The ghosts of the second-half will not haunt the Yale football team this week.
Yale has led or been tied at the half in each of their last two losses, but even though the Bulldogs (4-3, 2-2 Ivy) struggled offensively in the last two quarters of play on Saturday, they eked out a 21-14 win over Columbia (1-6, 1-2 Ivy) with a defense that simply would not quit. The Lions had 11 first downs and 21:04 possession time in the second half, but could not find the end zone or the uprights because of the scrappy Eli defenders. The win ties the Bulldogs with Princeton and Cornell for third place in the Ivy League.
“We found a way, that’s exactly what we did,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “Our kids stepped up and played. The defense just played tremendous.”
By executing strong pass rushing and solid pass defense, the Bulldogs were able to make crucial plays and hold the Lions back from many dramatic gains. Defensive ends like Don Smith ’05 and Brandon Dyches ’06 used their speed to put pressure on the quarterback. Smith had eight tackles while Dyches had five, including combining for a sack with defensive tackle Andrew Ralph ’05.
Dyches had some slight injuries from the season’s early games on turf, but he has his step back now, which lets him beat people off the edge, Siedlecki said.
The Elis also made opportunistic plays in the secondary by forcing two interceptions. As the second quarter was ending, the Lions trailed by a touchdown and were driving down the field. After the Lions’ signal caller Jeff Otis ran for a first down, he threw the ball on the next down, and defensive end Brandon Etheridge ’07 got to it and picked it off in the middle of the field.
The other interception came late in the fourth quarter as the Lions were driving. On second and four, the ball was pitched to tailback Rashad Biggers, who finished with 129 yards rushing. But instead of taking it up the middle like he had many times, he rolled back and threw. Safety Matt Handlon ’05 saw it coming and got under it for the interception.
“It feels good [on defense],” Handlon said. “Everybody is making big time plays. To be part of that is pretty special.”
Handlon was also crucial in shutting down the Lions’ last-ditch scoring attempt in the red zone with 37 seconds left in the game. On third down, Handlon tackled the powerful Biggers at the 6-yard line. On the next down, Handlon batted the ball out of the Lions’ wide receiver Wade Fletcher’s hands in the end zone and cemented the win.
Columbia head coach John Shoop ’88 said players, not coaches, make the plays in those situations.
“You are what you are, and it comes down to a possession here, a possession there in the [Ivy] League,” Shoop said. “It was similar to the games we have played throughout the year. It all came down to the final drive.”
Columbia’s defense also had a successful second half, holding the Bulldogs to only two first downs. Between plugging the holes tailback Rob Carr ’05 found in the first half and consistently defending Eli receivers, the Lions made sure the Bulldogs had no opportunity to score.
“[The Lions] are a pretty good defensive football team,” Siedlecki said. “It is much lower scoring than the last five or six years in the league. People are playing defense.”
Siedlecki said the Elis made some nice offensive plays and quarterback Alvin Cowan ’05 made some good calls despite the Lions’ defensive successes, including two interceptions off Cowan.
“If it’s the end of me, we are going to get the offense squared away,” Siedlecki said. “I certainly didn’t think we wouldn’t score in the second half.”
The first half featured the three Eli touchdowns that put them over the Lions. The first score came on the first possession of the game as the Bulldogs executed a balanced offensive strategy. On third and seven, Cowan threw a pass up the middle which was tipped three times before tailback Jordan Spence ’07 came up with it for the first down and kept the drive alive. Three plays later, after another pass to Spence, Cowan sailed the ball 13 yards to tight end Alex Faherty ’05 in the end zone.
The next touchdown capped off a drive on the ground. The Bulldogs were again looking like they might have to punt after third and long, but Carr broke through the line for a 36-yard gain on a play reminiscent of Barry Sanders. On the next play, Carr took the ball left after a pitch and broke through the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown. Carr finished with 97 net yards rushing.
“It’s great to be back on a winning track, but we’ve got to keep working hard,” Carr said. “We need to continue staying positive and picking each other up.”
The last touchdown came after a series of aerial attacks using receivers Ralph Plumb ’05 and Chandler Henley ’06. Henley caught two passes for 25 yards and Plumb had two for 29 to bring the Bulldogs into the red zone. On third and goal, Cowan tossed it up and Henley made a diving catch to get the touchdown the Elis needed for the win. Henley and Plumb each finished with 58 yards receiving.
Besides connecting with his wideouts with success, Cowan also ran the ball a great deal more than he has this entire season. Cowan threw for 172 yards, but he also gained 51 yards on the ground.
“We put in a few choice calls this week where either Rob [Carr] would run or I would,” Cowan said. “It’s the first time that I felt healthy enough to do that.”
The game was also the first time defensive tackle Brandt Hollander ’08 started for the Bulldogs. He has travelled with the team all year and played in nickel pass rush situations but rarely on the defensive line because two seniors, Bryant Dieffenbacher ’05 and Nick Campbell ’05, were in front of him on the two-deep.
“He’s an impact player,” Siedlecki said. “He’s roaring to go, he did a good job.”
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