On Saturday, the Yale football team travels north — farther north than it ever has — to battle Maine for the first time in 78 years.
Though the Black Bears have a sub-0.500 record, they still pose a legitimate challenge to the reeling Bulldogs (3–1, 1–1 Ivy), who are seeking to recover from their first loss of the season — a 35–3 thrashing at the hands of conference rival Dartmouth.
“I said to the guys this morning, if you thought you were going to go through this season without some kind of setback, the numbers aren’t with you guys,” head coach Tony Reno said. “The odds aren’t there. You have to be able to recover from things.”
Recovery might be difficult: Maine (2–3, 2–1 Colonial Athletic Association) matches up against a Yale squad that has suffered at least one injury in every major position group.
Against Dartmouth, the defense played without defensive end Nick Crowle ’18 and defensive back Foye Oluokun ’17, who said he is out for the season following two surgeries to repair an upper-body muscle tear. The wide receiving corps has been decimated, with three of the top four wideouts on the Week One depth chart — Robert Clemons III ’17, Bo Hines ’18 and Myles Gaines ’17 — inactive last week. Running back Candler Rich ’17 and offensive lineman Jon Bezney ’18 rounded out the group of starters that missed the game.
Hines, who has not played since the first half of the season opener, said he does not expect to play this weekend but hopes to return next week against Penn. Timelines for the remaining injured players have yet to be announced.
“As a coaching staff, we firmly believe the team is 100-strong,” Reno said. “What you do as a staff is build quality depth. The best way to handle injuries is to build up the team and be able to provide answers in the depth chart or in moving people’s positions.”
Another element of the Elis’ rebounding process, Reno explained, is affording attention to the problem but spending more time working on the solution. Citing Yale’s inability to put points on the board, Reno said the team will not fixate on the loss and instead use it as a teachable moment.
Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 said that the team refuses to let the outcome of a single game define the season.
“We didn’t do the little things right,” Roberts said. “We’re smoothing things out and we’ve closed the book on Dartmouth. We’re excited to play Maine and hopefully play a better game this weekend.”
Although Maine, like Yale, is a Division I Football Championship Subdivision program, the Black Bears are a full-scholarship school that can offer money to their players. Both Roberts and Reno said they were excited to go head-to-head with a high-level state school such as Maine.
There are close ties between the Yale and Maine football programs, as four members of Yale’s coaching staff either played at or coached for Maine. Current defensive line coach Jordan Stevens and director of football operations Chris Gennaro played for the Black Bears. Stevens captained the 2009 squad before returning to Orono to coach for two seasons. Defensive coordinator Steve Vashel and quarterbacks coach Kevin Cahill also coached there before moving to New Haven.
“They’re a very experienced football team,” Reno said. “They’ll be one of the top, if not the best team, we play. There’s a lot of speed, especially on the perimeter in the defensive backs and receiver positions.”
The Black Bears tend to get off to hot starts: 51 of their 93 points have come in the first quarter.
Additionally, the team can roll out an experienced quarterback in Dan Collins. In a 39–7 rout of Albany, the Black Bears racked up a season-best 469 yards of offense, well above the team’s season average of 334.4 yards per game.
But returning from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss five games last season, Collins has posted mediocre numbers through five games this year. The Maine signal caller has thrown for 788 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions, although he has been able to elude the rush. The dual-threat quarterback has only been sacked seven times this season.
Last week, the Bulldogs were fairly successful in applying pressure and forcing Dartmouth’s mobile quarterback out of the pocket. The team brought down Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year candidate Dalyn Williams three times, with linebacker Victor Egu ’17 tallying 1.5 of those sacks.
Egu and fellow linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 both shifted positions during the offseason, as Reno moved Egu back from the defensive line and Oplinger from the inside to the outside.
“We switched [Egu] from [defensive] end to linebacker during games last year, which is really hard to do … so in the offseason we made the decision to move him to linebacker exclusively, and he’s grown immensely from spring to now,” Reno said. “He had some points in times in games where he really takes over, like he did on Saturday. He’s got a high ceiling.”
Yale’s special teams unit has also performed well this season. Jamal Locke ’18 is currently leading the Ivy League with a 29.7 kickoff-return average and kicker Bryan Holmes ’17 is averaging 40 yards per punt, including six punts placed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Holmes said he is looking forward to the test that the Black Bears can provide the Elis in the latter’s break from conference action.
“In order to be good, we have to play good teams,” Holmes said. “That’s something that Maine is going to give to us, a good game that will challenge us.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. The game is available for streaming on Fox College Sports.