The Yale football team started its season off in exciting fashion today, erasing a 14-point deficit late in its game against Colgate en route to a 29–28 victory in Hamilton, N.Y. The win, though not pretty, included a fourth quarter comeback that was led by Yale’s young receiving corps.
The Bulldogs entered the second half down 21–7 after multiple turnovers and an anemic offensive performance, but Yale’s passing attack meshed late in the game for three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes of play. A gutsy two-point conversion call from head coach Tony Reno in the fourth quarter turned out to decide the game, as a rush from outside linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18 gave Yale the point it needed to separate from Colgate.
“We made every mistake you could possibly make in a football game in the first half,” Reno said. “I said to the staff at halftime, ‘I don’t think we could’ve made another mistake in a different area of the game, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams.’ I think the most important thing is how the team dealt with it. We talk at all times about expect[ing] excellence, [embracing] adversity, and they did.”
Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 completed 29 of 41 attempts for 293 yards in the game, also registering three touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver Michael Siragusa ’18, who did not start last season but has been praised for his preseason work, led the receivers with seven receptions, 82 yards and two touchdowns.
One of those wound up being the game-winning score with just over three minutes left in the game. After a key stop by the defense and receptions from multiple receivers, Siragusa caught a 13-yard pass, running through two defenders on his way to the end zone, to tie the game at 28. A booming extra point from Holmes gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game, 29–28, and the eventual win.
“I just caught the ball and [the Colgate defender] hit me low,” Siragusa said. “During practice, we do a ball security where we run and every five yards put a hand down. I think that helped. Practice like you play.”
Yale’s offense got going right from the start of its first game, as Roberts began his senior season with a 14-play, 71-yard drive that included a fourth-and-one conversion, three receptions for 36 yards by wide receiver Bo Hines ’18 and just two plays that did not gain positive yardage. Running back Candler Rich ’17 punched the ball in through a wide lane provided by his offensive line.
The Raiders conducted their first drive in similar fashion, converting on many third downs with success both on the ground and through the air. Though the Elis’ goal line defense forced a fourth down near the end zone, running back John Wilkins took a direct snap to the house to tie the score at seven midway through the first quarter.
The offensive momentum for both teams then came to an abrupt halt as the opening quarter came to an end. Roberts’ second incomplete pass was an interception that was intended for wide receiver Ross Drwal ’18 along the side of the field but picked off by defensive back Ty McCollum at the 21-yard line.
The Eli defense quickly got the ball back in Roberts’ hands by forcing a three-and-out, and despite Colgate’s favorable field position to start the drive, Yale got out safely thanks to a blocked kick by safety Foye Oluokun ’17 — his first of two blocked kicks on the day.
A three-and-out for each team followed, and a serious blow to the Yale offense occurred on the next drive when Hines injured his shoulder. Aided by a 29-yard pass from Roberts over Hines’ outside shoulder, the Bulldogs managed to get to the Colgate 31-yard line on their fourth drive, but chances of taking another lead vanished when kicker Brian Holmes missed a long 48-yard field goal in the second quarter.
“We’re being much more conservative with Bo at this point in time, so that was the biggest thing with him,” Reno said. “We definitely expect him back.”
The Raiders finally put a second score on the board midway through the period, as a Yale punt from deep in the end zone and an illegal formation allowed Colgate to start a drive from the Eli 31-yard line and quickly get in the end zone. After a first down on two plays, Melville took a bootleg 20 yards for a 14–7 lead.
The half would end 21–7 in Colgate’s favor, but not through the work of Melville, Russell or any of Colgate’s offensive players. Raider linebacker Pat Afriyie put a heavy hit on Roberts from his blind side, forcing a fumble and allowing fellow linebacker Cameron Buttermore to return it 55 yards for another Colgate score.
Both defenses held tight through the middle of the quarter, despite a 14-play, 53-yard drive from Colgate that ended in Oluokun’s outstretched hands blocking another field goal by kicker Jonah Bowman.
Roberts took that momentum and ran with it, leading a brief 52-yard touchdown drive that was aided by two 15-yard penalties against Colgate. Slot receiver Myles Gaines ’17 caught two passes in the absence of Hines and drew an interference call on a third, setting up a four-yard connection between Roberts and wide receiver Siragusa in the back of the end zone.
Yale nearly produced a stop on the ensuing drive that would have allowed for a potential game-tying drive, as a pair of penalties at midfield forced a third-and-17 for Colgate at the Yale 44-yard line. But Melville found wide receiver Alex Greenawalt just over the shoulder of cornerback Dale Harris ’17 to earn a first down, and a touchdown rush by running back James Holland, who split time with Wilkins during the second half, followed soon after.
Down 28–14 with 10 minutes to play, Yale marched down the field for another score with production almost entirely from its passing attack. Completions to Siragusa, Gaines and tight end Sebastian Little ’16 set up a fourth pass catcher, Clemons, for a 30-yard score on a corner route to the right sideline.
Though a single point could have brought Yale within seven points of Colgate’s tally, Reno made the bold decision of going for two points after the touchdown, instead giving the Bulldogs an easy chance to win if they could score another touchdown. Oplinger took a direct snap from two yards out and took the ball right through the line to bring the score to 28–22.
“We tried that formation in the first half, that was something we put together,” Reno said. “We like that formation a lot, and we wanted to see how [Colgate] lined up to it again. Sometimes they don’t line up the same way twice, and they didn’t, so we just took advantage of it.”
With a stop absolutely critical for Yale’s chances of winning, the Eli defense tightened up when it mattered most. The Bulldogs allowed just one first down on the ensuing drive, allowing Roberts over five minutes to march the 61 yards necessary to take the lead.
“That was just [the defense] getting into rhythm,” Reno said. “I think in the first half we just didn’t’ tackle well at all. We had so many guys falling off tackles, [not] finishing tackles, [not] wrapping up their arms, [not] running through at the contact point. [In the] second half we did a better job.”
Once back on the field, Roberts worked quickly. Four consecutive plays for positive yardage took Yale to the Colgate 36-yard line, and a holding call placed the Elis at the 23. Two plays later, Siragusa ultimately scored the game-winner with just 3:39 left on the clock.
The Elis then needed just one last push from their defense to seal the victory. Though the Raiders had 54 yards to go from their own 46-yard line, Yale allowed them just three, with a pass breakup from cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski 17 on third-and-seven being the ultimate key in the drive. A few running plays from Yale were all that was necessary to run out the clock and finish the game.
Yale plays Cornell, its first Ivy League opponent, next Saturday at 1 p.m. in the Yale Bowl.