There are many reasons for the Yale football team to be excited coming into the 2017 season. The Elis ended the 2016 season by upsetting their heavily-favored rivals from Cambridge for the first time in a decade. Dual-threat quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 leads an impressive sophomore class hoping to build upon its impressive performance at the end of last season.
But the fact of the matter remains this: Yale hasn’t won an Ivy League Football championship since 2006, the longest title drought in school history. Below, I outline the blueprint that past teams have used to rise to Ancient Eight glory in hopes that Team 145 can make this year the year.
Each season, seemingly more emphasis in modern football is placed on the passing game, at least in the National Football League. It might be reasonable to assume that an all-out aerial attack is a prerequisite for contending in today’s college football landscape; in fact, former Penn quarterback Alek Torgersen recently broke several passing records while leading the Quakers to back-to-back Ivy titles in 2015 and 2016.
Yet teams don’t need an elite passing offense to capture an Ancient Eight crown. In examining the past five seasons worth of data, just two of the nine teams that won at least a share of the title posted top-10 passing offenses by yards per game amongst all 40 team seasons between 2012 and 2016. Four of the nine champions didn’t even throw the ball well enough to register in the top half of Ivy League’s passing offenses in the past five years.
While Ivy League football has come a long way since its inception in the late 1800s, the importance of the ground game has remained constant. Of the 40 team seasons examined from 2012–16, seven of the nine Ancient Eight champs posted top-15 seasons by rushing yards per game. Moreover, no champion during that stretch posted a season in which its rushing yards per game mark fell among the bottom half of Ivy League seasons over the past five years. Of course, losing teams tend to throw the ball more late in games, while winning teams run the ball to eat up more of the clock. If anything, this strategy only reinforces of the importance of running the football to winning games.
Controlling the ground game, however, is only part of the picture. In 2014, the Bulldogs, led by running back Tyler Varga ’15, averaged 247.9 rushing yards per game, making them the best Ivy rushing attack in at least the last five seasons. Yet the Elis once again failed to bring home an Ancient Eight championship, after suffering a heartbreaking loss to Harvard in the final week of the season.
An oft-used sports cliché states that “defense wins championships.” For Ivy League football, we adapt this saying to read “rushing defense wins championships.” Since 2012, five of the best six rushing defensives — teams which allow the fewest average rushing yards per game — finished the season as league champions. The Crimson squad which broke the hopes and dreams of Yale football faithful in 2014 had the best rushing defense in the Ivy League that season and held the Bulldogs to half of their season rushing average in The Game.
When rising to the cream of the crop in the Ancient Eight, passing defense seems to be of lesser importance. Just two teams, Harvard’s 2013 squad and Penn’s 2015 squad, have won Ivy football titles with passing defenses in the bottom 20 percent of all Ivy League seasons since 2012 — seven of the eight best passing defenses over that same period ended the season without any hardware to show for their efforts.
Simply put, the most effective way to win an Ivy League football championship is by controlling the running game on both sides of the ball.
Establishing the run allows teams to control time of possession and keep opposing offenses off the field. Meanwhile, limiting opponents’ ability to effectively use the ground game forces quarterbacks into long down-and-distance situations that lead to punts, short fields and turnovers. If the Bulldogs can establish a solid running game and shore up the heart of their defense, they may just outperform preseason expectations and bring back a long-awaited Ivy League championship to the Elm City.