FOOTBALL | Special teams lead Yale to victory

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Photo by Zoe Gorman.

Chris Smith ’13 accomplished something Saturday unprecedented in the 1,257-game history of Yale football.

Smith returned two kickoff returns for touchdowns, Philippe Panico ’13 notched a pair of 36-yard field goals and Yale (6–2, 4–1 Ivy) stayed in the hunt for the Ivy League title by outlasting Brown (4–4, 3–2) in Providence, 27–24.

The win means that Yale and Harvard — which beat Columbia Saturday — remain tied for second place in the Ivy League behind Penn. The Elis, therefore, will have to be rooting for archrival Harvard (6–2, 4–1) to beat Penn (7–1, 5–0) on Saturday. A Crimson upset, coupled with a Yale defeat of Princeton in the Yale Bowl next week, would turn The Game into a contest for a share of the Ivy League title.

“That was a huge win,” running back Alex Thomas ’12 said. “We need a little help from Penn, but we know what we can do if we keep winning.”

The Bulldogs have scored on their first drive in four of eight games this season and kept their early success going in Providence. Quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 led a balanced first drive on which Thomas pushed his way to 19 yards on three carries and Witt found three receivers for 31 yards before Brown could force a fourth-and-4 at their own 19. Earlier this season, due to a series of special teams failures, head coach Tom Williams might have kept the ball in the offense’s hands in such a situation. But the kicking unit has earned his trust since then. Panico drove a 36-yard field goal through the uprights to give Yale an early 3–0 lead.

“The most important thing about the kick was that the team trusted us to do our job,” Panico said.

Brown could not muster a response. The solid Bulldog defense and 19 yards of penalties forced the Bears back 13 yards on their first series of downs, and punter Nathan Lovett had to kick the ball out of his own end zone.

Yale took advantage of the ensuing short field. A 7-yard completion from Witt to wide receiver Jordan Forney ’11 kept the drive alive on 4th-and-5. Two plays later, Thomas, who finished the game with 27 carries for 121 yards, burst through a seam in the opposing line and leveled a Brown defender at the 1-yard line for a 27-yard scoring scamper that widened the Yale lead to 10–0 with 7:22 left in the first quarter.

“There was a huge hole,” Thomas said. “We came into this game expecting to be able to break tackles in the secondary and keep running. The offensive line came out and really opened up some holes.”

That early production seemed to signal the beginning of a Yale rout. Brown’s offense had trouble moving the football, and Yale was living up to its billing as the top aerial attack in the Ivy League. But Brown soon reminded the crowd why it boasts the league’s top passing defense.

Yale’s two drives after Thomas’ touchdown both ended in interceptions when Witt tried to force passes into double coverage.

After the second interception, Brown’s attack finally came to life. Backup quarterback Joe Springer overcame a first-down sack by John Pagliaro ’11 and the Bears made their first trip into the end zone when the quarterback found star wide receiver Alex Tounkara 33 yards downfield on 4th-and-3. Two plays later, running back Mark Kachmer took a direct snap and dove into the end zone to narrow the Yale lead to 10–7 with 6:38 left in the half.

Then Smith lined up to receive the kickoff, found a large hole in the Brown coverage unit, and cut to the right sideline with nothing but grass between him and the end zone. His 79-yard return restored the 10-point Yale lead.

“We were just going nuts out there,” said linebacker Jordan Haynes ’11, who blocked for Smith on the return. “I know the ability this guy has, I know the speed he has, so I can’t say I’m entirely surprised at all that he was able to come out and play like he did today.”

Brown refused to lie down after Stanley’s momentum-changing play. Springer got back behind center and connected with tailback Zach Tronti for a 52-yard completion just two plays after Smith’s score. The Bulldog defense regrouped after that, but the Bears brought themselves within a touchdown with a 32-yard field goal from Alex Norocea.

Only 4:32 remained in the half, but the fireworks were far from over. Smith — who sat out the second half against Columbia and missed most of practice this week with a shoulder injury — took the kick at the 17-yard line, and then watched as his blockers opened up an enormous hole through the Brown defenders. 83 yards later, the Bulldogs had a 24–10 lead and the Brown side of the stadium had gone silent.

Springer’s arm had not, though. It took the senior quarterback only seven plays and 2:12 to shred the Yale secondary for 64 yards through the air, including a 16-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Jimmy Saros.

After Brown wisely followed the score with a squib kick to Smith, Witt was unable to put a drive together after the long absence from the field Smith’s heroics had created for the offense, and the Bulldogs returned to the locker room with a 24–17 lead.

When the two teams returned to the field, the game looked entirely different. Both defenses held strong, and neither Witt nor Springer could mount a sustained drive. Brown managed only 99 yards in the half, compared to 229 in the first.

“They came out with a great scheme against us, and they obviously did their homework and knew our team well,” Haynes said. “We had to make a few adjustments.”

But despite the Bulldogs’ solid defense, Brown knotted the game for the first time with 5:36 left to go in the third quarter. The Bears took over at their own 31 after a short punt from Greg Carlsen ’14. Springer kept a quick drive going even after linebacker Jesse Reising ’11 dropped him for a 10-yard sack, and Brown marched 69 yards in eight plays to tie the game. Tronti scored the touchdown on a 15-yard run. It was a rare success on the ground for the Bears, who were held to just 58 yards rushing on 22 attempts.

After that score, the teams exchanged four consecutive punts. Linebacker Nick Schneider ’12 finally injected some new life into the Bulldogs with a 10-yard sack of Springer on third-and-4. The Eli offense took full advantage of his stop when they took over at their own 26.

Witt marched the Bulldogs steadily upfield, but couldn’t find the end zone on a pair of good chances. He underthrew wide open tight end Chris Blohm ’11 at the Brown 5, and saw Brown linebacker Nick Leedy knock down a pass intended for Forney at the goal line.

But Panico calmly booted a 36-yard field goal through the uprights with 9:36 to play, and the Yale defense refused to let Brown anywhere close to tying the game.

The defensive effort started when defensive tackle Chris Dooley ’13 and Haynes combined to stuff a third-and-1 run by the Bears. It continued when Carlsen pinned the Bears at their own 5 with a punt late in the fourth quarter. When the Bears were forced to punt, Thomas ensured that they would not get the ball back. He crashed into the Brown line six times on the Bulldogs’ last possession, and earned two first downs in the process, enough to let the Elis run out the clock.

“With four minutes left we knew we had to run the ball,” Thomas said. “I can’t say enough about how well the offensive line was blocking. [Senior fullback] Shane Bannon ’11 was doing his job too — we ran 10 powers in a row and he blocked full speed on all of them.”

It was the first time all season that the Yale defense did not produce any turnovers.

“This defense prides ourself on getting turnovers, so it was unfortunate we weren’t able to come up with any today, but even without that we were able to tighten up and collapse and make things happen,” Haynes said.

The Bulldogs host Princeton at noon next Saturday in Yale’s final home game of the season.

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