Sports analysts often claim that offense wins games but defense wins championships, and last weekend the Bulldogs proved them right. Offense has often helped the Bulldogs win individual games in the past, but consistent defense has brought Yale back from a 2–8 record last year to a three-game winning streak to start the 2013 season.
In Saturday’s matchup in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the Bulldogs held the FCS No. 19 Cal Poly Mustangs to just 10 points. By contrast, in contests against San Diego and Portland State, the Mustangs racked up 38 points per game on offense. Cal Poly, which developed a reputation for second-half comebacks earlier in the season, was shut out by the Eli defense in the third and fourth quarters.
“Defending the triple option is all about discipline[d] defense and pursuit to the football,” captain Beau Palin ’14 said in a message to the News.
The cornerstone of the Mustang offense was the triple option: a running play in which the quarterback has the choice of running the ball, handing it off to the fullback or pitching the ball to the halfback. The essence of the triple option is that when the quarterback starts the play, he reads the defensive end and if he feels pressure from the outside, hands it off to the fullback. If the defensive end instead goes to the inside, the QB keeps the ball and can decide to run with it, pitch it to the halfback, or hit a receiver down the field.
Stopping an option-based offense requires advanced ability to read the quarterback as well as the rest of the attack. There are no shortcuts to reading plays — it requires practice.
But the Yale defense has had plenty of experience against the option. The Elis also run an option-based, no-huddle offense that gives quarterback Henry Furman ’14 space to make decisions and often hand the ball off to standout tailback Tyler Varga ’15. Practicing against a speedy offense on a daily basis helped give Yale the split-second advantage in reading the play that allowed the defense to break through Cal Poly’s offensive line and sack Mustang quarterback Chris Brown twice for a total of 10 yards in losses.
“The offenses are fairly different, but there are some philosophical similarities — namely causing misdirection that probably helped our defense on Saturday,” Furman said. “They have been facing the Cal Poly triple-option in scout period since camp, so they were prepared.”
Outstanding individual performances also propelled the Yale defense, including an impressive 14 tackles, two interceptions and one fumble recovery from defensive back Cole Champion ’16.
Not only did the Yale defense perform consistently throughout the contest, but it also made momentum-shifting plays when they were needed.
After Furman threw his first interception of the season, the Mustangs set up their offense on their own 44-yard line. Instead of gaining momentum from the change of direction, however, Cal Poly was once again thwarted by the Yale defense. On the ensuing play, linebacker Victor Egu ’17 sacked Brown for five yards and forced a fumble that shook the Mustang attack.
Hard-nosed individual efforts have brought the Elis big tackles such as this, but the stopping power of the defense comes as a unit. Yale has given up just 1072 yards this season for an average of just 357 yards per game. The offense has compiled 1460 yards in three games for an average of 487 yards, for a differential of +130 yards per game.
Despite the early success both the Bulldogs and the defense in particular are having, the Elis are still focused on elevating their game throughout the season.
“Yes we are 3–0, but the defense and the team in general still have so much to improve on,” Palin said. “We believe in our process of preparation, and plan to find ways to get better every day we step onto the field.”
The Bulldogs will head to Hanover, N.H., on Saturday to face a hungry Dartmouth team, which is coming off an Ivy League-record 4OT game loss to Penn last week.
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