FOOTBALL: Elis fumble away opportunities

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Photo by Grant Bronsdon.

The undefeated No. 8 Fordham Rams figured to pose a significant obstacle to the Yale football team entering Saturday’s matchup at the Yale Bowl. In a 52-31 shellacking of the Bulldogs, the Rams continued to live up to their lofty ranking.

But the Elis also contributed to their undoing. Three first half fumbles inside the Fordham 25-yard line hamstrung the offense, and the secondary had no answers for the Rams’ passing game, yielding 457 yards through the air. Injuries to starting quarterback Hank Furman ’14 and preseason All-American candidate Tyler Varga ’15 hurt the Bulldogs’ comeback chances as well.

“We were pretty pissed at ourselves for not doing our job,” said captain Beau Palin ’14. “They were making plays and we didn’t.”

Fordham (8—0, 2—0 Patriot) set the tone from the get-go during the first quarter. On the second play from scrimmage, quarterback Michael Nebrich hit wide receiver Sam Ajala on a deep bomb down the left sideline for a 68-yard touchdown.

Despite Robert Clemons III ’17 returning the ensuing kickoff 64 yards, the Elis (3—2, 1—1 Ivy) came away empty-handed when Varga fumbled on a swing pass.

After forcing a quick three-and-out, Yale marched right back down the field. Varga and Furman rushed for 62 yards down to the Fordham 1-yard line, but Ram linebacker Stephen Hodge got a helmet on the ball and forced Varga’s second lost fumble of the day.

“We have to make sure we finish our drives off with at least field goal attempts,” said head coach Tony Reno.

The next two defensive stands by Yale were perhaps the defense’s finest moments all game. After a defensive holding penalty on fourth down bailed out the Rams in Yale territory, defensive tackle Jeff Schmittgens ’15 picked off Nebrich and returned the ball to the Yale 36.

During Fordham’s next drive, Yale’s defensive line continued to harass Nebrich and the entire Ram offense. After a pair of tackles for loss, Nebrich’s next pass was bobbled by his receiver and intercepted by Cole Champion ’16, giving the Bulldogs possession at the Fordham 32-yard line.

Yale took advantage of the gift when Furman kept the ball on an option keeper and sprinted 17 yards for the touchdown, tying the game 7-7. It was Furman’s sixth rushing score of the season.

Before the first quarter ended, however, Nebrich connected with Ajala in what would become a recurring theme of the afternoon. After a pump fake opened a seam downfield, Ajala hauled in a 29-yard catch for his second touchdown.

“As a defense, the biggest thing is that we play each snap.” Reno said.

After Fordham made a field goal to extend its lead to 10, Yale shot itself in the foot yet again at the end of a long drive. Ten plays in, Furman was hit in the backfield and fumbled — the third fumble of the first half for the Elis — and Fordham recovered at its own 18.

“When you [make those fumbles] against a very good team, you’re going to put yourself behind the eight ball,” Reno said.

A Fordham punt gave it back to Yale just before halftime, and Furman turned to Grant Wallace ’15, with the two connecting on three consecutive plays. After three more plays lost the Elis 3 yards, a field goal attempt from Kyle Cazzetta ’15 sailed wide left, and the Bulldogs headed to the locker rooms down 17-7 at the half.

The initial drive of the second half for the Rams was a repeat of their first drive of the game. Nebrich hit Ajala downfield again for another 68-yard touchdown, their third touchdown connection of the afternoon.

Furman, who was sacked to end the Bulldogs’ previous possession, left the game after the drive, and was replaced by back-up Morgan Roberts ’16. In a drive aided by a 15-yard targeting penalty, Cazzetta nailed an 18-yard attempt to cut the lead to 24-10.

“Morgan deserved the opportunity to play,” Reno said. “Hank was banged up … and we chose to go with Morgan.”

A failed Yale surprise onside kick attempt gave the Rams a short field to work with, and they soon punched in a touchdown run. But the Bulldogs quickly bit back. Candler Rich ’17, coming in after Varga limped off the field on the previous drive, announced his presence with a bang, breaking a 58-yard run into the Fordham red zone. Roberts squeezed a pass between defenders and hit wideout Deon Randall ’15 for a touchdown, narrowing the gap to 31-17.

Two quick Ram touchdowns effectively iced the game for Fordham. A five-play drive culminated in a QB draw by Nebrich for a score, and Ajala caught a 33-yard touchdown on the next possession after a Yale punt. Ajala finished the day with 10 catches for 282 yards, a new school record for the Rams.

“They have very talented receivers and their play action game was good,” Reno said.

Rich burst through a hole down the middle of the field on Yale’s next possession, racing 48 yards for his first career touchdown. The freshman finished the game with 11 carries for 159 yards and a score.

Though the Elis stopped Fordham on its next drive thanks to the Rams bringing in their backup quarterback, Roberts threw an interception to set the Rams up inside the 20, and they converted to make it 52-24. It was the most points allowed by Yale since 2003 when the Elis yielded 55 against Brown.

Randall found the end zone on the next drive, as Roberts hit him for a 23-yard touchdown toss to limit the lead to 52-31, where it would stay.

Yale returns to the road next Saturday against Penn. The game kicks off at 1 p.m.

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