The Yale football Class of 2002 is in unfamiliar territory.
During their first three years, the Eli seniors found themselves in the thick of the Ivy League title race entering the season’s stretch run, although many of them watched from the sidelines.
Now given the opportunity to make their mark, these Bulldogs came blazing out of the gate with a blowout win over Cornell and last-second comeback victory at Holy Cross. A team with something to prove had seemingly done so.
But four games and three losses later, the team finds itself in last place.
“The players realize we have to come together,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “The best cure-all is to win a game.”
Getting back on the winning track will be a challenge for the Elis (3-3, 1-3 Ivy) Saturday, when they host the Brown Bears (3-3, 2-2) at 12:30 at the Yale Bowl. After losses to Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University, the Bulldogs are looking to halt a three-game Ivy skid, their worst league stretch since 1997.
“For us seniors, we have three more games,” wide receiver Billy Brown ’02 said. “We can’t worry about Columbia or Penn.”
The Elis need to worry about the Bears, who feature the record-setting triple threat of quarterback Kyle Rowley, wide receiver Chad Gessner and running back Michael Malan.
But Brown is more concerned with his own team than the opponent.
“Offensively, we need to raise our level to the intensity our defense has right now,” Brown said.
In the Bulldogs’ last two losses, the Eli defense has played well enough to win, but the offense has failed to execute.
Against Penn, the Elis scored only three points, their lowest output in nearly four seasons. A week later, the offense gained 432 yards and only had one touchdown to show for it.
“We have to make some plays [to gain] confidence,” said Siedlecki, who warned about trying to force things to happen. “Kids trying to take on more than they are capable of — that’s the death knell.”
The first key to offensive success for the Elis will be an effective run game. “Establishing the run” has been a mantra for the Elis in recent weeks, but the rushing game has ground to a halt. After two games of 200-plus-yards rushing, the Elis have averaged only 45.5 in their last two losses.
The result is a Bulldog offense that has eased the jobs of opposing defenses by relying too heavily on the passing game.
To restore the offensive balance the Elis had earlier in the season, quarterback Peter Lee ’02, Yale’s running backs and offensive line will need to play better than they have in recent weeks.
Lee, three weeks removed from an ankle injury, has been sacked 15 times in the last two games.
Using play action pass plays would help protect Lee better, Siedlecki said, but play action does not work when the running game is ineffective.
But the Elis’ backs have had their share of injury problems this season. Siedlecki said Robert Carr ’05 is not at full speed, and Jay Schulze ’03 is still bothered by an ankle injury.
Pat Bydume ’04 is in the best shape of the running backs, the coach said, and he may be peaking at the right time. Last week, he showed some explosiveness in his best game of the year (11 carries, 59 yards). Saturday would be an opportune time for Bydume to deliver for the Bulldogs.
Bydume’s success will in part rest on the play of the offensive line. Last week the line was whistled for four false starts — an inexcusable amount according to Siedlecki. Rory Hennessey ’05 will make his first start on the line, and Kyle Metzler ’02 will return from injury to see some playing time, Siedlecki said.
For the Bulldog defense, the key will be to keep up the good work. The Elis shut down Penn’s Kris Ryan and Columbia’s Johnathan Reese, two of the best running backs in the league, holding both under 80 yards.
They will need a similar effort against Michael Malan, the final member of the league’s running back triumvirate. After two straight games in which he ran for over 200 yards, Malan has seen limited action in recent weeks due to a back injury.
He has seen playing time early on in the game each of the last two weeks before being taken out. This week, the Bears hope he can go the distance.
Complimenting Malan is junior receiver Chas Gessner, one of the best wideouts in the nation. Last week Gessner had a “sub-par” game with six catches for 109 yards — he averages 10 receptions for 153 yards, both tops in Division I-AA.
“Without Malan playing, Penn really focused in on Gessner and took him out of the game,” Siedlecki said.
Kyle Rowley, the man who delivers Gessner the ball, entered the Brown record books with a school best 474 yards in a loss to the University of Rhode Island.
Brown’s three losses have come to teams with a combined record of 19-1.