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As any football coach can attest, great teams are able to dominate, scoring touchdowns on offense and limiting points on defense. By those metrics, the Yale football team certainly counts as a great team.
The Bulldogs head into Saturday’s matchup against Harvard ranked third in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing their opponents to score just 65.5% of the time. They also rank 17th in the country — and second in the Ivy League behind Princeton — in red zone offense, scoring on 87.5 percent of possessions inside the 20.
“No matter where you are on the field, it’s important just to play,” said defensive end and captain Beau Palin ’14.
The Bulldog defense has proven to be vastly improved over last year’s unit, which allowed teams to put points on the board in 36 of 46 trips to the red zone. By those numbers, the team ranked 41st in the country and fourth in the Ivy League.
Both head coach Tony Reno and defensive end Dylan Drake ’14 cited a shift in attitude as a contributing factor to stopping opposing drives.
“It started in preseason camp with the mentality that we need to take points away [in the red zone],” Drake said. “We become a little more aggressive and a little bit more defensive.”
A big reason for the Bulldogs’ improvement this year has been the play of several young players, including linebacker Victor Egu ’17 and a trio of defensive linemen: Carl Kreitzberg ’16, Copache Tyler ’17 and Marty Moesta ’17.
Tyler has started every game this season, and all four have made big plays at crucial moments, such as Egu’s fourth quarter sack against Cal Poly that prevented the Mustangs from scoring off a turnover.
“A lot of times in games, I’ll pause the film and say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of young guys on the field,’” Reno said. “But the reason they’ve been able to play as well as they [have] is because of guys like Beau and Dylan that contribute so much up front.”
Kreitzberg started against the team’s last two games, against Brown and Princeton, and Moesta starred in the game against the Bears, recording a sack and a pass breakup.
But this young defense has also pulled together as a team. Eight of the Bulldogs’ top 12 tacklers are freshmen or sophomores, and Egu holds the team lead in sacks with three.
“They’ve worked really hard but they also have a ton of talent and a ton of potential,” Drake said of the defensive freshmen. “What you’re seeing in the product they’re putting on the field is a combination of talent and ability and the willingness to develop.”
When the Elis have won this year, it has been in large part due to their defensive play, Reno said.
He cited the defense’s ability to stop the run and eliminate big plays as crucial elements of Yale’s victories thus far.
“We’re a team that has a very, very small window for success,” Reno said. “Our guys understand that. When we win, we do a great job [in those elements of the game].”
On the flip side of the ball, the red zone offense has done a good job putting points on the scoreboard. Kicker Kyle Cazzetta ’15 has made 11 of 14 field goal attempts this year, and no Yale quarterback has thrown an interception in the red zone all year.
Yale’s offensive success inside the 20 is even more impressive when considering the absence of some of the team’s main playmakers. Wide receiver Chris Smith ’14, running back Tyler Varga ’15 and wideout Cameron Sandquist ’14 have missed significant portions of the season with injuries. Smith and Varga are “game-time decisions,” according to Reno, and the team is still holding out hope that Sandquist, who was previously ruled out for the season, will be able to take the field against Harvard.
But other players have stepped up, especially in the red zone. Though quarterback Hank Furman ’14 has only played in seven games due to injury, he has thrown for 10 touchdowns and run for six more, with eight of those coming inside the opposing 20 yard line. Running back Candler Rich ’17 has three of his six total scores in the red zone. Wide receiver Grant Wallace ’15 has emerged as the Elis’ second-leading receiver by receiving yards and has a red zone score of his own.
“We’ve had some guys step in,” Reno said. “They’ve all done a solid job for us.”
The 130th edition of The Game will kick off at noon on Saturday.