In the span of two weeks, two completely different Yale football teams have taken the field at the Yale Bowl.
On Halloween, a disjointed Bulldog squad turned in a listless performance in a 17–7 loss to Columbia, with just 120 yards and five first downs. The defeat, at the hands of a Lion squad that had not won an Ivy League contest since 2013, marked the Eli offense’s worst yard total in at least five years.
A week later, Yale rebounded to dominate Brown, excelling on both sides of the ball and picking up a 41–14 win. All pieces of the team came together, including three interceptions by the defense and a standout rushing performance from cornerback-turned-running back Dale Harris ’17.
The question ahead of Saturday’s game against the Tigers (5–3, 2–3 Ivy) , is which of those two teams will show up when Yale plays at Princeton on Saturday. Though the Bulldogs (5–3, 2–3) were eliminated from Ivy title contention after Harvard’s 24–16 victory over Columbia last weekend, the two rivalry games remaining are critical for the program.
“What’s really special about these two games [Harvard and Princeton] is just the amount of history and tradition,” defensive tackle Carl Kreitzberg ’16 said. “You just feel that these universities dive into these games, and sometimes in the Ivy League that’s not always the case … It’s a fun last two games to end my career on, so I’m excited about that.”
The Tigers enter the penultimate game of the season following an overtime loss against Penn in which the Quakers blocked a game-winning field goal during the final play of regulation. With one of its two quarterbacks — John Lovett — out with an injury, Princeton relied heavily on Chad Kanoff under center.
Missing players is something the Elis can empathize with, as the team has struggled with a rash of injuries to key players on both sides of the ball. Against Brown, however, Yale added some creative personnel changes, enabling the team to score a season-high 41 points against the Bears.
Perhaps the most surprising of those changes was Harris, who will play running back again this week, according to head coach Tony Reno. Harris and starting running back Deshawn Salter ’18 led a resurgent ground game that scored four touchdowns in the first three quarters. Though the offense remains crippled by a slew of injuries, Reno said that Yale’s 443-yard effort, 71 of which came from Harris, was the unit’s best game in terms of moving the ball.
Following a four-game stretch in which he threw eight interceptions and just one touchdown, quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 also looked more comfortable last week against a Bears secondary that allows 268.8 passing yards per game.
Of Roberts’ 267 passing yards last week, 154 went to slot receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18, who had a career day and will likely prove a major factor on Saturday if slot receiver Bo Hines ’18 does not return from injury for the game. Williams-Lopez returned to the field in early October after an injury of his own that he suffered in the preseason.
“I think the hardest thing was getting back in shape, but Coach Reno and the rest of the players on offense were behind me,” Williams-Lopez said. “Day by day, I was able to get back in the offense … Each game, I’ve gotten more comfortable.”
After succeeding against the second-worst passing defense in the Ivy League, Roberts and his receivers can look forward to another potential big day in New Jersey. The only team with a passing defense that has posted a weaker performance than Brown is Princeton, which yields an average of 280.9 yards to opposing quarterbacks.
Still, Reno cautioned against counting out Princeton, a team that starts three seniors in the secondary.
“Defensively, they’re an aggressive front,” Reno said. “Their front seven is very aggressive and they’ve got a senior-laden secondary with guys who’ve played a lot of football. They’re very physical so they’re a good team. We’re going to really have to play well to get the outcome that we want.”
The same goes for the Yale defense, which has averaged 15.5 points allowed during the past two weeks but face a new challenge on Saturday. The Tigers enter the game averaging 31.8 points per contest, third-best in the Ivy League.
Though Princeton opened the season as the only Ivy League team without an experienced quarterback on its roster, Reno pointed out that the Tigers run similar schemes to their 2014 squad.
“They’re going to present a lot of different formations and personnel groupings that we haven’t seen all year,” Reno said. “They’ve got two quarterbacks who can really hurt you on the field at the same time, a very good running game.”
With regard to limiting offenses with strong quarterbacks, the Eli defense appears to be in its best position to do so all year after limiting Brown, the league’s most potent passing offense, to 207 yards through the air — almost 150 yards fewer than the team’s average — and picking off three passes.
Despite a few blown coverages that resulted in Brown’s two touchdowns last week, Kreitzberg pointed out that the defense has steadily improved over the course of the season.
“I’ve seen a lot of defenses come and go in my time here with Coach Reno, and I think hands down this unit is the most physically gifted, talented football group that I’ve ever seen,” Kreitzberg said. “One of the reasons I think we’re seeing this consistent growth is just that guys are finally consistently capturing that mental execution.”
Like last year, Yale and Princeton enter their matchup with the same record in league play. Though the 2014 contest served as an elimination game for the Bulldogs and Tigers, each of whom had lost one conference game at that point, this year does not hold the same significance.
With an undefeated Harvard team and a one-loss Dartmouth squad still in the mix, neither Yale nor Princeton can earn a share of the title without help. Yale does, however, have a chance to secure an overall record above 0.500 with its sixth win of the season.
The 138th matchup between the Yale and Princeton football teams is slated to kick off at 1 p.m. The game will be available for streaming on the Ivy League Digital Network.