Blowing a two-touchdown lead with less than eight minutes remaining is as heartbreaking as it gets for most of the 124 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision. But the Yale football team faced such a scenario last weekend, and then saw its Ivy League championship hopes take a major hit following a last-minute 28–27 defeat at Dartmouth, despite the Bulldogs leading in both total offense and time of possession.
However, this Saturday, the Bulldogs (3–1, 1–1 Ivy) will return home to the friendly confines of the Yale Bowl to take on Holy Cross (2–4, 1–1 Patriot), a team that suffered an even more devastating defeat in the exact same stadium. Three weeks ago, at Memorial Field in Hanover, the Crusaders scored a touchdown with three seconds remaining against the Big Green to tie the game at 20, only to have the ensuing extra point blocked and lose the game in overtime. The week after, Holy Cross posted a season-low scoring output and saw one loss transform into two with a 10–7 defeat to previously winless Lafayette. The Crusaders’ fable should serve as an important lesson for a Yale team itching to get back on the winning track following the nightmare in New Hampshire.
“One of the greatest things about what our players have built, as far as culture and chemistry, is their ability to look at things, learn from them and move on,” head coach Tony Reno said. “A lot of teams could have gotten complacent after our wins, but our guys didn’t. They kept getting better. They’ve gotten better every week, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”
In the wake of its last-minute loss to the Big Green, Team 145 will look to rebound against the Crusaders. Holy Cross comes to the Yale Bowl with a mediocre record, but that mark reflects a difficult early-season schedule. The Crusaders opened their 2017 campaign against the University of Connecticut, a Football Bowl Subdivision school, and lost by just one touchdown in Storrs despite leading 20–7 at halftime. Then they dominated their easiest competition of the season by blanking Bucknell, 20–0, in Week 2.
However, the last four weeks have pitted Holy Cross against teams with a combined 15–6 record; three of these four teams also sit atop their respective conferences. The Crusaders acquitted themselves well, defeating then-No. 9 University of New Hampshire in their third game by 25 points, which still stands as the Wildcats’ lone loss on the season, and losing by just one point to the Big Green.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Peter Pujals has returned to the field to lead the offense after a broken fibula ended his 2016 season after just four games. In his return, Pujals, whom Reno described as an NFL prospect, has been nothing short of incredible. In six games, the Glenview, Illinois native has thrown for 1,825 yards, 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Serving as captain for the fourth time, Pujals will present an Eli secondary that has improved significantly from last year with its toughest test of the season to date. Considering Yale’s struggles against the pass in Hanover, the secondary’s ability to respond may be the difference between a second-consecutive loss and a win this weekend.
Rather than committing to a single workhorse running back, Holy Cross employs a set of three halfbacks who split carries among themselves. Tailbacks Miles Alexander, Gabe Guild and Diquan Walker all have at least 44 carries and 200 rushing yards through six games. The Crusaders’ three-back system will be put to the test against the Elis’ rushing defense, which ranks second overall in the Ivy League and stymied Dartmouth to the tune of a measly 70 yards on the ground.
The Bulldogs should face fewer issues in dealing with a running attack that averages 134.5 yards per game, a mark that would rank third-to-last in the Ancient Eight. The Crusaders’ running attack has accounted for just 47 of the team’s 143 first downs, so neutralizing Pujals and forcing Holy Cross to turn to the ground game should be points of emphasis for the Yale defense come Saturday.
Linebacker Nick McBeath is the unquestioned leader for the second-best defense in the Patriot League. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound senior is second on the team in both tackles and tackles for loss, and has three sacks as well.
McBeath also leads the Crusaders in interceptions and fumble recoveries, but his prowess may not be enough to neutralize Yale’s backfield combination of Deshawn Salter ’18 and Zane Dudek ’21. The duo anchors a rushing attack that averages 244 yards per contest. Establishing the ground game early on will be crucial for the Bulldogs, whose season-low rushing output versus the Big Green coincided with Yale’s first loss of the season.
“The Dartmouth game, it’s a tough loss for the team, obviously [we] just didn’t finish in the second half, which we have to do a better job of doing,” tight end Jaeden Graham ’18 said. “But the whole team’s really looking forward to getting after it this Saturday against Holy Cross. So, that’s where our focus in right now.”
The last time Yale and Holy Cross faced off in 2008, the Elis came out on top, 31–28.
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