A lot of the headlines in this paper revolve around one team or another’s Ivy League title expectations and how those hopes have either been bolstered or diminished by its most recent outing. I’d guess the actual number of those headlines is slightly fewer than the number of monuments my hometown would construct in the honor of Curt Schilling and David Ortiz with two more wins and slightly more than the number of important hits generated by the middle of the Yankees’ lineup when push came to shove.
But just a cursory glance at the standings page in Monday’s paper yields an expected reaction — Yale isn’t winning too many conference races and isn’t really in the top half of many either. It never hurts to be optimistic, but these headlines are fooling fewer people than Ashlee Simpson with her “my band started playing the wrong song, so I thought I’d just do a hoe-down” excuse after her “Saturday Night Live” fiasco.
Expectations are not a good thing for Yale sports teams to harbor right now. It seems as though the most successful teams in recent years here have been the ones either flying under the radar or devoid of pressure stemming from the knowledge that people think they should be in the league’s upper tier. Men’s basketball — two years ago simply by being on the heels of a totally unforeseen league title and last year after being up on the future national champs at halftime of the season opener — is a prime example of a team that has faltered in the past couple years after having thrived when little was expected.
This year’s edition of Yale football likewise entered the season with high hopes, having polled as many first-place votes in the preseason poll as Penn, high praise considering my conviction that the Quakers run a scholarship program under the guise of being an Ivy League school. But after Saturday’s loss to the Quakers, Yale has seen its championship aspirations fall faster than the ratings for Mark Cuban’s epic disaster “The Benefactor.” Losing to Cornell probably should have set off some alarms, but that game was on the road and not in front of what will probably be the largest crowd at the Bowl this year, thanks to the Parents’ Weekend effect.
A casual observer could probably pin Saturday’s loss on a number of things, but the one that jumped out was the predictability of Yale’s offensive play-calling. There are only so many times you can hand the ball off to a back out of the shotgun without the defense (which also happens to be far and away the best run defense in the league) keying in on what you’re doing. Too many thwarted run plays resulted in too many third-and-longs and consequently very few sustained drives by the Eli offense.
What was worse was that the lack of innovation was most evident at the moment when Yale had its best chance to take control of the game. Trailing 10-7 halfway through the third quarter, Yale took possession inside the Penn 35 after a blocked punt. Two unsuccessful run attempts, an incomplete pass on third-and-10 and a false start later, Yale was forced to punt. When the ball went into the end zone, Penn had the ball less than 15 yards from where it had just given it away and hadn’t even had to make a big play to do it. Eighty yards later, the game was over.
When you have a chance to put the pressure on a team you’re chasing, you have to try to force the issue. In a 7-7 game in the second quarter, Penn went to a no-huddle offense and stayed with it for the duration of the contest. The Yale defense was up to the task and didn’t really allow any big plays, but it’s the mere notion that the two-time defending league champs were willing to shake it up in order to get something going that is noteworthy.
Yale should know that playing it close to the vest has not produced results against Penn. Last year, the Elis dug themselves a 21-point hole that they closed when the offense had to open up in the fourth quarter. It looked like Yale was actively trying to replicate last year’s dramatic last-gasp comeback by copying the Denzel-in-“Remember the Titans” playbook and running as few variations on that draw play out of the shotgun as possible. Once Yale was down 17-7, it started moving down the field, but by that point it was too late to make a difference, and my mom had long before earnestly inquired, “Do we ever pass the ball?”
Somehow, I’ve been able to make more sense of Ramiro Mendoza’s Panamanian version of the classic step-to-third-throw-to-first pickoff move (the ever-popular step-to-center-field-throw-an-illegal-pitch-home that resulted in a balk in Game 3 of the ALCS) than I have Yale’s offensive effort against Penn. Alvin Cowan set the Yale record for career touchdown passes and is still throwing well from inside the pocket, but he’s not making plays with his feet like he did last year. Rob Carr broke the school’s all-time rushing mark, but you wonder if he’d be more productive if he were still splitting carries with the injured David Knox.
For a team that put up big numbers last year and returned the majority of its starting skill players (with the obvious exception of Nate Lawrie, who is trying to catch on in the NFL), Yale’s offensive production has been surprisingly impotent. When this happens, you start looking for answers, and you start looking at the top.