Yale Athletics

For the majority of Yale football fans, the biggest game of the season comes the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when the Bulldogs take on perennial rival Harvard. The significance of The Game is well deserved, as there are few things comparable to closing out the season against a centuries-old foe in one of the most storied rivalries in college athletics.

But for a Yale football program (3–0, 1–0 Ivy) seeking its first Ivy League championship in over a decade, no game could prove more consequential in 2017 than this Saturday’s bout against Dartmouth (3–0, 1–0 Ivy) in Hanover. The Bulldogs’ conference-leading offense will be put to the test against the Ancient Eight’s top-ranked scoring defense. The Big Green is coming off a last-second 16–13 victory over defending conference co-champion Penn. For two teams looking to establish themselves as frontrunners for the Ancient Eight crown, this game could turn out to be a must-win, despite taking place in early October.

“Dartmouth’s a heck of a football team,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They’re the best football team we’ve played so far, hands down. Nothing against the three teams we played earlier, they’re all very good programs, and I’ve got a lot of respect for all three of them, but Dartmouth’s the best team we’ve played. They’re a complete team.”

The last time Reno called an opponent the toughest opponent of the season to date, Yale waltzed onto Fordham’s Coffey Field and dominated with a 31-point win. However, the Elis’ task will not be so easy this week when they face a stifling Big Green defense that has allowed just 15.3 points per game, which is tenth in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Yale’s offense has scored at will this season, reaching at least the 41-point mark in each of its three games. Saturday, however, will mark the first true test for a Bulldog squad that has taken advantage of subpar defenses thus far. The Elis’ first three opponents — Lehigh, Cornell and Fordham — have allowed an abysmal 45.4 points per game across 13 contests.

Dartmouth, on the other hand, lays claim to an undefeated record behind a defense that ranks first in the Ivy League in points, yards and defensive efficiency. Last week, Dartmouth limited Penn — which came into the game averaging more than 53 points a game — to just 13 points and 243 total yards in a 16–13 win. Moreover, the Big Green’s defensive unit is about as experienced as they come in all of college football: seven of the 11 starters against Penn were seniors, while the other four were juniors.

Dartmouth will present a new challenge for Team 145’s prolific offense. Since the Big Green has shown that it can stymie even the best of offenses, the Bulldogs’ patience will be crucial to having a successful outing come Saturday. Team 145’s bread and butter has been running the ball well over 30 times a game, with the best yards per carry in the FCS. Even if the run game encounters some resistance, an efficient Eli passing attack, led by quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, also poses a threat to Dartmouth.

“What we’ve been mostly focusing on [is] playing a faceless opponent and focusing on ourselves to get better and better each week,” running back Zane Dudek ’21 said. “As long as we continue to do that, we’ll be fine.”

But relying on the aerial attack may prove to be just as onerous, as Dartmouth comes into the game leading the Ivy League in pass-defense efficiency. Last weekend, the Big Green’s secondary limited Penn quarterback Will Fischer-Colbrie to just 158 yards on 19 completions. Dartmouth also held the Quakers to their lowest offensive output since a shutout loss to Princeton last November.

Yale’s defense will have its hands full with Dartmouth’s two-quarterback system. Jack Heneghan, the Big Green’s primary pocket passer, threw for 348 yards versus the Bulldogs last season. The senior has completed more than 69 percent of his passes without throwing an interception in 2017. Fellow quarterback Jared Gerbino also appears in Wildcat packages and scored the game-winning touchdown last Friday as time expired in Philadelphia.

Last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year — wide receiver Hunter Hagdorn — missed Dartmouth’s season opener, but leads the team with 16 receptions for 145 yards. However, the Bulldogs’ secondary has demonstrated its ability to lock down premier wideouts early in the season, against the likes of Lehigh’s Troy Pelletier or Fordham’s Corey Caddle, the former among the best receivers in the FCS.

Through three games, Yale’s secondary has given up 175 fewer passing yards per game than it did at this time last season, boosted by the return of captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18. The pass defense has also been helped by a strong pass rush, which leads the Ancient Eight in sacks.

“Our secondary manned up a lot this year,” linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18 said. “Our overall mentality is much more aggressive, which is allowing us to have success and has worked out the first three games. We have to keep it up and keep improving every week to get to where we want to be.”

Dartmouth’s special teams have also excelled early in the season. Defensive back Danny McManus is sixth nationally with 16.5 yards per punt return. The kick coverage units rank fifth nationally in punt-return defense, surrendering a total of one yard in the team’s first three games. Additionally, kicker David Smith has broken his career-long record in consecutive weeks, and is 32–32 all-time on PAT tries.

The Bulldogs and Big Green will kick off at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday from Memorial Field in Hanover.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Joey Kamm | joseph.kamm@yale.edu