After a long offseason of Bulldogs fans’ discontent, the Yale football team will finally get a chance to improve upon its 0.500 campaign last season and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Yale Bowl.
In 2013, head coach Tony Reno’s second season at the helm, the Elis dramatically improved upon their 2–8 record from 2012, starting the season 5–3 following a dramatic victory over Brown. Those good feelings quickly evaporated, however, after blowout losses to Princeton and Harvard at the end of the season left a bitter taste in many players’ mouths. But starting quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 said that those losses should only give the team more motivation this season.
“At the end of the day, every game is important, and the game in front of you is the most important,” Roberts said. “Looking back, losing to Princeton and Harvard, you realize how important it is to the alumni. Those games are extra special. People take pride in Yale and they want to be able to gloat a little bit on Sundays.”
The biggest question mark for the Bulldogs is under center. With the graduation of last year’s starter, Hank Furman ’14, the most important position on the field is left to Roberts, a transfer from Clemson, who started against Penn last year.
In limited action last season, Roberts completed 37 of 71 passes for 339 yards and four passing touchdowns. And after a full offseason and preseason of reps, captain Deon Randall ’15 said he believes Roberts is ready to shine.
“Morgan’s done a great job facilitating the ball, making the right reads and just being confident,” Randall said. “I think he’s doing a great job as a leader and we’re excited for him to [be our] quarterback.”
Roberts added that the full offseason helped make him more comfortable with the schemes and playbook of the Yale offense.
Any quarterback would love to have the weapons that Roberts will have at his disposal, with two of the most dangerous players in the Ivy League suiting up for the Elis. Randall and running back Tyler Varga ’15, both former first-team all-Ivy selections, comprise perhaps the best offensive duo in the Ancient Eight.
Last year, Randall caught 85 passes for 788 yards and eight touchdowns, all team highs. He also carried the ball 33 times for 176 yards and three touchdowns, none more impressive than his 32-yard touchdown run on 3rd-and-10 with 19 seconds remaining to beat Brown.
And while Varga was hampered by injuries last year, receiving meaningful carries in just five games, it was just two years ago that he ran for 935 yards in eight games, notching at least 91 yards in each appearance. In last year’s season opener against Colgate, Varga put up 236 rushing yards, ranking as the third-best single-game total by any Yale back.
“He’s really healthy [right now],” Randall said of the 5’11”, 224 lb. power back from Ontario. “He can definitely contribute a lot. Usually, [having him] helps our passing game. Defenses … stack the box to make it tough for him to run, and that opens up the passing lanes.”
Other than Randall and Varga, playmakers abound behind a sturdy and experienced offensive line. Running backs Candler Rich ’17 and Kahlil Keys ’15 combined for almost 800 yards on the ground last season, and they both figure to get more opportunities as Reno looks to keep Varga fresh throughout the season.
Out wide, the graduation of dynamic receiver Chris Smith ’14 leaves a hole expected to be filled by Grant Wallace ’15 and Robert Clemons ’17. Clemons did not catch a pass last year, but he did return 29 kickoffs for 579 yards and figures to make some explosive plays this season. Wallace, meanwhile, was Yale’s second-leading receiver, making 31 catches for 421 yards.
But to make Reno and offensive coordinator Joe Conlin’s no-huddle system hum, the Bulldogs need a strong offensive line up front. Yale lost two stalwarts to graduation in left tackle Wes Gavin ’14 and center John Oppenheimer ’14. Both were all-Ivy selections last season, leaving big shoes to fill.
A pair of sophomores, Mason Friedline ’17 and Khalid Cannon ’17, are expected to step in at right guard and left tackle, respectively, while experienced starter Luke Longinotti ’16 will move from guard to center. Right tackle Ben Carbery ‘15 and left guard Will Chism ‘15, each with at least two seasons of starting experience, will reprise their roles from a year ago.
“The line is going to be really, really good,” Roberts said of the Bulldogs’ hog mollies up front. “Last year, we were one of the best rushing offenses in the Ivy League, so we know we can run block. We’re just trying to build some depth and some continuity with younger guys who can give older guys some plays off and keep them rested.”
On the other side of the ball, a young but experienced secondary figures to make some noise for the Elis. Two all-Ivy picks, safety Cole Champion ’16 and defensive back Foyesade Oluokun ’17, finished second and third on the team in tackles, respectively. Champion also contributed three interceptions.
Beyond Champion and Oluokun, young bucks Robert Ries ’17 and Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 both saw a healthy number of snaps last season. Randall said that he expects the secondary to make major strides this year.
“There were a lot of young guys back there last year, and now they’re a lot more confident in the schemes and playing in general,” Randall said. “Foye is a big leader back there and he’s doing a great job.”
Highlighting the Bulldogs’ 10-game slate is the matchup against Football Bowl Subdivision foe Army on Sept. 27. The game, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Yale Bowl, is the first against an FBS team for an Ivy League ball club since 1996. A tweet from Paul Finebaum, ESPN college football analyst, said that the game is a possible destination for ESPN’s “College GameDay,” a pregame show that travels to various on-campus sites throughout the season.
Additionally, College GameDay producer Lee Fitting confirmed to the News that Yale-Army was “on the under-consideration list.”
The Bulldogs play two other non-conference games this year: the season opener against Lehigh on Sept. 20 and a rematch against Colgate on Oct. 18. Last year, Yale thrashed the Raiders 39–22 thanks to Varga’s record day and Furman’s three first-half rushing scores. Lehigh, meanwhile, posted an impressive 8–3 record in 2013, but graduated its leading passer and rusher from last season.
But no matter how well Yale plays all season, many fans only care about the team’s finish against arch-rival Harvard. With seven straight losses to the Cantabs, Roberts said he recognizes that the Elis need to keep improving throughout the season in order to be in a position to finish strong.
“We’ve put a lot of work in during the preseason, but [improving] isn’t over for us at all,” Roberts said. “We’ll put out the best product we can Saturday, but as we continue, we’ll be a better and better team.”
Yale kicks off its 142nd football season on Saturday against Lehigh. Kickoff is at 1:00 p.m.