With the preseason now in the rearview mirror, the Yale football team opens its season on Saturday in a non-conference matchup against Patriot League opponent Lehigh.
The Mountain Hawks (0–2, 0–0 Patriot) come in on a two-game losing streak. Last year, however, they finished 8–3, including wins over Columbia and Ivy League co-champion Princeton.
“We’re excited about the opportunity [to play] against Lehigh,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We want to play great teams in order to be a great team.”
Lehigh’s offense is centered around a pair of new starters: quarterback Nick Shafnisky and running back Brandon Yosha.
Following the graduation of all-Patriot League quarterback Brandon Bialkowski, Shafnisky won the offseason quarterback battle over senior Matt McHale. In his first start of the season, and just his second career start, Shafnisky was named Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 121 yards and throwing for 214 yards and two scores, but the Mountain Hawks still fell to James Madison University 31–28.
Yosha, meanwhile, is in his first year at Lehigh following his decision to transfer from the University of Miami, where he played in six games last season. Yosha leads the team with 178 yards and two rushing touchdowns this season.
Behind Yosha in the running back pecking order is senior back Rich Sodeke, who toted the rock 14 times in the opener against James Madison for 96 yards and a touchdown.
The Elis will attempt to counter the strong Lehigh running game with a defense heavily populated by underclassmen. According to Reno, there were times last year when eight of the 11 defensive players on the field were freshmen, and captain Deon Randall ’15 said that those players only improved in the offseason.
“Our biggest growth [since last year] comes from the defense,” Randall said.
That youth will continue over to this season. The Yale two-deep defensive depth chart includes eight sophomores and seven true freshmen, including two rookies listed as starters: defensive tackle Nick Crowle ’18 and outside linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18.
Lehigh’s ability to spread the ball around, with 10 players having caught at least one pass this year, will test the Bulldogs’ secondary. All-Ivy selections Foyesade Oluokun ’17 and Cole Champion ’16 anchor the Yale defensive backs, with Dale Harris ’17, Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 and Robert Ries ’17 also expected to get playing time.
On the other side of the football, the Yale attack will be buoyed by the return of a healthy running back Tyler Varga ’15. After receiving first-team all-Ivy accolades for his 2012 campaign, the Ontario native missed four games as well as the majority of the rivalry matchup with Harvard in 2013.
Both Varga and Reno said that Varga is running at 100 percent. Reno added that a pair of runners, Candler Rich ’17 and Kahlil Keys ’15, will see carries as well. Last season, the two combined for 796 yards on 147 carries for a gaudy 5.4 yards per carry, including Keys’ school record 94-yard touchdown run against Columbia.
“Establishing the run will definitely be a key to success on Saturday,” Varga said in an email. “Domination in the trenches is something we’ll need to see to get our ground game in rhythm. Our offense, however, is pretty multi-dimensional and success through the air will take pressure off the run as well.”
That aforementioned aerial assault will be led by new starting signal caller Morgan Roberts ’16. The Clemson transfer saw action in seven games last year, including one start against Penn in which he completed 20 of 34 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
But after a full offseason in the program, Roberts said he feels much more adjusted to Reno’s no-huddle offensive scheme than he did a year ago.
“Last year, I came in from a totally different offense at Clemson. I tried to hit the ground running, but the number of reps [that I received] and seeing live bullets in practice wasn’t really enough,” Roberts said. “I didn’t have a good chance to understand what was going on in the offense and what the coaching staff wanted from me.”
Reno compared Roberts’ role in the offense to that of Marcus Mariota, the quarterback for the high-flying Oregon Ducks, saying that when Oregon’s scheme is running effectively, Mariota simply has to get the ball to his receivers and running backs rather than making plays on his own.
And with the Bulldogs now in year three of Reno’s regime, the coach believes that the team is ready to embrace his fast-paced offense.
“You build your schemes around the players you have,” Reno said. “This year, [you will see] a lot more spread offense because of our personnel and understanding [of the plays].”
Saturday also marks the beginning of the Yale Bowl 100th Anniversary celebration, with all-era teams being released each week leading up to a reunion for the game against Princeton on Nov. 15.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is at 1:00 p.m.