Despite a sloppy first-half performance, the Yale football team proved its mettle by overcoming a 14-point deficit and defeating Colgate 29–28 in a thrilling season-opening win in Hamilton, New York on Saturday.
The win, though not pretty and marred by costly turnovers and penalties, clarified several questions about the Bulldogs (1–0, 0–0 Ivy), who lost several key players to graduation last year. Though the Bulldogs were unable to match last year’s Football Championship Subdivision-leading offensive production, they put up a respectable 365 total yards. On defense, the Elis stiffened in the fourth quarter and shut the Raiders (0–3, 0–0 Patriot) out to enable the comeback.
“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,’” head coach Tony Reno said. “I think the most important thing is how the team dealt with it. We talk at all times about expect[ing] excellence, embrac[ing] adversity, and they did.”
The Elis rattled off 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to eke out a win over their Patriot League foes. After scoring a touchdown on its opening drive, Yale did not retake the lead until the 3:39 mark of the fourth quarter thanks to a bulldozing catch-and-run by receiver Michael Siragusa ’18.
Siragusa ended the day as Yale’s top receiver, catching seven balls for 82 yards and two touchdowns. Just behind him on the stat sheet were fellow wideouts Robert Clemons III ’17 and Bo Hines ’18 with six catches each, for 69 and 68 yards, respectively. Hines, who left the field during the first half with an icepack on his right shoulder, was replaced in the slot by Myles Gaines ’17.
“Once Bo went down, I wasn’t worried at all … I knew someone would step in and make plays,” Siragusa said. “On offense, we rotate in practice and we rotate in games. We’re all on the same page and we’re all fluid.”
After the game, Reno said he expects Hines, a transfer from North Carolina State, to play again this year and the team was just being conservative. However, Reno did not specify a timetable for his return.
But Hines’ absence was hardly felt after halftime, a sign of Yale’s depth at the wide receiver position. In 2014, two senior receivers — all-Ivy performers Grant Wallace ’15 and Deon Randall ’15 — accounted for 62.1 percent of Yale’s catches. On Saturday, quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 adjusted by spreading the wealth, finding seven different receivers on Saturday and completing 29 of 41 attempts for 293 yards and three touchdowns.
While the major surprise of the game was the emergence of the young wide receivers, Yale’s experienced defense also showed off its strength. Colgate finished the day 7–17 on third-down conversions and only three-for-five in red zone conversion opportunities. The secondary also prevented dual-threat quarterback Jake Melville from succeeding in the downfield passing game, as he finished with just 6.7 passing yards per attempt.
However, the defense did not force a turnover against Colgate while the offense committed two. Roberts threw an interception and fumbled a ball that was returned 55 yards for a touchdown. Both turnovers occurred in the first half, which also saw Yale penalized seven times for 41 yards.
Yale flexed its offensive power on its first possession of the day, driving 70 yards before handing the ball off to running back Candler Rich ’17, who barreled into the end zone from a yard out. The Bulldogs initially moved the ball at will, thanks in part to an offensive line that allowed time for Roberts and created lanes for Rich.
Though Rich made several key third-down conversions, Yale’s running game was noticeably weaker than it was last year. In the absence of Tyler Varga ’15, who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL, Rich and fellow running back Deshawn Salter ’18 earned 95 yards on 28 carries. Rich, who got the bulk of the snaps, averaged 3.5 yards a carry.
The Raiders responded to Yale’s strong opening with three straight touchdowns. On the backs of the speedy Melville and bruising running back John Wilkins, Colgate ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The Bulldogs were unable to tackle the quick Melville behind the line, and although members of the defensive line often got their hands on Wilkins, they were unable to bring him down at first contact.
“We knew going into halftime that we weren’t playing well,” defensive back and kick returner Jason Alessi ’18 said. “They were playing pretty good but we were hurting ourselves. They didn’t earn anything in that first half. We just dug deep that second half, kept battling, and came out tough.”
Yale came out after the intermission looking more like the team that started the game rather than the one that allowed 21 unanswered points. Though Colgate started the second half with the ball, it was unable to convert a 14-play, 53-yard drive into points after its drive ended with a field goal attempt bouncing off the outstretched hand of safety Foye Oluokun ’17. It was Oluokun’s second blocked field goal of the day.
The blocked field goal gave Yale the momentum it needed to drive 62 yards and score the team’s first touchdown in the second half. Thanks in part to back-to-back 15-yard penalties called on Colgate, Roberts was able to find Siragusa in the back of the end zone from four yards out.
The Raiders, who began alternating carries between Wilkins and James Holland, came right back with seven of their own points on a long 14-play drive that ate up 7:43 of the clock.
At this point, down 28–14 with 10 minutes to play, Yale unveiled an aerial attack that answered any remaining questions about the young receiving corps’ abilities. Three players — tight end Sebastian Little ’16, Siragusa and Gaines — caught passes on the drive before Roberts lofted a 30-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to a fourth target, Clemons.
Now behind by eight points, Reno made the unorthodox decision to go for a two-point conversion rather than kick an extra point. The team lined up in an unusual formation, and after the Colgate defense appeared unprepared, linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 took the direct snap and carried the ball into the end zone.
“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 they 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.”
On the ensuing Colgate possession, Yale tightened its defense. The Raiders moved the ball only four yards before the Eli offense retook the field with five-and-a-half minutes left and a six-point deficit.
Yet Roberts and company needed only 1:54. Aided by a holding call against the Raiders, Yale quickly moved the ball into the red zone before Roberts found Siragusa on a quick slant. Siragusa ran through two Raiders, dragging one of them into the end zone with him.
“I just caught the ball and [the Colgate defender] hit me low,” Siragusa said. “During practice, we do a ball security [drill] where we run and every five yards put a hand down. I think that helped.”
The defense sealed the win by holding Colgate to five yards on its final possession. The defensive line continued to stuff the run, and the Raiders’ hope at a comeback ended when cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17, back after sustaining a spinal concussion in a game against Penn last season, batted down a pass on a key third-and-seven in Colgate’s final drive.
“I knew we needed to get a big stop and there was no way he was going to be allowed to catch that ball, so I read it and made a play,” Rymiszewski said.
The Bulldogs face their next test on Saturday when they welcome Cornell to the Yale Bowl for Yale’s first home game of the season. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.