In a supposed rebuilding year — with a flurry of August injuries forcing inexperienced players into key roles and more losses than wins through the first half of the season — Yale finds itself, of all places, at the top of the Ivy League.
Indeed, it has been a curious 2005 season for the Elis. Their defense, sans Ben Breunig ’05 and Barton Simmons ’05, among others, has emerged as arguably the Ivy League’s best unit. Meanwhile, the offense has managed success despite a veritable motley crew of elements: the redshirt quarterback has thrown most of his passes to a former quarterback and a punter (who, by the way, leads the league in catches per game) and has handed the ball off to a freshman — all of which is made possible by an offensive line without a senior.
“[Receivers] Todd Feiereisen [’06] and Ashley Wright [’07] have really stepped up,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “They weren’t expected to be in that role with Chandler [Henley ’06] coming back as the leading receiver. It’s not a surprise that they’ve played so well, it’s a surprise that they’ve had so many opportunities. And our O-line has been a real bright spot. They’re very young. And they’ve protected the quarterback very well. They’ve allowed the fewest sacks in the league.”
Despite a 2-3 overall record and its first winless non-league season since 1988, Yale is a pristine 2-0 in Ancient Eight contests, with dominant home wins over Cornell and Dartmouth. And that is all that concerns the redshirt quarterback, captain Jeff Mroz ’06 said.
“We’re in first place in the Ivy League,” he said. “All we have left are five games in the Ivy League and those are the only ones that matter.”
Nevertheless, those three losses are not to be ignored. They revealed major weaknesses for the team that shares the League’s top spot with Penn, which Yale faces on Saturday.
Special teams have been inconsistent for Yale. On punt returns, Chris Denny-Brown ’07 has never gained more than eight yards on an attempt, while Mike McLeod ’09 has only once ventured across the 50-yard line on a kickoff return. Wright, the leading receiver, has been steady while doubling as Yale’s punter, but kickoff coverage has been the defense’s worst enemy and place kicking has become something of a rollercoaster ride with Alan Kimball ’08 seven yards deep.
On offense, superfrosh McLeod has shown flashes of what might be.
“Due to injuries, we’ve had some people play that we didn’t think would have to be prime-time players,” Siedlecki said. “It starts with Mike McLeod. He had a good first five games and he’s going to get better and better.”
He will have to, because the flashes McLeod has shown are only that. Where Rob Carr ’05 would earn 10 yards on three even runs, McLeod gains all at once and then stalls at the line of scrimmage. The lack of a steady running game has hampered the Elis in short-yardage situations and will continue to expose them as opponents study more. McLeod’s intermittent sparkle has been a welcome presence, but what Yale really needs is a constant luster.
The defense has provided sparkle, luster and everything in between. Siedlecki said he has been thrilled with the play of defensive coordinator Rick Flanders’ unit thus far, mentioning linebacker Lee Driftmeier ’07 (with a team-leading 48 tackles) and defensive end Brandon Sponheimer ’07 as particularly pleasant surprises.
“Lee has probably been the biggest guy to perform beyond expectations,” he said. “He barely played last year and now he’s a real leader on defense. Also, Brandon Sponheimer. He’s played very well through the first five games.”
It would be unfair to ask much more of a defense that ranks 15th in I-AA in scoring – unless that unit is being asked to anchor a championship team. The Elis are in the midst of their best defensive season in recent memory, most notably during the shutout win over Dartmouth Oct. 8, in which they held the Big Green to 110 yards of total offense. But Dartmouth’s offense posed only a mosquito-like threat, and games against Penn, Brown and Harvard — three teams with All-American-quality running backs — lie ahead.
In losses against San Diego, Holy Cross and Lehigh, Yale has failed to make the big stop when it counts. San Diego and Lehigh both had fourth-quarter touchdown drives to win or tie the game — each drive punctuated with a two-point conversion the defense failed to stop.
End Brandon Dyches ’06, Yale’s best defensive player, has made five sacks thus far — just one has come in a loss. Safety Nick Solakian ’07, who has emerged as a major play-maker in his first season as a starter, has three interceptions — just one has come in a loss.
If the defense is to play as well as the statistics suggest, it must make big plays in the red zone and late in games.
“We need to play all four quarters,” Mroz said. “Finishing games is very important for us.”
Finishing seasons, too.