Over the past three weeks, the Yale football team has successfully proven that you can’t always trust first impressions. If one were to judge the squad based on its season-opening performance against San Diego, the Elis would appear an inexperienced football team, with a lackluster offense and confused defense.

But the Bulldogs (3-1, 2-0 Ivy) have made impressive strides since then, drastically improving on both sides of the ball, and this progress was never more evident than in this weekend’s 26-14 manhandling of Dartmouth (0-4, 0-2).

“I think our team’s approach to this three-week road trip was a unifying experience,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We had our backs to the wall after a poor opening game performance but we have gotten better every week. We’re going to keep getting better.”

For the third week in a row, the Yale offense and defense complemented one another beautifully and the team showed that when it plays as a cohesive unit, it is a force to be reckoned with. Dartmouth had no answer for running back Mike McLeod ’09, who scored two touchdowns and tallied a career-high 198 yards — the sixth-highest total in school history. Perhaps the most salient evidence of Yale’s offensive prowess was the fact that the Bulldogs’ sole punt of the afternoon came in the closing five minutes of the game, with the team comfortably ahead by 12 points.

The defense pitched a first-half shutout and allowed just 98 yards on the ground all day. Linebacker Chris Barry ’07 set the tone for the Elis on defense with a sack and a game-clinching interception, and he was just one element of a solid team-wide defensive performance.

“Our defense has been really strong against the run, particularly in short yardage situations,” defensive lineman Brandt Hollander ’08. “We have a lot of trust in each other, and we’re developing a confidence in ourselves.”

The first big play for the Elis came early in the first quarter, when defensive back Steve Santoro ’09 stripped Big Green wide-out Brian Evans and corner Casey Gerald ’09 pounced on it at the Yale 30-yard line. The Bulldogs quickly took advantage of the turnover, driving 63 yards downfield to set up the first of two first-half field goals for Alan Kimball ’08.

Yale’s first touchdown came with less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter, as McLeod took off to his right, made a sharp cut back left, then darted through a big hole in the defense on his way to the end zone 13 yards away. The run increased the Bulldogs’ lead to 13-0 and McLeod’s first half rushing total to 141 yards.

“Mike McLeod’s running was great all day,” Hollander said. “The offensive line opened big holes for him, and he had a strong performance.”

The Bulldogs started the second half in similar fashion, wasting no time to get right back on the board. With their backs against the wall on third-and-11 at their own 46, quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 came up with a clutch play working out of the shotgun. He fired a bullet over the middle into the outstretched hands of wide receiver Chandler Henley ’07 for a 31-yard gain. A few plays later, fullback Taylor Craig ’07 punched in his first career touchdown from one yard out to extend the Bulldogs’ lead to 19 points.

Just as the game appeared to be turning into a complete blowout, Dartmouth began to show some signs of life. The Big Green quickly mounted a 10-play, 77-yard drive culminating in a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Fritz to tight end Brett Lowe. The Bulldogs would go on to fumble the kickoff, and Dartmouth wasted no time in striking again. Within three minutes, the Eli defense would see Fritz throw his second touchdown of the day, cutting the Yale lead to five points.

But just as they did last week when Lafayette mounted a late-game comeback, the Bulldogs stopped the bleeding and held their ground. With a punt looking inevitable on third-and-23, McLeod caught a screen pass right and dashed through a swarm of Dartmouth defenders, spinning his way to the 9-yard line for a 25-yard gain. Not satisfied, McLeod finished the job on the next play with his second touchdown run of the afternoon.

It appears that the Elis are gaining momentum at just the right time. Yale brings its three-game winning streak home to the Yale Bowl this Saturday for a three-game homestand beginning with Lehigh. After the Mountain Hawks, there will be nothing but Ancient Eight opponents left for the Bulldogs.

“Coming off three road wins, we have built a lot of momentum and confidence,” defensive end Brendan Sponheimer ’07 said. “I think we’re ready to take on the heart of our schedule in the coming weeks.”