Riding two consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks to open the 2015 campaign, the Yale football team looks to keep its record perfect against Lehigh, a Patriot League opponent who has played more Ivy League teams than the Bulldogs.
Despite their unblemished record, the Bulldogs (2–0, 1–0 Ivy) are not the same offensive juggernaut they were last year when they defeated Lehigh 54–43 in a season-opening shootout — although the 2014 Lehigh matchup played out in a similar fashion to the Bulldogs’ pair of wins this September. Last season, the Elis fell behind 21–0 before rallying in the second half, holding the Mountain Hawks (2–2, 0–0 Patriot) to just eight points in the final 30 minutes.
This season, the Bulldogs have come back from 14- and 19-point deficits, holding Colgate and Cornell to a combined seven points in the second half. However, with four consecutive road games beginning with Lehigh, Yale cannot continue to rely on late-game heroics.
“We’re having an issue with consistency right now,” head coach Tony Reno said. “That’s something we need to continue to address. It comes down to me, it comes down to mental focus on the play, mental focus on your job, and maintaining that mental focus through the drive or through the play.”
While the Yale offense is still averaging a well-above-average 422 yards per game, it features a less balanced attack than it did a year ago, when the tandem team of running back Tyler Varga ’15 and quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 lit up the Ivy League en route to leading the Football Championship Subdivision in total offense with 571.5 yards per game.
While Yale’s young receiving corps has racked up 664 yards already — as compared to 666 yards through two games last season — the running game has dropped off dramatically. After posting 642 yards on 101 carries through the first two games in 2014, the Elis’ ground game has produced 180 yards on 66 attempts.
Though the statistics tell a worrisome story about the rushing attack, the offense as a whole has struggled to get into rhythm at the beginning of each game. Miscommunications, penalties and mental mistakes have combined to hurt the Bulldogs in the first half of both games.
“From the start, we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” safety Hayden Carlson ’18 said. “It starts with penalties. As we transitioned in the second half, we were confident in our ability to get off the field and make plays, especially on third down … As the game progressed, we were smarter at every play.”
Carlson led the team in tackles against Cornell last week, one defensive standout among many. Following a consistently mediocre 2014 campaign, the more experienced defensive unit has stood up to the test in the early matchups.
Additionally, special teams have dominated, blocking a Division I-leading four kicks and keeping 10 points off the scoreboard in the process. Kicker Bryan Holmes ’17 was named Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week after his performance against Cornell, while the return game added 114 yards on three kickoff returns.
Meanwhile, Lehigh has been working its way through a significant chunk of the Ancient Eight, having played Penn and Princeton the past two weeks. The Mountain Hawks dealt the Quakers a 42–21 smackdown before receiving a dose of their own punishment at the hands of the Tigers, 52–26.
“It’s bizarre,” Roberts said. “It’s hard to look into a team’s past games and figure out how they’ll do against you. It’s all about matchups [in the Ivy League] … The bottom and top don’t separate by much.”
Like Yale, Lehigh is known for having aerial production among the best in the country. Currently, Roberts is fourth in the FCS in passing yards per game with 332. Lehigh’s Nick Shafnisky is not far behind, ranking twelfth with 281.
Shafnisky has the added benefit of playing alongside experienced weapons. Following a breakout year, wide receiver Troy Pelletier is wreaking havoc in his sophomore season. Through four games, the All-Patriot Second Team selection has 28 receptions for 300 yards and four touchdowns.
“They’ve got the most skill we’ve seen at receiver so far this season,” Reno said. “They’ve got a big receiver, Pelletier, who’s improved a ton. He’s gotten bigger and stronger. They’re going to spread the ball to their perimeter and get them out as well as get downfield.”
The Mountain Hawks’ defense poses a threat, too. Like fellow Patriot League team Colgate, Lehigh plays an odd stack defense, a scheme that features three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
This formation increases versatility and the additional defensive back provides more speed on the field. Furthermore, it allows Lehigh to employ creative attacks featuring surprising dropbacks and corner blitzes. Reno said the Mountain Hawks are talented up front and can apply pressure packages similar to Colgate, who had early success in disrupting the Bulldogs’ no-huddle offense.
“We’re going to work hard and prepare for a good Lehigh team,” Roberts said. “They’re solid defensively … We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
One thing the Bulldogs cannot do is predict the weather. With a 60 percent chance of rain on Saturday, the matchup might take place under damp conditions. Reno said the team was going to prepare for inclement weather by running drills with wet footballs.
Rain or shine, kickoff from Bethlehem, Penn. is set for 12:30 p.m. The game will be available for streaming on the Patriot League Digital Network.