Yale quarterback Jeff Mroz ’06 marched to midfield Saturday for the pregame coin toss. The team’s lone captain, per Yale tradition, met his Cornell counterparts there: offensive tackle Kevin Boothe and defensive backs Joel Sussman, Kevin Rex and Jordan Calaguire.
Though he was outnumbered four to one, it seemed on this day Mroz could have taken them all on himself.
Indeed, the Eli passer had a career day during Yale’s (1-1, 1-0 Ivy) 37-17 win, torching Sussman, Rex, Calaguire and the rest of the Big Red (1-1, 0-1 Ivy) defense for 314 yards and five touchdowns (tying a school record) on 18 for 31 passing.
It was a triumphant afternoon for Mroz, who had publicly blamed himself for Yale’s 17-14 loss just a week earlier in San Diego. But just as Mroz seemed to funnel all criticism in his direction after the San Diego loss, he took pains to deflect praise after his five-touchdown performance.
“Today I thought our offensive line won the game for us,” Mroz said, being sure to mention each lineman by name. “This is a high-pressure team, they come with people from everywhere, and I hardly got touched once. Our offensive line played so well today, you could put anybody back there and they could do what I did today. “
When asked if he had felt in the zone while throwing the ball, Mroz focused instead on the other end of his 18 completions.
“Those are great receivers,” he said. “Ashley [Wright ’06], D.J. Shooter [ ’07], Todd [Feiereisen ’06], Chris Denny-Brown [’07], even when Will [Blodgett ’06] gets in. They’re all great receivers. They run very good routes and they catch the ball when they’re open.”
Wright, in particular, was stellar against Cornell. After being limited to three receptions in week one, the receiver/punter corralled seven balls for 198 yards and a school-record-tying three touchdowns, highlighted by a 70-yarder in the second quarter.
Yale’s home and Ivy League opener did not begin with promise, however. After a short Mike McLeod ’09 return, Mroz was sacked by Sussman on the first play of the game. A short Jordan Spence ’07 run and an incomplete Mroz pass concluded an opening-drive three-and-out that did little to stir confidence in a team still reeling from a week one meltdown.
Cornell began its first drive in opposite fashion: with three plays as fruitful as Yale’s were futile. A reverse to receiver Brian Romney netted 11 yards; a handoff to running back Luke Siwula gave Cornell 12 more; and a draw play to Siwula gained 16 yards, landing the Big Red on the Yale 24.
But right as the afternoon seemed as if it might assume a Cornell-red hue, the Blue defense stiffened. Yale yielded one more first down — coming on a fourth-and-one play — before forcing a field goal, Cornell’s only score before the fourth quarter.
“The speed of the game is so different than what you can simulate in practice,” Yale coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We can’t simulate that offense in practice; we don’t run it … But after one series I thought we really had it. The thing that we said going into the game is that last week we didn’t hit the quarterback. I thought [defensive ends] Brandon [Dyches ’06], Brendan [Sponheimer ’07] and Brandon [Etheridge ’07] — the three B’s — did a good job riling the quarterback and we got some big hits on him.”
On three occasions, those big hits produced turnovers. In the closing seconds of the first half, Dyches chased down quarterback Ryan Kuhn from the backside and clipped his throwing hand as he was releasing the ball, causing it to flutter into the arms of linebacker Lee Driftmeier ’07. Safety Nick Solakian ’07 and linebacker Chris Barry ’07 also picked off wayward throws from Cornell’s battered passer. Solakian’s interception, coming at 9:13 of the first quarter, was the one that roused the offense to its historic day.
On the next play from scrimmage, Mroz and Feiereisen beat double coverage for a 34-yard touchdown, the first of the receiver’s career. Feiereisen would haul in another touchdown catch in the second quarter, but he had his day cut short when he landed awkwardly on his head trying to make a catch along the Yale sideline in the third.
Yale’s next possession produced a field goal. After a hiccup on the following drive when Rex stepped in front of Shooter’s post pattern to snare an imprudent Mroz pass, Yale scored twice more — on touchdowns by Wright and Feiereisen — for a 23-3 halftime lead.
Wright’s career day, the offensive line’s great protection, Mroz’s pinpoint passing and a Cornell defense that leaves its cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage — even though they might be the worst crop in the Ivy League — created a sort of perfect storm for the Yale pass offense.
“They made so many plays that we didn’t make,” Cornell coach Jim Knowles said. “They really exposed us, particularly at the corner position. We have struggled there for the past year but today it really got bad. I think [Mroz] played very well. He’s a very good quarterback, a real accurate thrower.”
Wright knew before kickoff that he would have the opportunity to shine.
“The whole week we knew they were going to bring the house,” he said. “Coach said ‘We’re going to need the receivers to make plays and Jeff to make good throws’ since they play such a dangerous defense. If they don’t get to the quarterback, they’re leaving their corners on an island.”
Yale led by as much as 30-3 before Knowles benched Kuhn in the fourth quarter in favor of freshman Nathan Ford. Ford played ably, leading the Big Red on two scoring drives, and even delighted the crowd with a dazzling Michael Vick-like scramble and throw, in which he danced around three defensive lineman and evaded the pursuit of a fourth who had a fistful of his jersey before completing a 37-yard pass to Siwula.
But Ford’s highlight play — and the subsequent Cornell touchdown — did not make waves on the Yale sideline, where players had already begun to celebrate a win as sweet as the loss in San Diego was bitter.
“We feel pretty good right now,” Dyches said. “We feel a lot better than seven days ago on that plane ride back.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”15706″ ]