The Yale football team concludes its four-game road trip tonight in Philadelphia, taking on Penn in the program’s first Friday night Ivy League game.
The Bulldogs (4–1, 1–1 Ivy) have been inconsistent lately. One week after a humiliating 32-point defeat at the hands of Dartmouth, the team traveled up to Maine, where it stifled the Black Bears. With five weeks of conference play remaining and a league loss already on their record, the Elis have a small margin of error.
“I think it goes back to that word I [have] used — strain,” head coach Tony Reno said of his team’s effort last week. “They strained all game. If you watch the first couple series, we had guys making big hits, guys getting off blocks and guys finishing tackles … not allowing themselves to be blocked, not allowing receivers to have open space. We contested more passes than we contested any game this season. We’re playing up to our potential.”
That effort will be necessary to halt a Penn (2–3, 1–1) attack that features the most accurate passer in the Ivy League. Quaker quarterback Alek Torgersen has completed 68.0 percent of his passes, a significant step up from the 55.2 percent clip of Yale quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, who currently sits at the bottom of the leaderboard.
Noting that Penn has scored more than 80 points in the last two weeks, Reno said Torgersen has been “ripping it up” this season — which is true. In his four starts, Torgersen has notched seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. Torgersen’s lone missed game since the 2013 season was Penn’s loss to Fordham in Week 4, which he sat out due to a head injury sustained the previous week.
Roberts, meanwhile, has thrown no touchdowns and four interceptions in the last two weeks. The weakened passing attack has largely been the result of injuries, as three of Roberts’ top four targets have missed a combined nine games. The fourth wide receiver on the depth chart, Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18, left the field after an injury in last week’s win at Maine. No timetable for his return has been released.
Injuries have also plagued the Yale defense, as cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17, who currently leads the team with six tipped passes, exited the game last week with an undisclosed injury. With safety Foye Oluokun ’17 confirmed to be out for the season, the possible absence of two key defensive backs will challenge the team when lining up against Penn’s star wideouts, Christian Pearson and Justin Watson.
“They’re both different receivers,” Reno said. “Watson’s a linear threat. Pearson can catch the ball on the sideline and move really well. Watson is one of those kids that can do it all in different areas. He’s been very explosive, gets off press coverage very well. Both are really good players.”
The Penn aerial attack averages 249.4 yards per game — fifth in the league behind Yale’s 268.8-yard average. Siragusa and tight end Stephen Buric ’16, Yale’s top two pass catchers thus far this season, have combined for 553 yards, while Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 has caught 13 balls in the two games he has played in since returning from a preseason injury.
The receiving corps could potentially be bolstered this week by the return of wide receiver Bo Hines ’18. The North Carolina State transfer, who was injured in the season opener at Colgate, said he is a game-time decision.
But even if the passing game does not pick up, Yale’s offense can fall back on a resurgent ground game. Much of last week’s win came on the back of running back Deshawn Salter ’18, who earned Offensive Player of the Week honors for the second time this season following his 139-yard performance up north.
“The running game has picked up because we’ve improved in our block schemes and in our ability to hit the right areas and read the right things,” Reno said. “We’re a zone team, so a lot of reading needs to be done by the running back, so when the read is done right we have a much higher chance of hitting the right spot. It’s tough sledding.”
Against a Penn defense that has allowed a league-high average of 171.6 rushing yards per game, as well as more than 40 points in three of its five games this season, a strong performance from Salter will be crucial to a winning effort.
Last week, Salter’s production picked up in the second half. His second touchdown, a 17-yard score, came after a circus catch by Siragusa and killed Maine’s momentum.
“The defense is feeling down after a catch like that, and that’s when you have to have the killer mentality to step on their throat and finish the drive,” left tackle Khalid Cannon ’17 said.
This mentality could serve the Bulldogs well, as the Quakers have struggled to finish in Philadelphia: Penn has lost seven of its last eight games at home, a streak that dates back to 2013.
Penn’s only Philadelphia-area victory came against then-No. 4 Villanova, an impressive victory despite the fact that the Wildcats played without several key players, including their Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback as well as starters at left tackle, wide receiver and safety.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, have four road games — three of which were victories — under their belts this season. Unlike Penn, which played Villanova on a Thursday night, Yale has yet to play on a short week this season.
Linebacker Aaron Ault ’16, who made his first career start against Maine last week, refuted the idea that the short week will impact the Bulldogs.
“We adjusted the schedule a little bit this week to be able to get a good look at what Penn tends to do, but really and truly I don’t think it’s hard because they have the same amount of time as us,” Ault said. “The main focus for us is ourselves either way. We get a general understanding of their offense and from that point on we focus on ourselves, and as coach [Reno] said, focus on straining every play.”
Yale kicks off against Penn at 7 p.m. on Friday. The game will be available on NBC Sports Network.