Lehigh football head coach Andy Coen did not mince words when describing the Yale football team.
“They look like a whole different team, a completely different team,” he said in the postgame press conference.
Less than a year after Coen and his Mountain Hawks (0–3, 0–0 Patriot) rolled into the Yale Bowl and lit up the scoreboard with 63 points and 651 yards of offense, the Bulldogs (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) flipped the script on Saturday by doubling up Lehigh and leaving Goodman Stadium with a 56–28 win. The Elis were the aggressors all afternoon, applying constant pressure and forcing turnovers on defense while using their multitude of offensive weapons to put together Yale’s best scoring output since the 2003 season opener. Yale’s offense outgained the Mountain Hawk offense by 191 yards on the shoulders of quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, and the Bulldog defense tallied five sacks and two fumble recoveries against one of the Patriot League’s premiere offenses.
“[This game] was a great example of our culture,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We’ve got a team that has the ability to play together, the ability to play with the guy to the right and left of him, [and the] ability to play one play at a time and win each play. [We continue] to focus on winning plays and not winning the game.”
Rawlings, who had not yet taken over as Yale’s starter when the two teams played last year, completed 20 of his 26 pass attempts for 308 yards and four touchdowns on the afternoon as the Bulldogs piled up 566 yards of total offense. Lehigh’s prolific offense did not fare as well on its home field, compiling just 375 yards and failing to reach double-digit scoring in four straight quarters.
For the second straight week, the Mountain Hawks fell behind 14–0 in the opening stanza. On the Elis’ first possession, Rawlings led a 70-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 37-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Melvin Rouse II ’21. On the next drive, captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 forced a fumble which resulted in another Bulldog score by wide receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 just five minutes into the game.
Yale’s defense matched the early intensity of its offense, limiting Lehigh to just seven total yards on its first three possessions of the game. Though Mountain Hawk quarterback Brad Mayes, who torched the Bulldogs for 524 yards and six touchdowns last season, eventually found his rhythm, the Bulldog attack continued to grant its defense ample breathing room down the stretch.
“The big boys certainly worked their tails off protecting me and allowing me to get the ball to our [skills players],” Rawlings said. “The chemistry we have as an offense is something I’m super excited about. I need to improve a little bit on my part making the right reads and getting [my teammates] the ball. These guys are awesome, and they know how to fight. It’s fun having those opportunities.”
Control of the line of scrimmage proved to be crucial in the 56–28 win, as the Eli linemen held the advantage on both sides. The offensive line was in sync from first whistle to last, holding the Mountain Hawk pass rush without a sack for the second time in Lehigh’s first three games and providing Rawlings with a comfortable pocket. The starting five also went penalty free for the entire 60-minute contest, staying clean of any holding or false start violations.
In the Yale backfield, running backs Zane Dudek ’21 and Drew Grinde ’21 alleviated any concern about the Bulldogs’ depth at the position following running back Alan Lamar’s ’20 season-ending ACL injury. The pair of rookies averaged 13.5 yards per carry and rushed for three combined touchdowns in their collegiate debuts. While sharing time with running back Deshawn Salter ’18, Dudek stole the show in his home state; the Kittanning, Pa., native finished his day with 131 yards and two scores on just nine carries.
Defensively, Yale’s down lineman applied constant pressure to Mayes. On the Elis’ first defensive snap, defensive end Earl Chism ’18 hit the Lehigh quarterback from his blind side as he began his throwing motion, forcing an incomplete pass. This set the tone for a game in which the Bulldogs recorded seven tackles for loss and held Lehigh to just 52 rushing yards.
“We haven’t [allowed] a sack all season up to today,” Coen said. “Some of that was because we had no idea what they were doing defensively, and they hurt us badly. Usually, I don’t say things like that, but I will today.”
Yale’s revamped defense made perhaps its biggest strides in the secondary. A year after a porous contingent of cornerbacks let Lehigh’s All-Patriot League receiver Troy Pelletier run wild for 213 yards and three scores, Rymiszewski and the Bulldog secondary limited the senior wideout to just 95 yards and no touchdowns.
Even with the lopsided win under their belts, the Elis have improvements to make on defense and special teams moving forward into Week 2, Reno said. Two of Lehigh’s four scores came on blown coverages that allowed Mayes to connect with receivers on plays exceeding 50 yards. For a secondary that was largely able to prevent big plays upfield, these two strikes and a third-quarter muffed punt by safety and punt returner Jason Alessi ’18 put a damper on an otherwise successful day.
Alongside working on shoring up pass coverages this week, the Elis will also look to improve on their penalty woes. After finishing as the 2016 season as one of the least penalized team in the Ivy League, Yale was uncharacteristically sloppy on Saturday, committing 10 penalties for 100 yards.
“At times, we were a little shoddy in coverage, but we played well and bounced back from mistakes,” Rymiszewski said. “[Lehigh is] a great offense, and they will be for the rest of the year.”
The Bulldogs will turn their focus to their upcoming Ivy League opener when they host Cornell on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Yale Bowl.
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