Safety Nick Solakian ’07 racked his brain, trying fruitlessly to name a player on the Dartmouth offense who worries him.
“No one,” he said. “Not at all. Not the slightest bit.”
Solakian has every reason to be confident. The Yale (1-2, 1-0 Ivy) defense has yet to play a bad game this season — perhaps even a bad half. And it is facing a Dartmouth (1-2, 0-1) offense with about as much firepower as a pack of pop rocks.
The Big Green sports a three-headed monster at quarterback — seniors Dan Shula (Don’s grandson) and Charlie Rittgers and freshman Josh Cohen — out of desperation, not choice. Shula seems to have inherited the coaching gene but not the passing one, Rittgers has started for three years but has thrown more interceptions (26) than touchdowns (25) in his career, and Cohen is a 6 ft. 5 inch pocket passer in the mold of Jeff Mroz ’06, but is just 18 years old. At running back, unproven senior Ikechi Ogbonna fills in for injured starter Chad Gaudet.
“From a defensive standpoint, you can’t have an attitude that you’re [not] afraid of anyone at all,” safety Matt Handlon ’06 said. “But everyone’s pretty confident that if we do our job and everyone plays their assignments, we’ll be all right.”
The Yale defense only has two legitimate concerns: to stop wide receiver Ryan Fuselier and to come to play from the first drive.
At 6 ft. 5 inches, 210 pounds, Fuselier is a Herculean target for whoever is throwing the ball and a major size mismatch for Yale’s sub-6 ft. corners. But his height and team-leading 15 catches do not scare Handlon.
“[Mike] Holben [’06] and [Andrew] Butler [’06] are fine,” he said. “They may not have the height, but they can cover guys better than anyone in the Ivy League. I don’t think our defensive coaches are worried about putting them on that guy.”
As for the defense’s other issue, Solakian feels that a little extra hitting this week in practice should solve the first-drive drowsiness.
“We’ve had a little more contact this week,” Solakian said. “It seemed like the first drive we’d come out a little soft. Then, once the flow of the game started, we’d get warmed up and get into it. Now we’re just trying to warm up a little harder during the week.”
The defense will need to start strong, because Dartmouth’s back line is chock full of veteran playmakers who could limit Yale’s offensive output.
Eight senior starters headline the Big Green defense, whose less-than-stellar statistics are owing to an oppressively tough early-season schedule. Josh Dooley is the main man to watch for. The four-year starter at linebacker could top 300 career tackles by season’s end. Handling defensive end Anthony Gargiulo, who notched 12 sacks a year ago, will be the Eli offensive line’s biggest test so far.
The aggressiveness of Dooley and Gargiulo may prove a double-edged sword. Receiver Chris Denny-Brown ’07 noted that the blitzing defense in which they operate will also create chances for the Yale wideouts.
“I hope we can have another show like the Cornell game,” Denny-Brown said. “I’m not going to say that it’s by any means due to a lack in their secondary, but as a wide receiver I hope every weekend goes like that.”
Denny-Brown and the pleasantly surprising corps of Yale receivers — including Ashley Wright ’07, Todd Feiereisen ’06, D.J. Shooter ’06 and Will Blodgett ’06 — have been a godsend for Mroz after leading returning receiver Chandler Henley ’06 went down with an injury.
“We’re definitely getting into a rhythm,” Denny-Brown said. “Jeff is a great quarterback. Last game he really proved that when he took over the game and started calling plays from the line [when Yale went to a no-huddle offense in the second half]. He took the game over. It shows how good he could be.”
Despite that rhythm, Yale did fall 22-19 to underdog Holy Cross last wekend. And while the Bulldogs can cope with a hiccup against a non-league opponent, a loss to Ancient Eight bottom-feeder Dartmouth is akin to Ivy emasculation.
“I think it’s a must-win to us because it’s an Ivy game,” Solakian said. “And it’s Dartmouth. We’ve gotta win. We’ve got a lot more talent than them. We’re a much better team than they are.”
Handlon was concerned more with the standings.
“After this week there are going to be two Ivy League teams that are going to be 2-0 [in the League],” he said. “If we lose it’s an uphill battle the rest of the season. Basically it’s a must-win, especially for the team spirits to get to 2-0.”