SAN DIEGO — The receivers weren’t Plumb and Henley, but they did everything Yale could have asked for.
The schemes were hardly the stuff of Urban Meyer, but they were enough to beat a team whose schedule features NAIA and Division III foes.
The offensive line was in fact more than adequate, with tackle Ed McCarthy ’07 and guard Steve Basserman ’07 so committed to protecting their quarterback that they flanked him on the flight out west.
The man responsible for Yale’s 17-14 loss at the University of San Diego (3-0) Saturday, according to Yale captain and quarterback Jeff Mroz ’06, was Jeff Mroz.
“That loss is 100-percent my fault, no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Yale’s quarterback said, heaping all the blame onto his own shoulders — particularly his right one. “I don’t care what anybody says — ‘we didn’t take advantage of opportunities’ — whatever. I played like crap. The team lost because I didn’t play well.”
Mroz was hardly as bad as he claimed. After a first-drive interception, in which he tried to force a ball to a triple-covered Todd Feiereisen ’06, and which the Toreros failed to take advantage of, Mroz was in fact rather sharp.
He led Yale (0-1, 0-0 Ivy) on two 77-yard touchdown drives and completed 18 of 32 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown to tight end Dave Miller ’07, who was filling in for the injured Alex Faherty ’06 (groin).
Mroz developed quite a rhythm with Feiereisen in the first half, allaying fears that the team would be without a go-to receiver. The two connected for gains of 19, 25 and 23 yards, although Feiereisen was without a reception in the second half.
“Our receivers are all great players,” Mroz said. “When I give them the ball they’re going to make plays. I just didn’t give them the ball.”
Up 7-0 after the touchdown to Miller, Yale went on the offensive again in the second quarter. Following linebacker Lee Driftmeier’s ’07 (12 tackles, five solo) recovery of a Josh Johnson fumble, Mroz hit Feiereisen for the final time before connecting with receiver Ashley Wright ’06, who beat USD cornerback Michael Crawford in man coverage for 24-yard gain down to the Toreros goal line.
Another yard from Wright would have been huge for the Bulldogs.
A fumbled handoff attempt and other miscues forced a 23-yard Alan Kimball ’08 field goal, which the sophomore hooked just left of the uprights.
On the ensuing drive, a fake punt run on third and long by punter George Villa exposed an overzealous Yale return unit, but defensive tackle Kirk Porter ’08 eventually forced another punt when he chased down Johnson and smothered the quarterback on an option keeper.
Yale’s next drive, beginning from its own 23-yard line with 2:32 remaining in the half, marked the dawning of the Mike McLeod ’09 era of Yale football.
The heralded rookie had 11 touches already in the game, but he struggled to reach top gear against the aggressive USD defense. McLeod started off the drive with a bang – actually, more finesse than bang – a 19-yard comet tail off the right tackle. He shook two more Toreros on a seven-yard encore, then outran the rest of them two plays later on an 18-yard swing pass out of a four-wide shotgun set – one of only a handful of times Mroz departed from under center. Fifteen more yards on the next play put McLeod and the Elis inside the USD red-zone. After a Mroz scramble made it second and short, the 5-foot-11 wunderkind took a pitch to the right, followed the lead-blocking of fullback Taylor Craig ’07, and raced nine yards untouched into the endzone – punctuating the score with a Superman dive at the pylon for good measure. He finished with 173 all-purpose yards.
The celebration would be short-lived. Yale’s undoing began immediately after its finest moment. On Kimball’s kickoff, a booming 63-yarder, John Matthews sliced through the porous Bulldogs coverage team for 61 yards before Kimball knocked him out of bounds.
Johnson then completed two passes to receiver Wes Doyle to set up Hutch Parker’s first of three field goal attempts as time expired.
“We had plenty of opportunities in the first half,” Yale coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We ran up and down the field, had 40-something plays, put up about 250 yards, and we only had 14 points … There were three big special teams plays in that first half: the fake punt for the first down – obviously we overcame that and got back and scored; the kickoff return – we should’ve gone into the half [leading by 14]; that was a flat-out gift; and the missed field goal. Those were the three big things that cost us.”
The second half was all San Diego, as the complacent Yale team continued a disturbing trend that began last season: second-half futility. The Bulldogs have been outscored 74-10 in the second halves of their last seven games, and Saturday was more of the same.
USD coach and former all-pro NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, mindful that his plodding offensive linemen were no match for the tenacious pass rush of Brandon Dyches ’06 (seven tackles, one sack), Brandt Hollander ’08 (eight tackles, one sack) and the Yale defensive line, began calling short, three-step drops for Johnson, as well as draw plays to exploit Yale’s quickness.
The early returns were favorable. Johnson’s legs and arm carried the Toreros 51 yards on a 14-play, 5:26 domineering field goal drive.
“He’s a good quarterback,” defensive tackle Andrew Ralph ’06 said. “He’s a good scrambler. When he’s on the move, he finds those guys that are open.”
The teams traded possessions before McLeod ceded the ball to linebacker Ronnie Pentz after Tyler Evans shot into the backfield untouched and jarred it loose. Another field goal by Parker drew San Diego within five.
“That solely rests on me,” McLeod said of the fumble, which Siedlecki did not blame him for. “There was a guy that did come off the edge as a blitzer unblocked, but I should’ve carried the ball.”
With nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, a Mroz pass again fell into enemy hands. Trying to find Feiereisen on a post pattern, Mroz’s pass was tipped by Adam Burke into the hands of safety Philip Bretsch, who traced it back to the Yale 19.
Johnson immediately went to work. A swing pass to running back J.T. Rogan netted the Toreros 13 yards and set up first and goal from the Yale six-yard line.
Two plays later, a questionable pass interference call on safety Matt Handlon ’06 made it first and goal again. Another two plays later Yale was whistled for a personal foul, creating a third first-and-goal situation.
This time USD would capitalize. After Hollander and Steve Schmalhofer ’08 buried Johnson on an option keeper, the sophomore took to the air and found Rogan for the go-ahead touchdown. A two-point conversion made the score 17-14.
Yale would have two more chances to even the score but failed to gain a first down on both drives. The first failed attempt came on a third-and-one run for McLeod, who had been stymied by the Toreros defense throughout the second half. The call was a counter play — the same play which head borne fruit for the Elis earlier in the game — but the slow-developing run led the freshman into the teeth of a blitzing defense to force a punt.
Yale’s final drive ended when Mroz misfired a slant pass to Wright, who was blanketed on a fourth-and-four play. The throw may sum up Yale’s road trip: a lot of time in the air with nothing to show for it.
“We gotta put a team away on the road,” Siedlecki said. “We can’t let them hang around. We can’t leave the game in jeopardy … I thought our defense played their tails off. [We] certainly can’t fault our defense in this one. It was all on our offense. We know it. We gotta get better.”
Mroz embraces the demand that he improve.
“I’ll tell you one thing, you go back and look at the film – I expect you’ll see everybody played well – everybody except me,” Mroz said. “And if that’s the case, we’ll be fine. Because I’ll take care of that.”