A week before what is shaping up to be the closest rendition of The Game in recent years, the Yale football team has one more stop to make — one that is just as important, in Ivy League terms.
The Bulldogs (7–1, 4–1 Ivy) will play their final home contest of the season tomorrow against Princeton (5–3, 4–1 Ivy), a team that shared the Ivy League title with Harvard last year but has seen a slight drop in dominance in 2014.
A win over the Tigers, who sit alongside Yale and Dartmouth as the second-ranked team in the Ancient Eight standings, would position the Elis well heading into The Game. A win this weekend, along with one next week in Cambridge, would give the Bulldogs a share of the Ivy championship. As of now, the undefeated Crimson leads in the standings.
But players and coaches on the team all agreed that their concerns do not extend past tomorrow’s game.
“[Harvard-Yale] is the game that everyone wants to talk about,” linebacker Will Vaughan ’15 said. “When you walk around campus, someone asks you about Harvard. It’s understandable, but at the same time, I’m not worried about Harvard right now. I’m worried about Princeton.”
Well before the Bulldogs’ first game of 2014, Princeton narrowly edged out Harvard as the top-ranked squad in the Ivy League preseason media poll. Considering the Tigers’ 8–2 overall and 6–1 Ivy record in 2013, as well as the return of Ivy League Player of the Year quarterback Quinn Epperly, that seemed to be a reasonable estimate.
But after Epperly suffered a turf toe injury early on in the season, Princeton’s passing production has dropped significantly — both when Epperly returned to the lineup and in the two games when Connor Michelsen started over the 2013 star.
And three weeks ago, Harvard definitively proved that Ivy League media members had their predictions wrong. The Crimson utterly dominated Princeton 49–7, a year after the Tigers squeaked out a 51–48 victory over their co-Ivy champion. Epperly and Michelsen combined for just 190 passing yards in this year’s edition, while Harvard’s Conner Hempel returned from an injury to throw for 382 yards and three touchdowns.
The 2014 graduation of Epperly’s top target, wide receiver Roman Wilson, has had a negative impact on Princeton’s passing game. Receivers Connor Kelley and Matt Costello have since picked up the top duties, with 125.6 receiving yards per game and eight total touchdowns between the two this season.
In a year, the Tigers’ total offensive yards average has dropped from 511.6 to 429.2, their passing yards average has dropped from 289.9 to 268.2 and their points per game have fallen from 43.7 to 30.9.
Epperly, meanwhile, passed for over 200 yards in all eight Ivy games last season but has not been able to do so against a single Ivy opponent this year, despite Princeton wins over Columbia, Brown, Cornell and Penn.
But Epperly, a rushing threat, has still managed to tally nine touchdowns on the ground, and Princeton’s average point total remains third in the Ivy League. Yale, meanwhile, has sat at the top of the list all season, now averaging 42.9 points.
Defensively, the Tigers enter the game with a slight advantage over the Elis. They have allowed 25.2 points per game compared to Yale’s figure of 29.8, which increased following Yale’s 45–42 win at Brown last week.
Brown entered that game as the best defense, on paper, that Yale had faced all season. But the Elis were still able to plow through the Bears, as running back Tyler Varga ’15 rushed for 204 yards and two scores, while quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 threw a pair of touchdowns himself.
Princeton, however, currently lays claim to the second best rushing defense in the Ancient Eight with just 87.9 rushing yards allowed per game. Last week, the Tigers held Penn to just six rushing yards en route to their 22–17 victory.
Yale may either test Varga against a young but strong defensive line or transition to the pass in order to exploit a defense that has averaged 333.5 passing yards allowed, worst in the conference.
Both strategies appear to be good options, considering the number of offensive statistics in which the Elis are leading: Roberts is top in the league with 315.0 passing yards per game and 19 touchdowns, and Varga leads with a 144.9 yard rushing average and 18 scores, while wide receivers Grant Wallace ’15 and captain Deon Randall ’15 are the top two pass catchers in the league with 107.9 and 97.1 receiving yards per game, respectively.
Head coach Tony Reno said that Yale is using Harvard’s blowout victory, as well as every game the Tigers have played since they beat the Elis 59–23 last season, to develop its game plan for tomorrow’s contest.
“Harvard hit them on some big plays, and then it started the dominos rolling,” Reno said. “By the time anyone looked up, it was 35–0.”
Princeton’s other two losses were much closer. The Tigers began the season with a 39–29 loss to San Diego and fell 31–30 three weeks later to Colgate, when Epperly threw for 217 yards and two interceptions. The only passing touchdown in that game came from Michelsen.
Though Yale’s 45–31 win over Colgate could then theoretically mark the Elis as the favorite heading into tomorrow’s contest, Roberts said while talking about Army’s recent victory against Connecticut that the transitive property is not a useful predictor of success.
“You could probably make up some crazy scenario that we beat Alabama by the transitive property,” Roberts said. “The transitive property in football is just not a true thing at all.”
The Yale-Princeton matchup will also have significance as the final game in the Yale Bowl during its 100th anniversary and 20 seniors’ Yale careers.
Of 67 alumni selected to the historical all-Yale football team this year, 44 will be coming back to be honored at the game. These players were selected through deliberations and a voting process.
Vaughan, who missed four games at the beginning of this season with an injury but has since returned, said his last home game as a Yale player will certainly be meaningful.
“It’s been a long run,” Vaughan said. “After four years playing football here, it’s like I’ve seen it all, done it all … It’s definitely going to be a very proud moment for me and my parents out there on the field, ending my Yale home career hopefully with a win.”
Yale will kick off against Princeton at 12:30 p.m. in the Yale Bowl.