For those wondering how the Yale football team would respond to a devastating, last-minute defeat to Dartmouth last Saturday, the Bulldogs provided an emphatic response.
In their final nonconference game of the 2017 campaign, the Bulldogs (4–1, 1–1 Ivy) turned in dominant performances in all three phases of the game, winning 32–0 against the Crusaders (2–5, 1–1 Patriot) and notching the program’s first shutout since 2011. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 completed 27 of his 39 attempts for 316 yards and two touchdowns, both of which were caught by wide receiver Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18, who finished as the Bulldogs’ leading receiver.
The Yale defense shined just as brightly, limiting Holy Cross’ prolific passing attack, led by quarterback and NFL prospect Peter Pujals, to just 89 yards through the air and just 143 yards overall. Much of that success can be attributed to the Bulldogs’ defensive front, which applied constant pressure on Pujals and tallied four sacks on the day. Three of those were courtesy of linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18, who also recorded a safety.
“The [players] came to the facilities on Sunday, put the last game to bed and took on the challenge of Holy Cross,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We knew it was going to be a very good opponent with a very explosive offense, so our guys took the challenge head first from Sunday and really prepared well.”
The Yale defense — which leads the Football Championship Subdivision in sacks per game — had fallen under the shadow of an explosive offense that averages more than 40 points per game. But on Saturday, it was the Eli defenders that ignited an uncharacteristically stagnant offense to earn Team 145’s fourth victory of the season.
The Bulldogs forced the Crusaders to go three-and-out on half of their 12 offensive possessions at the Yale Bowl, allowing just eight first downs in the process. Yale began the afternoon by stuffing a running attack which ended the first half with -3 rushing yards on 15 carries.
The lack of a running attack forced Pujals into obvious passing scenarios that severely limited the play-calling. Even after the worst performance of his season — just 89 yards on 10-22 passing — Pujals ranks ninth in the FCS in passing yards after seven games.
“They did some good things on defense, some unorthodox things, but we knew they were going to do that,” Pujals said. “We just never got in rhythm. We found ourselves in third-and-11, third-and-12. Situations like that are hard to convert.”
The Elis were sound defensively at all three levels, but pressure from the front seven made all the difference against Pujals, who is “arguably the best player we’ve seen so far this season,” Reno said. Alongside Oplinger, defensive tackle Josh Keeler ’20 notched the first sack of his Yale career on a day when starter Copache Tyler ’18 did not see much of the field. In total, Team 145 recorded 11 tackles for loss.
Yale’s battered and bruised secondary was also instrumental to the team’s success. Even with injuries to key contributors — such as captain Spencer Rymiszewski ’18, Marquise Peggs ’19, Malcolm Dixon ’20 and Jaelin Alburg ’20 — the Bulldogs recorded pass breakups on nine of Pujals’ 12 incompletions. Cornerback Deonte Henson ’21 played nearly the entire game in his first significant action of the year.
Poor field position hindered Holy Cross’ offensive success all afternoon. Six of the Crusaders’ 12 offensive series began from their own red zone, largely due to the prolific punting of Alex Galland ’19. The Bakersfield, California native pinned the opposition inside its own 20-yard line four times and averaged more than 40 yards per punt. Galland also tacked on a 39-yard field goal to open the scoring, the longest kick of his collegiate career.
“It’s pretty apparent that field position is a huge part of football,” Oplinger said. “So, being able to pin teams down, it kind of limits their play selection and gives us a chance to get after them. [Galland] has done a great job for the last two years that he’s been our punter. It takes a whole team to win a football game, especially like that, so the special teams are a huge portion of the game that he really stepped up at today, which helps us a ton.”
A critical juncture in the contest came when Holy Cross linebacker Nick McBeath, who led the team in both interceptions and fumble recoveries, was disqualified because of a targeting penalty on wide receiver Reed Klubnik ’20 in the second quarter. Just one play later, Rawlings connected with Siragusa Jr. for a 22-yard touchdown, and two drives later the Bulldogs found the endzone again on a 33-yard reception by Siragusa Jr. to put the game out of reach.
Rawlings posted career-highs in both completions and passing yards, improved to 5–1 in his last six games as a starter and connected with nine different Bulldogs. Yale’s rushing attack posted a season-low in yardage for the second consecutive week, as 21- and 22-yard touchdowns from running back Zane Dudek ’21 capped off lengthy drives orchestrated by Rawlings.
The Bulldogs will be back in action next Saturday when they travel to Philadelphia to take on defending co-champion Penn.
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