The 2014 Yale football campaign was not supposed to be a special one.
There was the highly anticipated return of the Yale-Army rivalry, and the 100th season of the Yale Bowl was sure to provide ample opportunities to recognize the Bulldogs of the past. But after a 5–5 mark the year prior, the 2014 season appeared destined to honor the past rather than revel in the present.
Despite tempered expectations — illuminated by a fifth-place prediction in the preseason Ivy League media poll — “Team 142” loudly proved the doubters wrong with an 8–2 record, the Elis’ best since 2007. Still, two major goals, defeating Harvard and securing an Ivy League title, remained elusive.
With head coach Tony Reno’s squad having improved each of his first three seasons with the team, including coming 32 yards short of an electrifying victory in Cambridge for the Ivy League championship with ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance, one question remains: Where do the Bulldogs go from here? And perhaps more importantly, how does Yale avoid a letdown after such an emotionally charged season of incredible highs and a final, devastating low?
“We expect to be good this year, we expect to win games,” second-team All-Ivy quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 said. “One thing we can learn from last year is you don’t need to focus on winning, but [instead] just focus on winning each play individually, and then those plays end up stacking up.”
In a season where just about everything went right, from leading the Football Championship Subdivision in total offense to relying on a standout tailback in Tyler Varga ’15, who has since moved on to receive handoffs in the National Football League, question marks abound with the season-opening kickoff less than a week away.
“We do not think about last year because it’s a new year,” wide receiver Robert Clemons ’17 said. “We are different, our opponents are different and everything has changed [from last year], so we are focused on our process … so we can have the best success possible as a team.”
A fourth consecutive improvement in the win-loss column could very likely deliver an Ancient Eight title back to New Haven for the first time since 2006. But to deliver a 9–1 record would mean avenging at least one of the team’s losses from a year ago, Dartmouth and Harvard. In addition, the Bulldogs must avoid slipping up against the other eight squads on the schedule in order to produce a championship.
One year removed from Yale’s middling fifth-place predicted finish, the Elis certainly have higher expectations placed on their shoulders following their impressive 2014 campaign. One Ivy media voter picked Yale to win the conference, and the group as a whole tabbed it to finish third behind the defending champion Crimson and the Big Green.
“We don’t pay any attention to preseason rankings,” captain and defensive back Cole Champion ’16 said. “Our mindset is to play as hard as we can and execute one day at a time — regardless of who we play on Saturday.”
While Varga’s departure is most notable, 19 other seniors have graduated, including former captain Deon Randall ’15 and fellow wide receiver Grant Wallace ’15. Between those three departed skill players, 37 touchdowns will need to be replaced by Reno’s offense.
Luckily, Roberts will have a replenished arsenal of talent surrounding him, such as Clemons, running back Candler Rich ’17 and prized transfer Bo Hines ’18, a wide receiver who suited up for North Carolina State a season ago.
While the question on offense is whether or not an altered cast of characters can replicate last year’s high-powered offense, the question on the other side of the ball is whether a relatively unchanged unit can make the jump from what Reno referred to as an “average defense” in the Ivy League to one that is “good or great.”
In 2014, Reno’s defense allowed the fifth-most points in the conference, conceded the fourth-most yards per game and ranked near the middle of the Ivy League in numerous other defensive metrics.
“Can we become a defense where people say that playing Yale, you’re going to have a long day on the field against our defense?” Reno said. “Just like on offense, the proof will be in the playing and how good we are on the field.”
Despite the increased outside hype surrounding the Bulldogs, the fact remains that multiple positions of importance are being inherited by relative unknowns — something Yale’s players are well aware of.
“Both the offense and defense are competing harder than I’ve ever seen in practice, but both units still have a way to go to get to where we want to be,” Champion said.