With 6:51 remaining in the first quarter, it seemed like déjà vu all over again for the Yale football team.
In the Bulldogs’ last game of the 2013 season against eventual Ivy League co-champion Harvard, the Elis fell behind by three touchdowns just 50 seconds into the second quarter en route to a 34–7 loss. Facing that same 21–0 deficit in this year’s season opener, many fans celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Yale Bowl were presumably down in the dumps.
But the Blue and White came back to win 54–43 on the strength of 683 total yards of offense, the most any Yale team has put up in over 10 years. Starting quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 finished 30–39, passing for 356 yards and three touchdowns against just one interception, and a pair of running backs — Tyler Varga ’15 and Candler Rich ’17 — put up 100-plus yard rushing games.
It took perfect execution of three tenets of head coach Tony Reno’s spread offense to thoroughly dismantle the Mountain Hawks’ defense.
One way to ease a new starting quarterback’s transition into the college game is by calling quick pass plays. If a signal caller can focus on just one or two receivers as potential targets, he can avoid having to read the defense and find his best option, something that even experienced quarterbacks can have trouble with.
In Saturday’s game, Roberts would often take a short three-step dropback from the shotgun formation before firing a pass towards the sideline. His receiver would run a short out route and be open for a quick gain of seven to 10 yards.
Another quick passing option came via bubble screens. When in the shotgun, Roberts would sometimes take the snap, fake a handoff to the running back in the backfield and throw a quick pass to do-everything dynamo and captain Deon Randall ’15. Randall would be lined up in the slot, with another receiver next to him lined up and ready to block for Randall, who would then use his speed to try and make something happen.
After establishing quick throws, the Bulldogs then added a twist. Instead of throwing the screen, Roberts would fake the screen to a receiver and throw downfield along the sideline. One such throw to tight end Stephen Buric ’16 gained 19 yards and set up a Randall touchdown on the next play.
These passes — staples of the spread offense, which is named because it is designed to spread the defense and then use speed to gain yards — sound great on paper, but they require accuracy to deliver the ball where the receiver is going to be without sacrificing speed. Roberts did an excellent job of that and allowed the offense to move quickly without missing a beat.
Running the option
The option play has long been part of the college game due to its difficulty to defend. Traditionally, the option involves the quarterback taking the snap under center, choosing whether or not to hand off to the fullback, and then running to the side, with the option to pitch to his running back.
But in the spread offense, the quarterback takes the snap from the shotgun and reads the defensive end to decide if he should handoff to a running back or not. The Bulldogs also run the option from the pistol, where the quarterback is in the shotgun and the running back is lined up a few yards directly behind the quarterback, which helps Yale disguise the handoff for a bit longer and give the tailback more of a running start if he gets the ball.
Roberts has also shown the ability to run and make the defense pay for crashing down on the running back on the option. He finished with seven carries for 29 yards on Saturday, a modest total, but enough to keep running lanes open for Varga and Rich.
By either running an option play or faking a handoff on most plays, the Elis can disguise the option and keep the defense guessing, setting up pass plays. On one such instance in the second quarter, Roberts pulled back a handoff to running back Kahlil Keys ’15 and found Randall over the middle on a go route for a 68-yard touchdown strike.
On the previous Yale drive, however, Rich scored from 51 yards on a read option play by streaking down the left sideline. He only made it to the house, however, because wideout Grant Wallace ’15 ran upfield 10 yards as if he were running a route before beginning to block. The cornerback was unable to get around Wallace’s seal block, largely because he had to defend the pass as well.
Using different receivers
Roberts also did a good job using each of his receivers in their various roles. Randall, the playmaker who led the team in receptions and receiving yards last season, would generally get the ball in space, often on bubble screens. He also scored on a 20-yard endaround that, though officially scored as a running play, involved a forward toss from Roberts and thus might be changed to count as a pass in the official scoring, according to Associate Athletics Director Sports Publicity Steve Conn.
Wallace, meanwhile, served as a possession receiver, often catching passes along the sideline or with a tackler bearing down on him. As a result, he finished with few yards after the catch, but by serving in this role, he helped the offense stay on track and keep its entire playbook open.
Randall closed with 13 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown, while Wallace had seven grabs for 67 yards, though he had a 49-yard touchdown reception called back on a dubious offensive pass interference call. Beyond those two, five other players caught passes, including Buric, who caught a 26-yard touchdown, and receiver Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18, who drew a pass interference call to keep the Yale offense moving down the field in the third quarter.