In 1873, the men of Yale and Princeton clashed on the football gridiron for the first time.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs (4–4, 3–2 Ivy) will face off against the Tigers (1–7, 1–4) for the 134th time at Princeton Stadium. However, a victory on game day may not be enough for the Elis’ aspiration to win the Ivy League title.
A 34–28 loss to Brown last week dropped Yale to fourth place in the Ancient Eight. Theoretically, it is still possible for the Bulldogs to win a share of the title, but their destiny now lies in the hands of their rivals.
For Yale to climb to the top, Harvard needs to lose its final two games while Cornell must upset Penn in the final week of league play. Combined with a Brown loss to either Dartmouth or Columbia, the Bulldogs would become the Ivy League co-champion along with Harvard, Penn and Brown. There has not been a two-loss Ivy League champion since 1982.
Despite the unlikelihood of a conference championship — there has not been a two-loss Ivy League champion since 1982 — the Bulldogs still see Saturday’s contest as one of the most important games of their season.
“It doesn’t take too much to get motivated to play Princeton and Harvard,” wide receiver Chris Smith ’13 said. “They are our two big rivalry games, so no matter what, we are going to come out ready to play.”
Even though the Tigers have not won a game in more than a month, they are still capable of spoiling the Blue and White’s season.
Princeton freshman tailback Chuck Dibilio has averaged 103 rushing yards per game this season, putting him behind only Dartmouth’s Nick Schwieger, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. Dibilio’s 824 total rushing yards and five rookie of the week awards both set league records.
With Dibilio leading the way, the Tigers boast the strongest running game in the Ancient Eight, averaging 187.5 yards on the ground. This marks a dramatic turnaround: last year, Princeton ranked seventh in rushing yards per game.
Despite their impressive yardage, Princeton’s running backs have reached the end zone just six times so far this season.
Furthermore, the Tigers’ passing game has withered without former wide receiver Trey Peacock, who led the Ivy League in receptions and receiving yards per game last year. Senior starting quarterback Tommy Wornham is averaging just 153.5 passing yards and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.
The anemic Princeton offense has scored an average of 16.6 points per game, which puts it dead last in the Ivy League. The Tigers’ offensive misery will likely continue against the Bulldogs’ front seven, which has allowed 135 rushing yards per game.
“We want to stop the run,” head coach Tom Williams said. “They are going to get some yards rushing, but we don’t want there to be a 200-yard rushing game. We just have to make sure that we hit the run the way we are capable of doing.”
While the Yale offense ranks third in the Ivy League, its first-half struggle against Brown sabotaged its shot at victory against the Bears.
The Bulldogs scored just seven points by halftime. While signal caller Patrick Witt ’12 finished the game with a season-high 370 passing yards and four total touchdowns, the Bears took advantage of a predictable Yale offense and stymied a late comeback.
After rushing for over 200 yards in back-to-back games, the Elis’ ground game came to a screeching halt against the Bears, finishing the game with just seven yards on 24 attempts. The Bulldogs became reliant on Witt’s arm in the second half as they tried to catch up to the Bears.
A one-dimensional offense against Princeton will hurt the Elis’ shot at getting back into the win column.
“We didn’t devote as much time to the run game [against Brown] because we got behind so early,” Williams said. “When you get behind as quickly as we did, it forces you to throw the ball a little more than you like. It’s a lot easier for the defense … when they know you have to pass.”
The return of Alex Thomas ’12 should give the rushing game a much-needed lift. Thomas, the team’s leading rusher with 99.5 yards a game, missed the last two games with a knee injury. Williams said that the senior tailback had some practice runs this week and is expected to be able to play on Saturday.
However, star receiver and kick returner Smith might miss his third game this season due to an ankle injury. A Brown defender fell onto his right leg after the junior made a spectacular one-handed grab in the fourth quarter last weekend. Smith leads the team with 100.3 receiving yards per game and ranks ninth in the Football Championship Subdivision in all-purpose yards.
While the Tigers have surrendered an average of 33.5 points a game this season, the Elis can expect a physical struggle against Princeton’s front seven. Defensive tackle Caraun Reid ranks second in the Ivy League with 10 tackles for loss while fellow lineman Mike Catapano notched eight of his own. The duo has also combined for eight sacks.
“From an offensive line’s perspective, what we need to do is control the line of scrimmage,” center John Oppenheimer ’14 said. “Their defensive line is the best part of their defense by a long shot.”
Brown received unexpected help last week from a string of mistakes by the Bulldogs, who finished the game with seven penalties and four turnovers, including two costly fourth-quarter interceptions thrown by Witt.
Over the last four games, the Elis have committed 11 total turnovers, including five lost fumbles and six interceptions.
“You can’t turn the ball over as many times as we did and expect to win,” Williams said. “Turnovers will kill you.”
Last season, safety Geoff Dunham ’12 returned a Princeton fumble 57 yards for the Bulldogs’ first score of the game. However, three loose balls by the Elis gave the Tigers several chances to get back in the game. Yale managed to hold off a Princeton upset and edged out a 14–13 victory.
After a week of practice and reflection, the Bulldogs hope that Saturday will give them a chance at redemption.
“We are building on the success we had in the game and identifying the small mistakes that we had,” Smith said. “We think at this point of the week, we have made all the adjustments and are ready to … get back on the right track with a victory.”
The Yale-Princeton football is the second longest rivalry in college football, ranking behind only the Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry. Kickoff is at noon Saturday.