Graduation hit the Bulldogs hard this year, but coach Jack Siedlecki has said throughout the preseason that he has plenty of talent waiting in the wings; it is just a question of who will step up and make the big plays.

The time to step up has arrived.

This weekend, Yale kicks off its 2001 season against Ivy League foe Cornell Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Yale Bowl (WYBC-AM 1340). Last year, the Elis began the season as favorites for the Ivy League title, but this year the media have picked them to finish in the middle of the Ancient Eight pack because of key personnel losses.

But the team has adept players ready to fill the holes created by graduation and Saturday will be the first chance for the new starters to get their feet wet.

Fortunately for the Elis, two pivotal players in Saturday’s contest are already battle-tested. In one of the game’s key matchups, safeties Ryan LoProto ’02 and Barton Simmons ’04 must lead the Yale secondary against a potent Cornell passing attack. LoProto started every game for the Bulldogs last year, recording a team-high four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Simmons, who played in all 10 games his freshman year, picked off three passes and broke up 13 more (the most on the team) in a standout freshman season.

“With Barton and Ryan we could have the two best safeties in the league,” captain and defensive lineman Tim Penna ’02 said.

But the Big Red’s Ricky Rahne is going to give the Yale secondary all it can handle. The senior quarterback is Cornell’s career passing yardage leader, although he will be without his main target from years past, Joe Splendorio. Splendorio ended a record-setting career at Cornell last year, leaving Keith Ferguson and Tim Hermann to fill his cleats.

“Right now, [the Big Red] don’t have a go-to-guy,” Siedlecki said. “There is a new cast of characters who have to step up.”

Both Yale and Cornell planned to open their respective seasons with non-conference tune-ups last weekend and give their new casts a chance to prove themselves, but the games were canceled as a result of the national tragedy on Sept. 11. While a non-conference game would have developed some of the Elis’ more inexperienced players, the extra time off has given the Bulldogs a chance to get healthy.

“This might be the healthiest team, knock on wood, that I have had going into the season since I’ve been coaching,” Siedlecki said.

Keith Reams ’02, Billy Brown ’02 and Ron Benigno ’04, who along with P.J. Collins ’04 make up the Bulldogs’ wide receiver corps, all missed significant time during preseason because of injury, but are healthy and ready to go Saturday.

These players offer speed and depth at wide receiver, which should create favorable matchups against an untested Cornell defense, one of the most ineffective outfits in the Ivy League last year.

“We are deeper in the backfield and at receiver than we have ever been,” Siedlecki said. “You’ll see more [receivers] on the field. There is more speed from all of them.”

To shore up a porous defense that last year gave up an average of nearly 480 yards per game, 239 of them coming on the ground, Cornell hired Tim Pendergast — a former defensive coordinator — as its head coach this offseason.

As a consequence of the coaching change, Siedlecki said the Big Red will be very aggressive on the defensive side of the ball.

“The question is what will happen on offense,” Siedlecki said. “[Cornell] will run the ball. Their offensive coordinator is an option guy, so we will see a lot of play-action passes. But they will definitely run the ball.”

Evan Simmons, who rushed for 117 yards in the Big Red’s 24-23 victory over the Elis last year, will lead the Cornell rushing charge. He will meet a Yale front seven that is relatively inexperienced, especially at the linebacker position.

“I think our front seven has a lot of speed and can really go after the ball,” Penna said.

Siedlecki said he is counting on Penna — who was suspended for all of last season after testing positive for a banned substance — and linebacker Jeff White ’02 to provide leadership up front.

“They are the seniors — they have experienced winning,” Siedlecki said.

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