The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has not been kind to Yale football this season. Two trips to the Keystone State in the past three weeks both ended in disappointing losses — a 37–7 breakdown at Lehigh and a 28–19 defeat at the hands of Lafayette.
But the Bulldogs (3–2, 2–0 Ivy) hope that Saturday’s game in Philadelphia against two-time defending Ivy champion Penn (3–2, 2–0 Ivy) will yield a different outcome. Yale and Penn, along with Harvard, are tied for first place in the Ancient Eight with undefeated league records. The winner of this week’s matchup will stay atop the conference standings.
“In this league, you can’t afford to lose a single game,” captain and linebacker Jordan Haynes ’12 said. “This is our chance to keep ourselves at the head of the pack.”
Winning at Franklin Field will be no easy task. The Bulldogs have lost 15 of their last 19 meetings against the Quakers, who have not lost an Ivy contest in almost three years.
Penn suffocated Yale’s ground game in its last meeting with the Bulldogs, surrendering just 29 rushing yards, and forced three turnovers. At the end of last season, Penn stood at the top of nearly every single defensive stat in the Ivy League and gave up a stingy 14.5 points per game.
However, halfway through its current schedule, the Quakers have already given up 127 points, just 18 points shy of the total points they allowed all of last year. A balanced offense will give the Bulldogs their best shot at breaking through Penn’s armor.
In the loss against Lafayette, the Elis rushed just 26 times while Patrick Witt ’12 threw the ball 40 times, finishing with only 18 completions. Although Witt passed for 331 yards and two touchdowns on 54 attempts against Penn last year, he had two costly fourth-quarter interceptions that stunted the Elis’ momentum.
“We’d like to be more balanced than we were last Saturday,” head coach Tom Williams said. “If we can establish a run game early, that sets up a lot of the play-action game … and gives us the opportunity to stretch the field a little bit.”
And this time around, the Quakers’ front seven also need to stop Mordecai Cargill ’13, who missed last year’s contest due to surgery.
The junior tailback ranks first on the team with three rushing touchdowns. Cargill and Alex Thomas ’12 lead an explosive ground attack, which is averaging 144 yards per game this season.
“Mo’s a bigger back who can be a sledgehammer and run through some tackles,” Williams said. “Alex can do the same thing, but he’s also got the quickness and the speed to get on the perimeter. Having the one-two punch — the thunder and lightning if you will — gives you an advantage offensively.”
After five games, the Quakers have given up just two rushing touchdowns. However, the Penn secondary has allowed nine touchdowns through the air. Penn’s pass defense ranked second last year in the Ivy League, after giving up only 10 touchdowns.
Avoiding turnovers will be another key for the Elis’ offense.
Throwing just one interception in his first two games, Witt has more interceptions than touchdowns over his last three games. Both Lehigh and Lafayette forced the senior quarterback into bad throws through blitzes and heavy pressure. The Quakers will likely bring a similar game plan.
“As far as what I’ve seen on them defensively so far, they run a pretty complex scheme,” center John Oppenheimer ’14 said. “They’ll throw a lot of pressures at you from different areas … and run a lot of different fronts.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs will face a battle along the scrimmage line. Eleven of Penn’s 13 total touchdowns this season have come on the ground.
The Quakers’ junior signal caller Billy Ragone and junior running back Brandon Colavita are averaging 133.7 yards on the ground and have combined for five rushing scores. After missing most of last year due to injury, former starting back Lyle Marsh has scored three times on the ground this season.
However, the Elis hope that their pass rush will be able to slow down a dual-threat quarterback like Ragone.
“We have a really good defensive line and when they are on their game, it won’t really be a problem for [the secondary],” cornerback Colin Bibb ’13 said. “We just need to do our job, shut the receivers down in coverage, and if [Ragone] does run, rally to tackle him.”
After a slow start to the season, Yale’s front recorded seven sacks over their last three contests, and will face a Penn pass protection that ranks fifth in the Ivy League.
The Elis can ill afford another slow start — like the one against Lafayette last Saturday — against the Quakers, who have shown that they can hold on to the narrowest of margins, with close wins over Dartmouth, 22–20, and Columbia, 27–20. Penn staged last-minute, game-winning touchdown drives against both its Ivy foes.
“Coach has been preaching to us since Sunday that to beat the champions, you’ve got to knock them out,” Bibb said. “You can’t come out and put it in their hands to lose the game.”
Kickoff is at 12 p.m.