With a superb blend of execution and aggression on both sides of the ball, the Yale football team outlasted Lafayette this weekend for its second consecutive win, 37-34.
The tenacious Bulldogs (2-1, 1-0 Ivy) defense forced four turnovers in the first half alone, never letting the Leopards (2-3) get into an offensive rhythm. In the second half, tailback Mike McLeod ’09 and the offense showed that they too could take control of a game, coming up with big plays in crucial situations and scoring three touchdowns. Yale was able to offset a career-high 344 yards of total offense for Lafayette senior quarterback Brad Maurer and the late Leopards comeback with solid, all-around team play.
The Yale defense set the tone for the game early on, forcing Lafayette into a three-and-out on its first drive and setting the Bulldogs up with good field position, as would be the case for much of the day. From there, the efficient trio of quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08, McLeod and wide-receiver Ashley Wright ’07 gave a preview of things to come. Time and again, the triple threat proved too much for the Leopards defense, culminating in the Elis’ most prolific offensive output of the young season.
On Yale’s opening drive, Wright snagged a 13-yard pass from Polhemus for the first of his season-high 151 yards. McLeod followed Wright’s catch with a double-digit gain of his own, bursting through a large hole for 14 yards. A 36-yard Alan Kimball ’08 field goal put the Bulldogs on the board first.
Lafayette — a team that had not lost a fumble in its first four games — fell victim to an energetic and determined Yale defense and turned the ball over on its three subsequent possessions. Cornerback Kevin Littleton ’07 ended the Leopards’ second drive in a hurry, when he drilled fullback Joe Russo just as he made the catch, knocking the ball 10 yards back where defensive tackle Jared Hamilton ’08 dove on it.
The Bulldogs offense wasted no time in capitalizing on the turnover. Polhemus showed the Leopards that he is just as big of a threat on the ground as he is through the air. With all passing options covered, Polhemus made the defense look silly with a 28-yard jaunt up the middle on his way to scoring the first Eli touchdown of the day.
“If a play breaks down or I’m getting a rush, I know I can use my mobility,” said Polhemus, who averaged over five yards per carry against Lafayette. “The coaches encourage my running, as long as it’s a good decision.”
Much to the dismay of Lafayette, the Yale defense simply refused to let up. The Leopards’ next possession ended similarly to their previous one: with a triumphant Bulldog proudly holding up a freshly fumbled football. With less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter, Lafayette senior running back Josh Hurt mishandled a pitch right and linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 added a fumble recovery to his nine tackles for the game.
“The defense played really well in the first half and set us up in good scoring position,” McLeod said. “Everybody hustled and knew they had to make a play.”
Lafayette got its first score on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Maurer to Travis Hutson midway through the second quarter to narrow the gap to 9-7, but the Elis answered right back. Polhemus bombed a 63-yard pass between two defenders to All-Ivy wide receiver Wright to extend the Bulldogs’ lead to nine going into the second half.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Polhemus and Wright decided to go for an encore. On a play action fake, Polhemus rolled to his left and lofted the ball over Leopards defenders to the outstretched hands of Wright 58 yards downfield.
“Ashley’s a great receiver,” Polhemus said. “I know I just have to throw it up to him and he’s fast enough to beat the corners. It really gives me a lot of confidence in the pocket.”
McLeod took care of business from there, muscling his way into the end-zone from one yard out to give the Bulldogs a 23-7 advantage.
Lafayette seemed to come to life in the fourth quarter, and a series of Leopard scores would pull them within three. With a series of long completions, Maurer steadily marched his team down the field and Russo pounded in a 3-yard touchdown with 12 minutes left. After an intercepted Eli pass, the Leopards offense returned to the field, and this time Maurer himself ran for a 27-yard touchdown.
But the Bulldogs spoiled a would-be Lafayette comeback when McLeod iced the game on a draw play that resulted in his third touchdown. McLeod saw the offensive line open a hole up the middle and wasted no time in bolting through it on his way to a 45-yard sprint to the goal-line. McLeod ended the day with 172 total rushing.
“This team is getting better every week,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We need to concentrate on continuing to improve and keep on making big plays.”
The Bulldogs will have the opportunity to extend their win streak when they return to Ivy League play this Saturday against Dartmouth.