second play of the third quarter, Polhemus found wideout Chris Denny-Brown ’08 for an 80-yard touchdown pass, instantly giving the Elis renewed life and swinging momentum in the opposite direction.
The pass was probably one of the most important plays of the season, reviving both sides of the Elis’ roster and helping prevent yet another Tigers upset similar to last year’s.
“The defense — we really like playing with the lead,” Abare said. “We feel a little looser, and we can get after it a little more. It was a big play, and just overall for the whole team, it lifted our spirits up. We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out game, and that play was huge.”
Three drives later, with Yale up 13-3 early in the fourth quarter, the Bulldog offense began to resemble the overpowering force it has been the whole year. The Elis put together a 13-play drive that took over eight minutes off the clock, clinching the Bulldog victory.
Polhemus delivered in a high-pressure situation once again, executing a run-pass option off the bootleg perfectly to find Denny-Brown in the end zone. With Princeton focusing on stopping McLeod, Denny-Brown was able to exploit single coverage for his second touchdown reception of the day.
“When we came out with it, they came off the edge, which meant they didn’t have enough guys on the front side,” Siedlecki said. “Matt made a great throw to Chris across the field. When the kids came off the field when we had a time out, that’s the play they wanted to run. They had confidence in it — we all had confidence in it. It was a big play for us.”
If there is one thing Harvard should take away from the Yale-Princeton game tape, it’s never to count these Bulldogs out of the game — no matter how beaten they may look.