With just four games remaining on its schedule, every remaining contest is a must-win for the Yale football team.
When the Elis (3–3, 2–1 Ivy) face off against Columbia (0–6, 0–3) Saturday, their hopes of an Ivy championship alive will be on the line. A disappointing loss last week against Penn dropped Yale from the ranks of unbeaten Ivies. Only twice in the last 55 years has the Ancient Eight champion suffered two losses in league play.
While Yale, which has now lost three times in four weeks, looks to improve on last weekend’s performance, the Lions will be seeking to rebound from a dispiriting Ivy loss of their own last weekend, a 37–0 thrashing at the hands of Dartmouth.
Saturday’s match marks the last of three consecutive road games for the Bulldogs, who are still searching for their first win away from the Yale Bowl. They have won their three home games by an average of 20 points, but lost by an average of 17 in each of their contests on the road.
“The fact of the matter is, you are supposed to be able to take your best game as a football team and go on the road and play in anybody’s stadium and have a chance for success,” head coach Tom Williams said. “And we have not done that this year.”
Despite its dismal record, Columbia has the potential to be a tough obstacle as three of its losses were decided by a touchdown or less.
The Lions nearly upset Penn two weeks ago, tying the game at 20 apiece with less than two minutes remaining in the game. The Quakers managed to put seven points on the scoreboard with 25 seconds left and squeaked out a 27–20 victory.
While the Bulldogs have topped the Lions for eight straight years, the teams’ last two meetings were both decided on the final possession of the game.
A year ago, the Elis dominated the first half and jumped out to a 31–7 lead at halftime. But Columbia mounted a furious rally in the second half and scored three unanswered touchdowns to pull within three. The Blue and White preserved their victory, 31–28, thanks to a deflected pass by linebacker Jesse Reising ’11 on fourth down with 2:10 left.
Last week, Yale ran into similar second-half troubles. The Bulldogs took a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but then allowed Penn to score 27 points in 10 minutes to pull off a stunning comeback. The Yale defense, which held the Quakers 0 for 6 on third-down conversions in the first two quarters, broke down in the final period last week.
Penn quarterback Billy Ragone and tailback Brandon Colavita swung the momentum back in their favor with big plays through the air and the ground. None of the Quakers’ four scoring drives took more than three minutes.
“The one lesson that I think we are still struggling learning is how to put people away and how to finish games,” Williams said. “We need to learn how to put a stake in people’s heart when it’s there.”
While the loss may be tough for the defense to swallow, players said that they will be ready for Columbia’s offense on game day, and the key for defensive success is going to be proper execution of plays.
“While we don’t have to be Superman, we are expected to make the plays we are supposed to,” defensive lineman Jake Stoller ’12 said. “We will be ready to go without a doubt.”
However, the Yale offense might not be entirely ready to go. Star wide receiver Chris Smith ’13 and running back Alex Thomas ’12 each performed well against Penn, but left the game early with injuries. Offensive lineman Roy Collins ’12 was also hurt.
Thomas has a posterior cruciate ligament injury and will miss Saturday’s game but is hopeful for next weekend, Williams said on Thursday. Smith and Collins will be game time decisions.
If the offense struggles, the Elis will turn to their defense to stop the Lions. In three Ivy contests, the defense, which has given up an average of 18 points a game so far, will look on Saturday to contain dual-threat quarterback Sean Brackett when the Lions possess the ball. Brackett led the Ivy League in passing efficiency, touchdowns thrown, and total offensive yards last season.
But the junior signal caller has struggled to repeat his performance this year, with just eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. At the same point last season, Brackett had 12 interceptions and only one interception. He and the rest of the Columbia passing game have struggled due to poor pass protection, which is allowing an average of three sacks per game, on pace to surpass the 28 takedowns the Lions surrendered last season.
“[Brackett] has been a running quarterback with the ability to throw the ball,” Williams said. “I think they are better when they can run the ball. If you make them one dimensional [on offense], you got a better idea of what to expect.”
So far this season, the Lions have struggled to move the ball on the ground, averaging just 94.8 rushing yards a game.
By comparison, the Bulldogs racked up 232 rushing yards last week against the third-ranked run defense in the Ivy League and the offensive gained an impressive total of 490 yards.
“It’s definitely encouraging knowing that we are starting to hit our stride on offense,” wide receiver Cameron Sandquist ’14 said.
Two of the that game’s top performers, however, were also among its casualties. Thomas rushed for a career-high 204 yards on 30 carries and Smith caught six catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns. That catching performance made Smith the only Eli to have three consecutive games with at least 100 receiving yards. He is also just 56 yards away from breaking Yale’s all-time kickoff return yards record, held by Robert Carr ’05.
If Thomas and Smith cannot contribute, Yale will lean on the rest of its deep offense. Running back Mordecai Cargill ’13 has averaged 4.7 yards per carry sharing touches with Thomas, while tailback Deon Randall ’14 has been a threat both through the air and on the ground, leading the Elis in receptions and second on the team in yards per carry so far.
The Bulldogs know that the only way to stay in contention for the Ivy League championship is to win out every remaining game. The last time a two-loss team won the Ancient was in 1982, when Penn, Harvard and Dartmouth shared the title.
Kickoff is slated for 12 p.m.