Heading into this weekend’s trip to play FCS No. 19 Cal Poly, the Yale football team hoped to state its case as an Ivy contender. After a convincing 24–10 victory over the Mustangs, the Bulldogs went even further to put themselves on the national radar.
Big games from tailback Tyler Varga ’15 on offense and defensive back Cole Champion ’16 on defense clinched the victory for the Bulldogs (3–0, 1–0 Ivy). Varga rushed for 114 yards, while Champion intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble in addition to his 13 tackles.
“I think it’s a big win,” wide receiver Deon Randall ’15 said. “It’s a national statement that we can compete with anyone.”
Cal Poly’s (2–3, 1–0 Big Sky) opening drive started inauspiciously, with a block in the back bringing the Mustangs back to their own five-yard line. After the Mustangs had moved 50 yards down the field, Champion recovered a fumble following a poor pitch from quarterback Chris Brown.
Two drives later, a bad Cal Poly snap helped the Bulldogs block the Mustang punt and recover at the Cal Poly 40-yard line. Yale capitalized on the turnover, but the Elis had to rely on some trickery to get on the scoreboard. After marching down to the three-yard line, a fake field goal turned into a touchdown as quarterback Derek Russell ’14 kept the snap and leapt over Cal Poly defenders with 3:52 left in the first quarter.
The Cal Poly offense was unfazed, however. The Mustangs finished off a touchdown drive of their own when fullback Brandon Howe ran through a Yale defender for a 33-yard touchdown dash.
Though Yale’s next drive started with a big kickoff return from wide receiver Chris Smith ’14 and was aided by a late hit call, Yale failed to do anything. Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’15 passed to Varga on fourth down, but the tailback came up short of the first down marker.
The teams traded punts before Cal Poly drove down into Yale territory. On a rare downfield pass by Brown, Champion undercut the throw and picked it off.
“Cole’s a playmaker,” head coach Tony Reno said. “He’s proven every week that no matter where he is on the field, he makes plays.”
Each team punted again, then Yale was able to capitalize on another Mustang miscue. The punt from placekicker Kyle Cazzetta ’15 took an errant bounce off a Cal Poly blocker and wide receiver/defensive back Robert Clemons III ’17 recovered the fumble. But Cal Poly came away unscathed when it forced a three-and-out and blocked the 37-yard field goal attempt by Cazzetta.
Just before halftime, the Mustangs took advantage of their own special teams play. Seven quick plays netted them 37 yards, and kicker Bobby Zalud nailed a 53-yard try to break the deadlock and take the lead going into the break.
In the third quarter, Yale’s coaching adjustments shined through. After a personal foul penalty on the Mustangs breathed new life into the Bulldog offense, a combination of Varga runs and Furman screen passes set placekicker Parker Toms ’15 up with a 31-yard field goal to tie the score.
When Yale next touched the ball, it was a third down penalty that saved the Bulldogs yet again. Another personal foul, this one a roughing-the-passer call, helped the Elis convert. A couple Furman passes got the offense into the red zone and tight end Keith Coty ’14 scored on a screen to make it 17–10 Yale.
The defense took the field for only the second time in the quarter, and for the second time, they held. Defensive end Dylan Drake ’14 sacked Brown to force a Mustang punt and Yale took over at their own 30-yard line.
“When you make a triple option team throw the football, you’re doing your job on defense,” Reno said.
After a punt from each team, Furman’s pass was intercepted off of a deflection with 10:03 remaining in the quarter. However, a sack by linebacker Victor Egu ’17 gave the Mustangs a longer field, and their option offense was unable to convert. The Mustangs had to settle for pinning Yale at its own two-yard line with a 48-yard punt.
The ensuing drive, however, was Yale’s best all year. On a third-down play, Furman pump faked and hit Deon Randall deep down field for a 41-yard gain.
“Hank threw it up there and let me make a play,” Randall said. “And I did that for him.”
Later in the possession, Furman stood tall and hit Smith for a full-extension grab in the end zone to give the Elis a two-touchdown lead.
When Cal Poly took the field next, it was Cole Champion who again came up huge for the Bulldogs. Following two incomplete passes, Champion hauled in an interception to ice the victory for Yale.
Though Yale’s offense was the one running out the clock at the end, the swarming Eli defense was equally responsible for the victory; it held Cal Poly to a measly 13 rushing yards in the second half.
“We prepared for this game in the preseason,” Champion said. “We knew that we had the potential to do this in the locker room.”
Despite the final score, coach Reno remained unimpressed.
“It’s the next step in the process,” Reno said. “I’m just concerned with winning one game at a time.”
Yale travels to Hanover, N.H., next Saturday to take on Dartmouth (1–2, 0–1 Ivy).