This Saturday, the Yale football team will face its first of seven storied rivals for the 80th time in the two programs’ history.
As it has in every season since 2000, Yale (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) will begin its Ancient Eight slate against Cornell (0–1, 0–0) as the conference foes look to kick off their Ivy League campaigns with a positive result this Saturday at the Yale Bowl. The Bulldogs come in hot on the heels of a resounding 56–28 win over defending Patriot League champion Lehigh, while the Big Red looks to bounce back from a 41–14 trouncing by Delaware. After falling convincingly to Cornell in a lopsided 27–13 final last September, the Elis will put their aggressive defense and multidimensional offense to the test this weekend in search of redemption.
“We’re very excited, really looking forward to this game,” wide receiver Chris Williams-Lopez ’18 said. “It’s our home opener, and they beat us last year — pretty much embarrassed us last year on their homecoming — so we have this game circled on our calendar.”
While a good start will always be a point of emphasis for Yale, Saturday’s opening will be of special note considering the Bulldogs’ recent track record against the Big Red, which was picked to finish last in the 2017 preseason media poll. Cornell surged to 24–3 and 26–13 leads in 2016 and 2015, respectively. While the Elis completed a comeback to take a 33–26 win in 2015, falling behind early precluded the Yale team from a win last year. Still, if Yale’s season opener is any indication of what may transpire on Saturday — the Bulldogs led 14–0 at the 10-minute mark in the first quarter against the Mountain Hawks — Team 145 looks primed to take the early lead.
But Yale will need to prove itself against Cornell’s passing offense. A season ago, Cornell quarterback Dalton Banks picked apart the Eli secondary for 306 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Banks distributed his 23 completions to an astounding 12 of his teammates in the dominating performance. But the now-junior signal caller struggled in his 2017 season opener, throwing three interceptions against the Blue Hens.
“Dalton Banks is a very good quarterback,” head coach Tony Reno said. “He’s got a very strong arm, [and] he commands the offense well. [Banks is] a guy who can run the ball as well at the position. He throws the deep ball very well, so he’s a guy where you have to make it hard on him to do his job on Saturday afternoon.”
Due in part to Banks’ versatility, Cornell presents a different challenge for the Yale defense than the one it faced last weekend. While Lehigh featured two star wideouts in Gatlin Casey and Troy Pelletier, who accounted for a combined 195 yards of passing offense, Cornell employs a committee of weapons to move the ball in the air. The Elis will have to adjust accordingly without keying in on one or two receivers.
The Bulldogs’ defensive front will also play a crucial role in providing relief for its secondary. Following a five-sack performance against the Mountain Hawks, Yale’s defensive line looks to keep bringing the pressure behind a deep rotation of players including defensive end Kyle Mullen ’19, who had one of his finest outings last season against Cornell with 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. The Bulldog defense set the tone early on in its first outing of 2017, holding Lehigh to just seven yards in its first three possessions.
“The pace that we play at, how we chase after the ball, those aren’t talent things,” outside linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 said. “Those are just effort things, and those are the kinds of guys that are playing on the defense now. When you see 11 guys at the ball, that’s intimidating to another team. Those first three drives [at Lehigh], we weren’t just getting off the field, but we were getting off the field with physicality and aggression.”
On defense, Cornell returns nine starters from a unit that ranked last in the Ivy League in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and pass defense in 2016. Senior All-American safety Nick Gesualdi, who recorded six tackles and an interception against the Bulldogs last season, will lead the Big Red secondary in building off a second-half performance against Delaware in which Cornell limited the Blue Hens to just 94 passing yards.
The Bulldogs will likely lean on their ground game this Saturday against the Big Red’s abysmal rushing defense, employing the combination of running backs Deshawn Salter ’18 and Zane Dudek ’21, who combined for three scores against the Mountain Hawks. Salter averaged 4.6 yards per carry in Yale’s loss to the Big Red last season, while Dudek rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut versus Lehigh last week.
While Yale may lay claim to the superior defense, special teams could prove to be a critical factor against Cornell. Last Saturday, the Bulldogs’ kicking unit struggled mightily at Goodman Stadium; kicker Alex Galland ’19 missed his first field-goal attempt and had another one blocked, while a botched snap on an extra point led to an unsuccessful conversion. Punt returner Jason Alessi ’18 also fumbled a punt in Yale territory that gifted Lehigh opportune field position.
Following the graduation of four-time first-team All-Ivy League punter Chris Fraser, Cornell handed its 2017 punting duties off to Nickolas Null, its full-time place kicker from a year ago. The sophomore excelled in his first game as the Big Red’s starting punter, booting three punts for 142 yards in the loss to Delaware. Null’s net punting average currently leads all players in all divisions of college football.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence in our kicker,” Reno said. “We have a great holder [and] a good snapper. That’s part of the growth of a team. Those opportunities on Saturday [against Lehigh] are now a chance to grow and get better, so we’ve got all the confidence in the world in that group. They’ve made a lot of big plays for us.”
The Bulldogs and Big Red square off at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Yale Bowl.
Contact Won Jung at firstname.lastname@example.org and Joey Kamm at email@example.com .