A young Yale defense has had to grow up quickly this season.

After being overwhelmed by the San Diego offense in the season opener, giving up six touchdowns, 43 points and over 500 yards of total offense, the Bulldogs defense came up with big stop after big stop against Cornell last weekend and made sure the Big Red did not cross the goal-line even one time. It was the first time in almost a year that Yale did not allow a single touchdown and proved that the Elis made some serious adjustments from week one.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Yale defense against Cornell was its ability to step up on critical, potentially game-changing plays. The Elis were three-for-three on making third-down stops during the fourth quarter and over 50 percent for the entire game. Yale held first team All-Ivy running back Luke Siwula, who averaged over 100 yards per game last season, to 65 yards.

“We made big plays in crucial situations,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “This win says a lot about us as a team.”

After losing many key defensive players from last season — including its entire secondary — many concerns arose regarding Yale’s ability to contain its opponents this year. With its performance against Cornell, the defense has been able to assuage some of the uneasiness critics have felt.

“We didn’t play as well as we could have offensively, but we pulled it together when it mattered,” captain and wide receiver Chandler Henley ’07 said. “The defense won the game for us, they kept us in it the whole time.”

Henley added that he was particularly impressed by the defense’s ability to stop the Big Red in so many short-yardage situations.

Though Yale’s defensive performance was a considerable improvement over that of week one, it is clear that much work still remains to be done if the Elis are going to be successful this season. Cornell was able to rack up 20 first downs and 385 yards of total offense, compared to 16 first downs and 280 yards for the Bulldogs. Although the Big Red were denied touchdowns, they still managed to move the ball effectively against the Elis and march up and down the field with relative ease.

“I think the defense played well when it had to, but obviously [Cornell] was still able to drive the ball the length of the field a few times so we still have a lot to work on,” said linebacker Bobby Abare ’09, who had a team-high 10 tackles against Cornell. “Ideally you’d like to force three-and-outs all day but if we can hold them to field goals then I think our offense is productive enough to compensate for that.”

For this green defense, game experience and the opportunity to develop trust and chemistry between teammates is much more helpful than any number of drills or practice time. Yale’s defense showed a drastic improvement after just one game under its belt, and players said they hope to see more of the same in the future.

“We got our bad game out of the way. Everyone took it as a matter of individual pride that we got beat, and they answered this week,” Henley said. “We’ve got some experience and I think we’re ready to take it to the next level.”