Despite a slow start, the Yale defense, buoyed by an experienced defensive line, has been winning the battles in the trenches.

With the graduation of defensive standouts Travis Henry ’10, Larry Abare ’10 and Paul Rice ’10, it wasn’t a stretch for many to think that the Bulldogs would suffer from some growing pains. Yale’s opening game against Georgetown saw the defense give up 443 yards of total offense.

But since then the defense has held opponents to an average of 292.5 total yards. The Elis now sport the third-ranked defense among their Ivy League counterparts, and the seventh-ranked rushing defense in the country. In addition to attributing the performance against Georgetown to first game jitters, head coach Tom Williams said a lot of the improvement is due to the anchor that the experienced defensive line­ — a group that includes three seniors and three juniors — has provided.

“Games are won and lost up front, and we’ve been able to control the line of scrimmage so far,” Williams said.

Defensive end Sean Williams ’11 has been a key contributor, tallying three tackles for loss, two sacks, and a pass breakup so far this season. He also said a great deal of the success has been due to experience. “Every day the experience is huge; people know how to read blocks and react quickly. It’s a huge factor,” he said. “Once we’re reacting it’s easy to make plays.”

This group’s play is just the latest in a long line of stingy defenses fielded by Yale. Since 2007, every Eli defense has ranked at least third in the Ivy League in total defense and at least second in scoring defense. A Bulldog defense hasn’t ranked lower than second in red-zone defense in that time frame. This prolonged dominance leaves something to be said about success breeding success.

“I’d see Brady Hart ’09 playing like a maniac out there,” Sean Williams said. “I kind of modeled my game after him,” Sean Williams said.

The entire unit has played a clear role in the Bulldogs’ 4–1 start, holding all but one of their opponents under 120 yards rushing, and sacking opposing quarterbacks seven times.

“We’re a very proud group,” captain and lineman Tom McCarthy ’11 said. “We like to set the tempo of the game, and the group of guys we have up front has done a great job of it so far.”

Yale ranks fourth in the Ivy League in terms of total defense and second in red-zone defense, a testament to the hard work of the big guys up front.

Yale has made a point to consistently rotate players on the defense in the past few seasons.

“We had a lot of guys to play for us last year,” Tom Williams said. “They probably weren’t starters, but they’ve got some significant playing time. What we lack in eligibility by years, we make up for in experience.”

The divided reps, Williams said, not only give valuable experience to reserve players, but also conserve energy among the starters. This season, members of the unit have missed five games combined, but the defense hasn’t missed a beat.

“Everyone just steps into their roles, everyone practices and is able to fill in for the next guy,” Sean Williams said. “Everyone on the team is a player, and everyone gives 100 percent every time.”

Tom Williams said the dominant play in the trenches has allowed the linebackers and the secondary to be more aggressive, resulting in the Elis forcing the second-most turnovers in the Ivy League, with four fumbles recovered and five interceptions. These playmakers on defense will be put to the test on Saturday, when 4–1 Penn comes into town for a match-up that will determine first place in the Ivy League.

The recently prolific Yale offense was hampered by the loss of Patrick Witt ’12, Alex Thomas ’12, and Mordecai Cargill ’13 last week against Fordham, but McCarthy did not think that these injury losses put extra pressure on the defense last year.

“It’s the nature of the game, if one guy goes down, the next guy has to step up.”

Sean Williams added: “I see the guys in the next role have been able to step up nicely, we’re a good team, and good teams have great depth. That’s what we’ve got. We all trust these players; we’ve seen everyone practice. [Witt, Thomas and Cargill are] big time players, but we’re lucky to have guys who can step in.”

The defense line now hopes to continue its impressive run for the remainder of the schedule. Sean Williams, for one, sees room for improvement.

“I feel like we definitely have some things we can improve on, we just set the bar higher every week, push harder and harder and stay hungry all year. We’ve got to raise expectations and keep meeting them, that kind of hunger helps.”

Yale’s next task will come against Penn this Saturday. The Quakers lead the Ivy League in rushing offense with 213 yards per game.