The Yale football team will be rooting for Harvard this weekend. Yes, the Yale football team will be rooting for Harvard this weekend.
The Bulldogs (6–2, 4–1 Ivy) take on Princeton (1–7, 0–5) in Yale’s last home game of the season Saturday with the Ivy League championship at stake. The cellar-dwelling Tigers will be trying to destroy the Elis’ hopes of their first title since 2006.
Currently, Yale is tied with Harvard (6–2, 4–1) for second place among the Ancient Eight. This weekend, the Crimson play at first-place Penn (7–1, 5–0). If Harvard and Yale both win this weekend, The Game would be a contest for a share of the championship, with the Bulldogs, Crimson and Quakers tied for first. A Crimson loss would mean the Bulldogs have to both win their next two games and pray for Cornell (2–6, 1–4) to upset the Quakers next weekend.
The Elis will lose almost all hope if they cannot defeat Princeton this weekend. The Tigers’ record might not make them look like a threat, but Saturday is the team’s last chance to prove itself against a top opponent. Beating Yale would transform the Tigers from a winless speed bump to a heartbreaking spoiler.
Princeton has the weapons to make a win more than just a pipe dream. Junior quarterback Tommy Wornham will look to reprise his performance last season, when he led the Tigers back from an 18-point deficit against Yale. That effort demonstrated the surprises that Princeton is capable of.
He will hope that star wide receiver Trey Peacock, the Ivy League’s top wide receiver, proves too much for the Yale secondary to handle. Peacock ranks fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision with 107.4 receiving yards per game. His 7.6 receptions per game put him seventh in the FCS.
But after Peacock, Princeton has few threats to speak of. Receiver Andrew Kerr is tied with Peacock for second in the Ivy League with five touchdown catches, and boasts an average of 54.9 yards receiving per game. But he is the Tigers’ only other consistent producer on offense, and Princeton’s passing game is a rare bright spot for a team that has the Ancient Eight’s worst defense and second-to-worst offense.
Starting running back and co-captain Jordan Culbreath was knocked out of the season last week with a knee injury. He is the second of the Tigers’ three co-captains to go down this season, with linebacker Steven Cody also watching the game from the sidelines due to a knee injury.
Yale has so far avoided the worst of the injury bug. Running back Alex Thomas ’12 has overcome a mid-season rib injury, racked up two consecutive 100 yard rushing games, and frightened opposing coaches in the process.
“[Thomas] is a solid downhill runner,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace said in a conference call on Tuesday. “He’s one of those better running backs that are physical, tough, get extra yards and make guys miss.”
Quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 has also worked through an injury — this one to his throwing shoulder — and leads one of most dangerous aerial attacks in the Ivy League. His offense gets help from the special teams, which have made enormous strides since a rocky beginning of the season. Their improvement is anchored in large part by wide receiver Chris Smith ’13, the reigning FCS Special Teams Player of the Week, and kicker Philippe Panico ’13, who has made five consecutive field goals.
But those names and numbers will mean nothing if the Elis cannot hold on to the ball. Last year, Yale racked up 402 yards of total offense at Princeton, but lost in large part due to Witt’s three interceptions. And a repeat performance could be on the horizon — Witt has been throwing passes into the arms of defenders at a worrisome rate recently. Five of his Ivy League-leading 13 interceptions came in the past two games. He has thrown only four touchdowns in the same time span.
Those numbers worry head coach Tom Williams.
“Eighty percent of the time, when you lose the turnover battle, you lose the game,” he said.
Princeton might be ranked third-to-last in the Ivy League in both pass defense and interceptions, but Witt’s struggles cannot be attributed entirely to solid opposing secondaries. Most of his turnovers have been the result of attempts to force passes into double and even triple coverage.
But Witt — unlike his Tiger counterpart — has the luxury of enough depth on offense that he does not have to force long passes. Thomas and fullback Shane Bannon ’11 have proven adept catching the ball on routes out of the backfield, while Deon Randall ’14 has been solid running, receiving and even taking snaps in the wildcat formation.
“Witt’s a statuesque guy,” Surace said. “He can hit every guy on the field, throw with guys in his face. [Yale has] such a balanced offense that we have to take every opportunity we have to get them off the field.”
If Witt can get safely keep the chains moving, the Bulldogs may be able to exploit the flaws in a Princeton defense that allowed 52 points to Penn last week.
Success on offense will mean that the Bulldog defense can rest in between opposing drives more than it could against Brown. Witt’s turnovers and Smith’s kickoff returns meant that captain Tom McCarthy ’11 and the rest of the unit had little time to rest in between series. Their fatigue showed as Brown clawed back from an early Yale lead in the second quarter.
But, in the second half against Brown, the Elis stopped turning the ball over, held the Bears to only 99 yards of total offense, and forced punts on the Bears’ final five drives.
That success led the team, but was also a sign of the trouble the Bulldogs have had recently in playing 60 minutes of consistently good football. Against Columbia, they faltered in the second half. Against Brown, the second and third quarters were problematic.
“When something doesn’t work, we jump around and try to do things we’re not supposed to and miss our block on the next play or something,” Bannon said. “We prove that we can do anything and then we go out and beat ourselves up. We can’t do that.”
They especially can’t do that if they want a chance to win the Ivy League championship and their 133rd match against Princeton.
“Our mantra is to keep an even keel” safety Adam Money ’11 said.
Kickoff is slated for 12 p.m. at the Yale Bowl.