And down the stretch they come.

With half the season under its belt, the football team begins a stretch of five consecutive Ivy League games to close out the 2008 campaign. On Saturday, the Bulldogs (3-2, 1-1 Ivy) will look to remain unbeaten at home when Penn (3-2, 2-0) comes to the Yale Bowl at 12:30 p.m. for the teams’ 76th meeting — a matchup which will test each offense against the league’s top two defenses.

In their first five games, the Elis haven’t shown the consistency — particularly on offense — many expected from them coming into the season. And even with a much-improved passing attack, the one glaring difference from this season’s squad and last year’s version has been the running game.

In 2007, the Bulldogs averaged 264.9 rushing yards per game and are down to 92.6 ypg thus far this season.

Payton Award candidate Mike McLeod ’09 is on pace for 932 yards and six touchdowns on the ground — 17 fewer scores and 687 fewer yards than he managed last season.

The passing game has been significantly better this season — from seventh to first in the league in passing efficiency. But in the Bulldogs’ three wins, the team has rushed for at least 135 yards, and in their two losses, they’ve rushed for an average of 26.5 yards. To sum it up, Yale needs to run the ball to win.

“It is always important to have a strong running game to maintain a balance in the offense,” quarterback Ryan Fodor ’09 asserted. “Much of our success is predicated on our running game, so running the football well is a priority for the offense every week.”

Injuries haven’t helped. While Jordan Farrell ’10 (season-ending shoulder injury) and Ricardo Galvez ’10 (hamstring injury) are out for all or a significant portion of the season, a banged-up McLeod has been called on more often than what the coaching staff would like. The New Britain, Conn., native has an Ivy League-leading 129 carries — 38 more than anyone else in the Ancient Eight — and is only averaging 3.6 yards per carry.

An established run game will also help the Bulldogs control possession. The Elis are seventh in the Ivy League in time of possession and last week against Fordham, the Bulldog offense was on the field for just over 21 minutes — 17 fewer than the Fordham offense.

“Obviously in the time of possession battle if our defense can get three and outs and we run the ball well, which is ideal, than we will win the time of possession battle,” Fodor said.

The Bulldogs hope they find the success on the ground that they found a year ago against the Quakers. In last year’s triple-overtime victory over Penn, McLeod broke his toe on his way to rushing 35 times for 147 yards.

But with a stiff Quaker defense coming to town on Saturday, the Bulldog rushing attack will be put to the test.

Penn is fourth in the Ancient Eight in rush defense (117.6 yards per game) and first in pass defense (140 ypg), total defense (257.6 ypg) and scoring defense (tied with Yale at 14.2 points per game).

The Quakers haven’t allowed more than 24 points in a game this season, and over the last three contests the squad has held its opponents to an average of nine points per game.

Senior linebacker Jay Colabella leads the Quakers with 34 tackles, while classmate Britton Ertman — a defensive back — is the reigning Sports Network’s national defensive player of the week. In last week’s 15-10 victory over Columbia (0-5, 0-2), Ertman recorded six tackles, two fumbles, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups.

Yale’s defense, however, is right up there with the Quaker unit.

As mentioned, the Elis are atop the league in scoring defense with Penn, rank first in rush defense (81.6 ypg), and are in the top half of the Ivy League in pass efficiency defense, pass defense, total defense and turnover margin.

And after the Quakers’ lackluster offensive showing last week, the Bulldog defense is the last thing the Penn offense wants to see. Last week against Columbia, the Quakers needed all five turnovers the defense forced to slip past a winless Columbia — the offense managed a paltry 204 total yards on offense. The Quaker’s three scoring drives were set up by three turnovers and covered just 17 yards on 15 plays.

But just like any other team, Yale isn’t taking their opposition lightly.

“This game is huge,” wide receiver Gio Christodoulou ’11 said. “We’re both in the thick of the Ivy League race, and after we went into their place and beat them in overtime last season, we expect them to come with revenge on their minds.”

With a loss in the league already — against Cornell (3-2, 1-1) — Yale can ill-afford to look past any opponent for the rest of the way. Two teams are still undefeated in league play — Penn and Brown (3-2, 2-0) — and with Harvard (4-1, 1-1) playing great football since their stunning loss to Brown, the Bulldogs can’t afford falling back further in the standings.