It isn’t a glorious place to play. It doesn’t always get recognized by the media or fans. But this weekend, the offensive line might be the unit that preserves Yale’s championship hopes.
When the Bulldogs (7-1, 5-0 Ivy) take on the Tigers (7-1, 4-1) tomorrow, the offensive linemen will be responsible for clearing the way for tailback Mike McLeod ’09 and the run. The Elis have gained 193.5 yards per game on the ground, leading the Ancient Eight in rushing.
But it may not be easy to put up similar numbers this weekend against the league’s No. 2 rush defense. The Tigers have held opponents to 108.9 yards per game and have given up a mere 10 rushing touchdowns. Although the Tigers do not boast a single one of the top tacklers in the Ivies, Princeton has found a way to stop the run when it counts.
One of the defense’s biggest successes this fall came during the Tigers’ narrow victory over Harvard on Oct. 21. The Tigers limited All-American running back Clifton Dawson to a paltry 64 rushing yards. Dawson has averaged 129.2 yards per game this fall, but he could not find a way to get much done that day against the Tigers.
And yet there still seems to be a high level of confidence within the offensive line and the offense in general. Lineman Jeff Monaco ’08 said experience has played the biggest role in generating faith in the unit’s abilities.
“We are used to each other, we support each other,” he said. “Everybody knows their weaknesses and strengths, and playing with [McLeod] last year helped us improve our understanding of how he runs. We have come together better as a group.”
Guard Steve Basserman ’07 also attributed the team’s success rushing to three specific people — associate head coach and offensive line coach Keith Clark, three-time All-Ivy lineman Ed McCarthy ’07, and, last but not least, McLeod.
“We all think [Clark] is the best coach on the team,” Basserman said. “A big part is also [McCarthy], who is the best lineman I have ever played with. And with McLeod, you watch films of him, and you think ‘wow, he’s special.’ ”
One thing that may add to the Elis’ confidence is that Princeton has some chinks in its defensive armor. The top Tigers linebacker is 28th in the Ancient Eight in total tackles (42), and the rest of the front seven have similarly unremarkable stat lines.
The rush defense has had its share of letdowns, including during contests against Penn and Cornell. Although the Tigers emerged victorious, they let Quakers tailback Joe Sandberg finish with 173 rushing yards, including a long scramble for 52. During the Tigers’ sole loss of the season, the Big Red gained 129 yards on the ground on their way to beating Princeton in the battle for possession, 31:50 to 28:10.
Overall, though, what has helped the Tigers shut opponents down is their strategy. Monaco said the Tigers like to mix things up, including switching from a 5-2 formation to a 3-3.
“[The defensive linemen and linebackers] are a little undersized, but they make up with trying to trick the offense, messing up blocking assignments, and blitzing to try to get an advantage,” he said. “But it’s nothing we haven’t seen when we scrimmaged them.”
That may prove the key to Saturday. Not only have the Elis been watching substantial amounts of film of the Tigers defense, but they have firsthand experience from their pre-season scrimmage against Princeton.
“From the scrimmage, we got a feeling that they have pretty inexperienced linebackers,” McLeod said. “From film, we saw that their safeties and their secondary don’t tackle too well, so we will see what we can do.”
McLeod said he is personally confident because over the past two years he has seen that the linemen can make their blocks, which has made him more patient.
But confidence is not all that matters, and the linemen realize that.
“We’ve got a sense of what they can do, but both programs have gotten better,” Basserman said. “Princeton will prepare well, so it will come down to execution. Whoever does that will be victorious.”