The Yale football team opens its conference season this weekend, traveling to Ithaca to face a Cornell team that has struggled to break into the league’s upper echelon in recent years.
But for the first time in three seasons, it is Yale that enters the annual matchup with a loss.
A week removed from a brutal 42-point loss to No. 23 Colgate in the Yale Bowl, the Bulldogs (0–1, 0–0 Ivy) understand what work needs to be done if they are to rebound against Cornell (1–0, 0–0), a team that dug itself out of a 10–0 hole last week to defeat Bucknell, 24–16.
“Coming out of [the Colgate] game, we knew we needed to put it behind us and use it as a humbling experience,” defensive tackle Nick Crowle ’18 said. “I think we were ready to play, I think we were prepared to play, but when it came down to the game, something just wasn’t there.”
In the season opener, Yale took advantage of a nonconference game that had no impact on the Ivy League standings to experiment with personnel, playing three quarterbacks, three running backs and two kickers.
Thanks in part to this test run of sorts, the team has put an end to a monthslong position battle under center: Rafe Chapple ’18 will be the team’s starting quarterback on Saturday, head coach Tony Reno announced earlier this week.
“We think Rafe is in the best possible situation for us right now, and we’re excited about seeing him move forward,” Reno said. “He’s a guy who’s a student of the game. He’s in the film room constantly.”
Despite Chapple’s three-interception performance against Colgate, Reno expressed confidence in the team’s offense under the junior signal caller, pointing out that the unit is nowhere near its ceiling.
The three-headed backfield of running backs Dale Harris ’17, Deshawn Salter ’18 and Candler Rich ’17, which combined for just 45 yards last week, needs to return to 2015 form. Against Cornell last season, Rich and Salter combined for 80 yards on 20 carries, though it will be Harris who will be the primary ball handler on Saturday, Reno said.
In the passing game, Yale’s veteran receiving corps, led by Robert Clemons III ’17 and Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18, is dangerous both on the perimeter and over the middle of the field.
“It’s a league game so yeah, it’s a little more important and there will be a little extra preparation, but we’re excited to get out there and just show what our offense’s identity is,” Chapple said.
Still, Cornell’s sizable front line poses a threat to an Eli offense that gave up five sacks and four turnovers last week. Reno noted that the Big Red is capable of showing multiple defensive fronts and bringing pressure with either three or four defensive linemen. Cornell’s defensive aggressiveness was on full display last week, as the team forced three turnovers, two of which came at or inside the 20-yard line.
Yale’s defense hopes to put together a comparable showing after ceding 558 yards of total offense, the most Yale has allowed since a 35–3 defeat to Dartmouth last October, while notching just one sack and one turnover.
The return of linebacker Foye Oluokun ’17 will help the Bulldogs over the middle, but unless the freshmen and sophomores playing cornerback can stay on their men, the team will struggle to slow down Big Red quarterback Dalton Banks, who went an efficient 17-for-24 against Bucknell.
“They attack you on the perimeter with some screen packages, and the quarterback was very consistent and accurate,” Reno said. “[Banks] managed the offense very well. They also have two or three receivers who are big-play threats. We just have to make sure that we contain them and keep things in front of us.”
The Big Red ground game is equally formidable: Despite graduating All-Ivy running back Luke Hagy, Cornell’s running game seems to have hardly skipped a beat. Against Bucknell, the 6-foot-1 Chris Walker picked up 141 yards on just 17 carries, leading a ground attack that collectively averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
Pitted against the Cornell rushers will be a veteran defensive line anchored by Crowle. The unit struggled to contain Colgate, a team that special advisor to the coach Larry Ciotti said was one of the best he has seen in his 23 years at Yale. The Raiders averaged more than five yards per carry en route to a 243-yard showing last week, and Yale must do better against Cornell if it hopes to stay in the game.
Despite last week’s lopsided loss, Crowle said the team will rebound mentally and focus only on Cornell, rather than fixate on its previous mistakes.
This attitude is a healthy one and could ultimately serve the Bulldogs well, legendary Yale coach Carm Cozza said. Comparing the current situation to the 1987 Yale season, he recalled a Week Three beatdown to Hawaii, a 62–10 loss for the Bulldogs.
But, Cozza pointed out, the team rebounded to win its next four games.
“Things like that can happen, and I told Tony [Reno], our young men here are resilient,” Cozza said. “They come back and they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They’re going to work their butt off and they’re going to get back. If they win up there at Cornell this week, it can make a significant difference.”
The Ivy League Digital Network will be broadcasting the Cornell game, which kicks off at 3 p.m. in Ithaca.