When the game began, not even the torrential rain that was falling at the Yale Bowl could douse the high that the Bulldogs were feeling. When the game ended, not even the bright sunshine that peeped through the dissipating clouds could redeem the disappointed Elis from their lows.
In Yale’s 41-20 loss to the visiting University of Pennsylvania yesterday, it was a tale of two halves. Although the Bulldogs opened the game with a 7-0 lead and held on for a strong first half, big plays from the Quakers in the air and an ineffective Eli offense doomed the Bulldogs in the second half.
“We played a very competitive, aggressive first half of football and in the second half we just couldn’t pull it together,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “What really made the difference was that we ran 40 offensive plays in the first half and 20 in the second half.”
It is hard to imagine the game starting on a more auspicious note. On the opening kickoff, freshman running back David Knox ’06 returned Penn kicker Roman Galas’ 61-yard kickoff for 96 yards and Yale’s first touchdown.
“I didn’t expect it to go the distance and I don’t think anyone else did either,” Knox said. “I’d like to thank my kickoff return team. They blocked great.”
Knox’s return was the fourth longest in school history and the first kickoff return for a touchdown since 1994. In addition, Knox also broke the school record for most yards gained on kickoff returns, finishing the day with 179 yards.
While Knox was a special teams standout, the rest of Yale’s special teams struggled. Wide receiver Ralph Plumb ’05 and backup cornerback Fred Jelks ’05 each fumbled a punt return to give possession back to the Quakers.
The Bulldogs did not stop with Knox’s opening heroics. On Penn’s first series, immediately after Knox’s touchdown run, the Yale defense stymied the Quaker offense, holding Penn to just three plays before Yale cornerback Greg Owens ’04 forced a fumble from Penn wide receiver Rob Milenese for a turnover.
Three minutes later, the Bulldogs came through again, stopping the Quakers after Plumb fumbled a punt return deep in Yale territory. The Bulldogs ended the quarter ahead 7-0.
“It’s a coach’s nightmare when you’re a turf team and they’re a grass team and you’re on their field, it’s raining and they get a kickoff return on the first play,” Penn head coach Al Bagnoli said. “We’re a young team and this is the first time we’ve gone on a long road trip to a league game and you just don’t know how you were going to respond.”
Penn responded in a hurry, tying up the score less than a minute into the second quarter with an 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Mitchell to tight end Matt Michaleski.
On the next series, Yale was forced to punt after a delay of game penalty and a 15-yard sack put the Bulldogs at fourth and 28 on their own 3-yard line. Penn set up on Yale’s 44-yard line and it took the Quakers only one play to get into the end zone. Penn gambled on a flea flicker where Mitchell tossed the ball back to wide receiver Joe Phillips, who connected with sprinting wide receiver Erik Bolinder for a touchdown.
“[Penn’s play] was one of those plays where you run it once and hope that it would work,” Yale strong safety Don Davis ’03 said. “If they ran it again in the game it probably would not have worked. And you wish for those six points back but there’s not much else you can do. It was a great call and great timing on their part.”
For the rest of the second quarter, the two teams traded possessions and field goals. Going into the half, Penn was only one touchdown ahead, 17-10.
By the time the second half began, the rain had stopped and there were even occasional glimpses of sunlight. But as quick as the changing of the weather, the Bulldogs fortunes changed as well.
On Penn’s first series of the second half, the Yale defense pushed the Quakers back to third and 25 on the Yale 48. On the next play, Davis had inside position on Phillips and almost came up with an interception, but a questionable pass interference penalty neutralized Davis’ effort, giving Penn a 15-yard advance and an automatic first down.
“I have no idea what they called there,” Davis said. “I don’t want to be a guy to say that the refs stole the play from us but that call hurt. You hate to call attention to one play or another but that really swung the momentum for us.”
Penn went on to score a touchdown on the same series and Yale never recovered. The Bulldogs only managed one field goal and one touchdown for the rest of the game. Yale’s only score not from special teams came with 1:40 left in the game, when Mroz pushed through a crowd of Quaker defenders for a touchdown. By then Penn was already up 41-13 and Mroz’s touchdown was too little, too late.
As the Elis crumbled in the second half, Penn’s offense reached a new level of cohesion. Penn wide receiver Rob Milanese came alive for the Quakers in the second half, racking up back-to-back touchdown receptions. Milanese ended the day with 12 catches for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns. Mitchell ended the day completing 26 of 39 attempts for a total of 351 yards.
“Milanese had a great day,” Siedlecki said. “Half of his catches we didn’t put enough pressure on the quarterback. A kid like [Milanese] is going to do that if you give him that much time.”
Although the Elis ended the day far behind their Quaker counterparts, the loss could have been worse. In the first quarter, offensive tackle Jake Kohl ’04 was carted off the field and did not return. Kohl sprained his ankle and is currently day-to-day. Starting offensive guard Michael McDaniel ’06 also left the game in the third quarter but will play next weekend. Finally, on perhaps the scariest moment of the day, Yale’s star running back Robert Carr ’05 came off the field shaken up after sustaining a hard hit during a kickoff return. Fortunately, Carr was not hurt and returned to the field soon after.
Despite the tough loss, the Elis remain optimistic and resolute.
“I’m very confident that we have a good team,” Davis said. “The coach told us that all anybody can do is to be mad and go out and be ready to play our next four games. When it comes down to it, we’ve got four games left with people we do not want to lose to. We have just as much motivation as we did before.”