FOOTBALL | Staying in the title race

Last week Penn took advantage of what Quaker defensive lineman Brandon Copeland called a predictable Yale offensive game plan. Penn stopped the Yale rush early and forced the Bulldogs to rely on their aerial attack. The Bulldogs cannot let that happen again this week if they are to stay in the hunt for the Ivy League title.

On Saturday Yale (4–2, 2–1 Ivy) takes on the Columbia Lions (3–3, 1–2) who have also lost to Penn this year and who — like the Bulldogs — are also trying to rebound from a dispiriting Ivy League loss.

Last week, Yale found the Penn defense too tough an obstacle and rallied too late to overcome a 17-point fourth quarter deficit in their 27–20 loss. The Elis struggled to move the ball because of numerous penalties and an anemic running game that managed just 29 net rushing yards on the day. Those struggles left the blue and white defense on the field for prolonged stretches of time, and Penn’s physical offensive line and smashmouth running game wore them out.

Similar to Yale, Columbia found themselves on the wrong side of a roller coaster game against Dartmouth last week. The Lions came back from a 10-point deficit to seize the lead halfway through the fourth quarter, but they could not preserve the advantage, and the Big Green rallied to win with a late touchdown.

The loss left Columbia 0–2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Yale is 3–2 in such contests, with one of their losses coming against the Quakers last week.

“In fits and spurts we showed a lot of toughness and resolve in the Penn game, but we know that we need to be able to put it all together for four quarters,” linebacker Jordan Hanyes ’11 said.

Neither team will want this week’s game to be decided in the final minutes, as last week’s were. Columbia will look to star sophomore quarterback Sean Brackett. Brackett leads the Ivy League in pass efficiency, and his 1,207 yards put him third among Ivy quarterbacks. Yale’s Patrick Witt ’12 is the league leader in that category, and the Lions’ game plan will focus on stopping him.

“Witt doesn’t let himself stand back and get hurried,” Columbia head coach Norries Wilson said in a conference call. “He doesn’t force a bunch of balls. He’s a confident passer. We have to pressure him and force him to move his feet.”

But Columbia has the advantage of Brackett’s stellar ratio of 12 touchdowns to a single interception. Witt places second to Brackett among Ivy League passers with eight touchdowns, but has also thrown seven picks.

Much of the success Columbia has found this year comes thanks to its +7 turnover ratio. Columbia has intercepted only three passes this season — while Yale’s secondary has eight picks — but they have benefitted from Brackett’s accuracy and the defense’s success recovering fumbles.

Yale’s struggles last week demonstrate the importance of winning the game of turnovers. Penn scored what proved to be the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter after lineman Brandon Copeland intercepted a Witt pass on the Yale 17-yard line. Then, with under five minutes to go in the game, Penn stymied Yale’s first shot at a comeback when safety Jason Schmucker stepped in front of another Witt pass.

Yale will look for better accuracy from Witt this week, as well as better protection from the offensive line so that the quarterback is not pressured into forcing passes. But the Bulldogs would also like to throw the ball less often than they did last week, when running back Alex Thomas ’12 struggled to find holes in the Penn defense and Witt threw 54 passes.

Although Penn made the Bulldogs’ offense look one-dimensional last week, and came up with a pair of crucial interceptions, the Yale passing game held firm. Witt will continue to count on wide receivers Jordan Forney ’11 and Gio Christodoulou ’11, both of whom had over 100 yards receiving last week.

“We have a really complete group that can put pressure on the defense,” Yale head coach Tom Williams said. “If we continue to give [Witt] time and the chance to survey the field, we think that those guys can make plays down field.”

But Columbia’s secondary will not make things easy for Yale’s aerial attack. The Bulldogs might have the most effective passing game in the Ivy League, but the Lions lead the Ancient Eight in pass defense.

If Columbia is able to put pressure on Witt and stifle the pass, the Bulldogs will look to Thomas, Javi Sosa ’13, and possibly Deon Randall ’14 to carry the ball. Thomas is the team’s primary running back, but he has been on and off the field with injuries in recent games. When a rib injury forced him to the sidelines for a series last week, Williams sent in Randall, a kick returner who has also taken snaps in the wildcat formation this year, instead of Sosa, the next running back on the depth chart. Randall — whose playing time has steadily increased from game to game this season — earned 30 yards on only three carries.

Whoever runs the ball will be on the lookout for Columbia linebacker Alex Gross, who leads the Ivy League in tackles. But Gross is not the only linebacker in this week’s game with a nose for the ball — Yale’s Jordan Haynes ’11 is second in tackles. Haynes attributes that success to the solid play of the entire defense.

“We’re coming together very strongly as a unit that is starting many guys for the first time,” Haynes said. “Everyone is doing a great job of making the plays that we are supposed to make.”

The Yale defense will need to make those plays in order to shut down Brackett and Columbia’s solid rushing attack. The Bulldogs’ secondary will be crucial to that effort, and Williams will count on safeties Adam Money ’11 and Geoff Dunham ’11 to not only keep intercepting the ball at their Ivy League-leading rate, but also to stop the smaller plays. Yale’s overall pass defense ranks sixth out of eight teams in the league.

The secondary and the rest of the Bulldogs will play with the knowledge that the only way to stay in the hunt for the Ivy League championship is by continuing to win. The last time a two-loss team won the league championship was 1982.

“We’re looking to bounce back with a solid performance on both sides of the ball,” Forney said. “We can only control ourselves at this point in the league and we will need a little help along the way, but as long as we play the way we are capable of playing on Saturdays, I am confident in our ability to come out on top.”

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