Looking to protect a 13-point lead this past Saturday against fellow unbeatens Dartmouth, the Yale defense forced a fourth down inside the Big Green’s own 20-yard line. With just seven minutes left in the two-possession game, a stop would almost certainly have secured a fourth straight victory to open the season.
Dartmouth quarterback Jack Heneghan dropped back to pass to his receivers streaking down the field as the Bulldog defensive front closed in. His spiral zipped through the air, only to drop harmlessly to the turf as members of the Eli secondary spread their arms out to celebrate the incompletion. But a yellow handkerchief lying on the gridiron 40 yards behind them curtailed the celebrations. A roughing the passer penalty had negated the defensive stop, giving Dartmouth a fresh set of downs and breathing new life into the game.
The Big Green (4–0, 2–0 Ivy) took the gift and marched down the field to score the first of its two fourth-quarter touchdowns. After a second, dramatic touchdown with only seconds remaining erased the once-formidable Yale advantage, Dartmouth retained its undefeated mark while dealing the Elis their first bitter taste of defeat. Although one call from the officials did not singlehandedly lose the game for the Elis (3–1, 1–1), penalties have plagued Team 145 throughout the season. Yale did not suffer many serious consequences from its abundant infractions in the comfortable wins in the opening games of the season, but they came back to bite the team at critical junctures in Hanover.
“The bottom line is we didn’t close [Dartmouth] out,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We had an opportunity to close them out on two or three occasions. We had a minimal amount of penalties, five for 60 yards, but we had a couple costly ones.”
The penalty problem appeared on the Bulldogs’ radar early in the 2017 campaign. In its season opener against Lehigh, Team 145 committed 10 infractions for 100 yards. The Mountain Hawks’ first two touchdown drives benefitted from pass interference penalties that gifted the Patriot League foe prime field position. Yale only pulled away to win in the second half, correspondingly committing just two penalties in those final 30 minutes.
The yellow flags continued to fly the next week against Cornell as the Elis were whistled for 14 penalties. Three Bulldog penalties on Cornell’s first offensive score helped set up a field goal that gave the Big Red an opening lead.
Yale left the locker room for the second-half kickoff up just four points, and subsequently dominated the third quarter to extend its lead. However, with Cornell’s offense sputtering and in dire need of a jolt, a fourth-quarter personal foul gave Cornell a fresh set of downs at its own 43. The Big Red immediately took advantage as wide receiver James Hubbard took a reception 57 yards for a touchdown on the next play to transform a blowout into a two-score game in the blink of an eye, despite Yale’s dominance to that point.
Despite the pair of victories, the indiscipline on both sides of the ball was a red flag for the Elis. Following its first two contests, Yale led all 123 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision in penalties per game. The 24 penalties represented a precipitous and unexpected jump from 2016, when Team 144 committed a combined five penalties in its first two games. To address the concerning trend, Reno brought referees to practices before Yale’s matchup against Fordham. The team took the extra focus in stride, as the Bulldogs were guilty of just three rules infractions in their 41–10 shellacking of the Rams.
“If we’re going to achieve the level of play we want to play, any small piece that can help us and make us that much better of a team, it’s worth it,” Reno said. “We were fortunate enough to be able to do that, and we’ll bring [referees] in on Wednesdays [moving forward]. It was good because when you’re able to repeat form and technique correctly over a period of time, the chance of you doing it correctly on a Saturday is much better.”
However, the Dartmouth game represented a disappointing reversion to the early season unruliness. Untimely penalties allowed the Big Green to build momentum during its second-half comeback from a 24–7 halftime deficit. Along with the roughing-the-passer call, Team 145 committed an offensive holding infraction early in the fourth quarter that wiped out a play that had given the Elis a third-and-one opportunity and transformed the situation into a second-and-19. The lost yardage spelled doom for a struggling offense that had gone three-and-out the previous drive and desperately needed points to stem the bleeding and to maintain possession to give the defense rest.
The penalty struggles have come on both sides of the ball for Reno’s squad. Of the Bulldogs’ 32 penalties across the first four games of the season, 17 have come from the defense and the other 15 from the offensive unit. The most prevalent infraction has been holding and other illegal blocks that have amounted to 11 Bulldog penalties. They have also committed six pass interference penalties. The indiscipline has been most reflected in the five personal foul penalties, more than one per game. Reno deems personal fouls the most concerning penalty because they come from lapses in judgement as opposed to issues with technique.
“The first few games we had a lot of penalties, and we were on the field a lot of the time due to those penalties, so we made an effort in practice really to focus on that detail,” linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18 said.
More work lies ahead for the Bulldogs. Although Team 145 dropped from 24 penalties in its first two games to just eight in its most recent two contests, playing mentally and technically sound football will be crucial factors as the Elis challenge for wins in more competitive conference games, where every play matters.
Won Jung | firstname.lastname@example.org
Joey Kamm | email@example.com