The football team is entering the 2008 season surrounded by familiar hoopla and high expectations, but it’s never too early to begin preseason dissection.
Like 2007, the preseason Bulldogs were chosen by the media to finish at the top of the Ivy League — but this time, they are not alone.
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Defending champion Harvard was also chosen to finish at the top. The Crimson received the same number of first-place votes and total points in the preseason media poll.
At the national level, Yale is ranked as high as No. 24 in the AGS poll and No. 33 in the consolidated poll. The latter is an average of the three major polls that rank the Football Championship Subdivision.
But the Elis know games are won on the gridiron, not on paper. After starting as overwhelming preseason favorites in the Ancient Eight last year, the Bulldogs cruised to a 9-0 record and a top 10 national ranking before being killed by the Crimson. One of the most highly anticipated installments of The Game in recent memory turned into a 37-6 drubbing at home.
The Cantabs struck first — and quickly. 1:08 into the game they took a 7-0 lead, and by the beginning of the fourth quarter, it was a 37-0 rout.
“It was a rough day for all of us … for the young guys, this season is something to build off for next year,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said after The Game.
Next year is now
That single loss not only ruined a chance at a perfect campaign — it gave the rival Crimson the Ivy League title. And that’s something that won’t sit well with this year’s squad.
But the Elis say they have put the loss behind them, and with 35 seniors on the roster and 14 of 22 starters returning, this year’s team has the talent needed to capture the title they shared with Princeton in 2006.
“Our players and staff expect to compete for the Ivy League championship,” Siedlecki asserted.
When the Elis enter the Bowl for their Sept. 20 opener against Georgetown, they will do so with a new leader in the huddle.
Three players are currently in camp competing for the starting quarterback spot left open by the departed Matt Polhemus ’08. After serving as the backup signal caller for two seasons, during which he attempted just five passes, Ryan Fodor ’09 is the most experienced of the three. Richie Scudellari ’10 served as the third-string quarterback last season and was the place-kick holder, but neither he nor the third player in the running — Brook Hart ’11 — has taken a snap under center for the varsity team.
Whoever does start will need to improve on a disappointing passing game that bottomed out in the blowout loss against Harvard. The Bulldogs managed just four passing touchdowns and an average of 108 yards through the air to go with seven interceptions for the 2007 campaign.
“We need to throw the ball more effectively, and we have spent a lot of time on that in spring practice and preseason,” Siedlecki explained. “We need to develop more playmakers in the offense to ease the defensive focus on Mike McLeod.”
The passing game will once again be aided by one of the best backfields in the nation. Mike McLeod ’09 comes back after a record-breaking year, half of which was played with a broken toe. Joining McLeod are backup tailbacks Ricardo Galvez ’10 and Jordan Farrell ’10. Galvez was explosive when he spelled McLeod, rushing 47 times for 268 yards, a 5.7 yards-per-carry average and two touchdowns, while Farrell rushed 53 times for 249 yards and four TDs.
On the outside, the Bulldogs return just two receivers with double-digit receptions: John Sheffield ’10 and Jarrett Drake ’09. Reid Lathan ’10 and Jordan Forney ’11 will look to get into the fold after not seeing much action last season.
Four returning starters — left tackle Darius Dale ’09, right tackle Bryan Kana ’09, guard Stephen Morse ’09 and center Ty Davis ’09 — will return to an offensive line that allowed just 10 sacks last season and opened the holes for McLeod’s record-breaking season.
On defense, Yale returns seven of its top 10 tacklers from last season — led by Buck Buchanan Award candidate and team captain Bobby Abare ’09 — but will need to replace three members of the starting line.
“We led the nation in scoring defense and led the Ivy League in turnover ratio last year,” Siedlecki said. “We return a large group of defenders and great leadership in captain Bobby Abare but we must prove that we can replace those great players.”
One of those three lost starters is last season’s captain, tackle Brandt Hollander ’08. He alone will be tough to replace for the Elis. The Bulldogs’ two returning starters on the line — end Brady Hart ’09 (four sacks), and converted end and current tackle Kyle Hawari ’09 will lead a unit trying to remain at the top of the Ancient Eight.
Justin Oplinger ’10 will look to rush the passer with Hart. At tackle, Joe Hathaway ’09 and Shane Jones ’09 will join Hawari.
“To be honest, I don’t really know what to expect from the d-line other than a great effort day in and day out,” Abare said. “Although we lost three tremendous guys up front, we have quite a few guys returning who have plenty of experience.”
Along with Abare, Jay Pilkerton ’09 (29 tackles and four INT in 2007) will lead a seasoned linebacker corps that will be in front of a veteran and talented secondary.
Much of the secondary is returning, including starting cornerbacks Casey Gerald ’09 and Paul Rice ’10. Gerald has started in 20 consecutive games, and Rice has started in 10 in a row.
The duo will be accompanied in the secondary by free safety Steven Santoro ’09 (35 tackles and four INT) and the return of starting strong safety Larry Abare ’09, who suffered a season-ending injury in the team’s third game last season.
If there was one positive thing to take from The Game for the Bulldogs it was the return game, which put up the only points for the Elis.
Gio Christodolou ’11, who took a punt back for an 87-yard TD at the end of the fourth quarter, will look to pick up where he left off as the team’s primary kick and punt returner. Santoro will join Christodolou on kickoffs. Reid Lathan ’10 will serve as the backup in both punt and kick returns.
“Coach Sid always emphasizes that, as a returner, your job is to get the ball down the field to increase the chances for your offense to put points on the scoreboard, and that’s something our return team predicates itself on,” Christodolou explained.
Tom Mante ’10 returns to the punting duties after setting a school record with a 41.2-yard average in 2007. He will also take over the place-kicking duties, replacing All-Ivy kicker Alan Kimball ’08.
Contact jorge castillo at firstname.lastname@example.org