The Yale football team will kick off the 2017 season on Saturday with perhaps its toughest opponent on its entire 2017 schedule.
A year after Lehigh (0–2, 0–0 Patriot) clobbered the Bulldogs (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) in a 63–35 shootout at the Yale Bowl, the Elis will look for redemption against the defending Patriot League Champions at Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Yale’s offense will look to attack a vulnerable Mountain Hawk defense which has struggled in its first two games of 2017, while the Bulldogs’ revamped defensive secondary will attempt to slow a dynamic offense that returns eight starters from last year.
“We are coming out of the preseason with a very formidable opponent,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Lehigh is a national playoff team, a perennial Patriot League power … [and] their same offense that led them to the national playoffs last year is going to be lining up against us on Saturday. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
In the blowout loss last October, Lehigh backup quarterback Brad Mayes stepped in for an injured Nick Shafnisky and threw for 524 and six touchdowns in one of the program’s most prolific offensive performances. As a starter this year, Mayes has directed his offense through the air, throwing for 740 total yards in two nonconference losses to Villanova and Monmouth.
The high-octane Mountain Hawk offense returned many of its key players, including star receiver Troy Pelletier. By every measure, the now-senior was one of the best players in the Football Championship Subdivision last year; in addition to leading the Patriot League in receptions and receiving yards, he was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS.
Pelletier also compiled a career performance against an under equipped Bulldog secondary last year, catching 13 balls for 212 yards and three touchdowns. While he may be uncoverable by most standards, Yale will put itself in a much better position to win if it can limit the receiver’s game-breaking plays, such as his 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter last season.
On paper, Yale is much less vulnerable in the secondary than in 2016. After fielding an inexperienced secondary consisting of cornerback Jaelin Alburg ’20 and special-teams regular Andrew Johnson ’18 in their last meeting against the Mountain Hawks, the Bulldogs will instead rely on captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 and cornerback Marquise Peggs ’19 at the top of their depth chart in 2017.
Yale’s trio of safeties — Hayden Carlson ’18, Foye Oluokun ’18 and Jason Alessi ’18 — will also look to improve upon last year’s performance against the Lehigh passing attack. While Reno lauded their versatility and their ability to line up all over the formation, the seniors will certainly be needed as safety valves on Saturday against an offense that frequently showcases its vertical passing attack.
“We’re definitely anxious to step out onto the field Week 1,” Rymiszewski said. “It’s definitely tough to watch [Lehigh’s] first couple games in those first two weeks [and not be able to play] … so we’re just itching for Week 1.”
Offensively, Yale will enjoy more breathing room against a fallible Mountain Hawk defense. Lehigh’s unit allowed Yale’s second-highest point output of the season last year and is perhaps even more vulnerable after losing multiple starters, including three starting linebackers from a season ago.
In two games this year, Lehigh has surrendered 617 total rushing yards to the Wildcats and Hawks. This bodes well for the Eli offense, which has had success running on the Mountain Hawks in the past; running back Deshawn Salter ’18, who was named the Week 1 starter after running back Alan Lamar ’20 suffered a season-ending injury, tallied 151 yards on just 15 attempts in last year’s contest. The senior exploded for an even more prolific game in the teams’ 2015 matchup, rushing for two touchdowns and a 233 yards — just two shy of the program’s all-time best by a sophomore — in a 27–12 victory.
Though past statistics suggest that Yale’s offensive strength will most likely come from its run game, the Bulldogs will also take opportunities to game test a new-look offense to start their season. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 and a rejuvenated receiving corps will take on a Lehigh defense which has allowed just 206.5 passing yards per game this season. After starting the final four games of the 2016 season, Rawlings will get his first significant look at imposing nonconference competition to start his sophomore season.
“Being able to go in and have two weeks rather than [against] most teams [when] we only get to prepare for one week [has been a plus],” Rawlings said. “Having two weeks to be able to study up and almost know what they’re going to be showing and doing, is certainly going to help us. … They beat us last season, but I’m really excited. I think we’re going to do pretty good against them.”
Yale returns its three leading pass catchers from the Lehigh game last season in wideouts Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18, Michael Siragusa ’18 and Reed Klubnik ’20. Yale could also get a boost on special teams against Lehigh, as Alessi ran a punt back 82 yards for a score in last October’s contest.
Kickoff in Bethlehem is set for 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Joey Kamm contributed reporting.
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