This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print in the October 5, 2015 edition of the News.
In their most complete performance of the season, and the first game of 2015 that did not require a fourth-quarter comeback, the Yale football team defeated Lehigh 27–12 on Saturday, marking the third-consecutive year in which the Elis begin 3–0.
The win was due in no small part to the impressive showing by running back Deshawn Salter ’18, who ran for 233 yards in his first career start.
“I thought we started fast on both sides of the ball, and we finished strong on both sides of the ball,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Was it perfect? No. Is there lots of room for improvement? Yes, but I’m definitely happy with the effort and us taking a step forward at our level of execution.”
Yale (3–0, 1–0 Ivy) did indeed start fast, scoring on its first two drives and jumping out to a 10–0 lead — the biggest lead the Elis have held in their last eight quarters of play. The defense initially stifled Lehigh (2–3, 0–0 Patriot), holding the Mountain Hawks to 99 total yards in the first half, but the offense did not do itself any favors by committing back-to-back turnovers on the two possessions following those scores. Kicker Bryan Holmes ’17 added another three points before halftime, and the Bulldogs entered the locker room with a 13-point lead.
After halftime, Lehigh had slightly more success moving the football and was able to put a touchdown, field goal and rare defensive two-point conversion on the board despite strong defensive plays on both sides forcing opposing offenses to punt more frequently. But two touchdowns by the Eli offense midway through the second half were enough to put the game out of reach.
The Bulldogs played the entire game without several Week 1 starters, as running back Candler Rich ’17 and wide receivers Bo Hines ’18 and Robert Clemons III ’17 were sidelined with injuries. Additionally, defensive back Foye Oluokun ’17, who played in a soft cast, left the field with an apparent injury early in the first quarter and did not re-enter the game.
Despite the absence of these key players, the Yale offense put up 529 yards — a new season-best. A rotating cast of underclassmen, most notably Salter and wide receiver Ross Drwal ’18 — who led the team in receptions on Saturday — stepped up, a positive indicator of the team’s depth.
“I feel comfortable putting anyone in, in any situation,” Reno said. “We’ve got a great group of guys that work real hard positionally, whether it’s on the offensive side or defensive side or special teams. If one guy can’t play because of injury, the next guy comes in. Our expectation is that we won’t miss a beat.”
Roberts had another impressive game statistically, completing 25 of 41 passes and adding 251 yards to his conference-leading 305.0 yards per game average.
There were a handful of mistakes that marred the game. Yale committed three turnovers, including two costly fumbles inside the red zone, and another 11 penalties. Roberts threw an interception late in the first quarter: a tipped pass that landed in the lap of Lehigh defensive back Quentin Jones. Salter and wide receiver Kyle Marcinick were both stripped of the football on potential scoring plays.
With a total of 31 penalties for 269 yards, the Bulldogs are currently the most penalized team by far in the Ivy League. Dartmouth, which has drawn the next most yellow flags, has just 23 penalties.
“I think we need to examine the film like we did last week and see what the penalties were,” Reno said. “There are correctable things that I’m sure we’ll find from the film. We’ll work tirelessly to correct penalties and be able to be a team that doesn’t hurt itself [with penalties].”
Though Yale’s physical defense ended up drawing flags, that physicality is also what allowed the Bulldogs to dominate Lehigh, particularly at the line of scrimmage.
The Elis defense combined solid secondary play and an unrelenting rush from the front seven to hold Lehigh’s offense to a 33 percent third-down conversion rate. The Mountain Hawks went one of four on fourth-down attempts.
Additionally, the defense sacked Lehigh quarterback Nick Shafnisky four times. Linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 picked up two of them in the first half alone, the first of which was a thunderous hit on Shafnisky’s blind side for a loss of eight yards.
“It was just blitzing off the edge,” Oplinger said. “I don’t know what happened with their protection, the [blocker] obviously slid away or something. I had a clear shot.”
Oplinger, last year’s recipient of the Charles Loftus Award for the most valuable Eli freshman, has been putting together an excellent season. The outside linebacker’s 18 unassisted tackles, two sacks and three tackles for losses put him in the top 10 in the Ivy League in every category.
On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs’ offensive line moved the Lehigh defense at will, protecting Roberts and creating large gaps for Salter. Lehigh coach Andy Coen said after the game that he was surprised by the potency of Yale’s rushing attack, which was not apparent on film after just 180 rushing yards in the prior two games combined.
“You’re seeing the growth of our offensive line,” Reno said. “We had a couple guys out with mono who missed whole camp. We’ve had some injury issues … It takes time to get together and mold together, but I thought they did a nice job with pass protection. Today, they really put together the run game.”
The Bulldogs ended the day with 278 yards on the ground. Salter, who rushed 29 times, tallied an 8.0 yards per carry average, which is more than double the efficiency of any other Yale running back this season.
Most notably, Salter was two yards off the school record for most yards by a sophomore running back. Robert Carr ’05 set the record with 235 yards against Cornell in 2002. Salter’s massive day rocketed him to second place in the Ivy League with 94.7 yards per game despite just one start.
“It was a total team effort,” Salter said. “There was a push from the line up front. We worked on a few things, ironed a few things out that we could’ve done better than the previous two games, and it paid dividends.”
Yale travels to Hanover, New Hampshire, next week to face Dartmouth, the toughest challenge of its season thus far. In both 2013 and 2014, Yale began its season 3–0 before falling to Dartmouth in the fourth game of the season. The Big Green will also enter the upcoming matchup undefeated.