The Yale football team’s 17-7 loss to Penn Saturday was arguably the most frustrating Yale sporting event I have ever attended. And that’s saying something.
Entering the 2004 campaign, Yale was returning most of its starters from a record-setting offense that averaged 35.4 points a game a year ago. Even with the loss of Nate Lawrie, it would have been reasonable to assume that this team would have no problem putting points on the board.
Meanwhile, with regulars coming back to just about every position, the defense figured to improve as well, especially with the return of Barton Simmons ’05 to bolster a shaky secondary. It wasn’t wrong to expect big things from this team.
But, in light of the fact that Yale teams with high expectations tend to fare poorly, nobody should be shocked by this outcome. The problem is that there are different ways to lose games. If I could honestly say that I thought Penn was more talented or just played better Saturday, I wouldn’t be writing this column.
So what went wrong? I don’t think anyone who came to the Yale Bowl will be surprised by my answer: play-calling.
I felt good about our chances on Saturday. Before the game, if you had told me that the defense would allow only 17 points and the special teams would play very well, I’d have been even more confident. Then again, with Yale athletics, you never get what you expect … unless you’re the Penn defense.
Really, there is no attempt at deception in the Yale offense. Over and over, the same thing: shotgun, hand-off to Carr. It may have worked to the tune of 144 yards in the first half, but I think the Ivy League’s best run defense may have figured it out by halftime.
It certainly looked like they knew what was coming when Yale, trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, had a golden opportunity after a blocked punt gave them the ball on the Penn 34-yard line. After two nearly identical runs were stuffed, miscommunication on a third-and-long pass play and a false start forced the punting unit out. That may have been the game right there.
Meanwhile, it seemed like a major goal of the Yale offense was to keep the ball out of the hands of its two nasty receivers. I don’t get it. Ralph Plumb ’05 is rapidly moving up the all-time ranks in the Yale record book while Chandler Henley ’06 routinely makes mind-boggling catches.
And good things tend to happen when we put the ball in the air. On Saturday, Henley supplied the only Yale score with a ridiculous catch. In addition, the Bulldogs’ only semblance of ball movement in the second half came when the team was forced to air it out toward the end of the fourth quarter. But, even if Plumb hadn’t fumbled on Penn’s 15-yard line, it was still probably too little, too late.
Of course, I’m all for giving Yale’s all-time leading rusher the ball. But, maybe we can do it by trying a few different plays out of different formations. Not to push the envelope too much, but maybe we could end our distinction as the only college football team to never throw a screen pass and toss Carr the ball every now and then.
Also, unless I’m missing some obscure Ivy League rule, we don’t have to call every running play to the short side of the field. For some reason, we always do. Remember when we always used to run the option — without ever pitching — to the short side of the field? Hey, we don’t have to do that anymore. Maybe we can take advantage of all that green space on the other side of the field.
There’s a certain football philosophy that states that as long as your team executes, you’ll be successful; even if the other team knows what’s coming. If anything, it seems like the Bulldogs’ coaching staff buys into this mantra. It’s a good idea to do the best job in areas you can control, but this just isn’t working. It’s important to keep an opponent, especially one of Penn’s caliber, off-balance. You see, good teams make adjustments, and that’s probably why Yale could muster only 20 yards rushing in the second half. Once the other team adjusts, you can’t keep doing the same thing.
I understand that calling plays is not an easy job. I don’t really even know which plays were called directly from the bench, or if and when the coaches gave quarterback Alvin Cowan ’05 the opportunity to call the shots. Also, I recognize that it’s hard to run an offense when your team has the ball for only six minutes and a total of 17 plays in the entire second half. (Obviously, calling bad plays exacerbates this time-of-possession problem).
I don’t know who exactly to blame, but this team has too many good players to have ended up in this position without some suspect coaching.
So, with the hopes of an Ivy title completely dashed, what else is there? The Bulldogs have three games remaining before the season finale at Harvard.
Honestly, I’d like to win them all, but these three games are not that important. Not when the Bulldog seniors are facing the prospect of becoming the first class to be swept in the 120-game history of the Harvard-Yale rivalry.
As embarrassing as a fourth consecutive loss to Harvard would be, a win could redeem this season. The Bulldogs just need to figure out how to run an offense during the next three games.