Neehaar Gandhi

For the first time in three years, the Yale football team played a game at the Yale Bowl with Ivy-title potential, and the Bulldogs delivered with a comprehensive 23–6 dismantling of a previously-unbeaten Columbia team. In a matchup of title contenders, the Elis marched a step closer to capturing their first conference championship since 2006, and Saturday’s victory placed the Bulldogs’ destiny firmly in their own hands.

Spurred by its suffocating defense, Team 145 (6–1, 3–1 Ivy) built an early 16–0 lead against the Lions (6–1, 3–1) before closing out the game behind an unstoppable running game led by Zane Dudek ’21, who finished the game with 173 yards on the ground. The win marked not only Yale’s ascent to the top of the conference, but also the 900th win for the Elis’ storied football program: an accomplishment that only two other programs, Michigan and Notre Dame, can claim.

“Everything starts up front,” head coach Tony Reno said. “If you have a good offensive and defensive line, you can be balanced. That means you can stop the run, and you can put pressure on the quarterback. It also means that you can run the ball effectively and give your quarterback time to throw it. The key is being good up front.”

Dudek and running back Deshawn Salter ’18 combined for more than 230 yards on the ground, Yale’s best rushing output in five games. The Bulldogs’ first-year phenom was pressed into extra service late in the game following a second-half injury to Salter but proved up to the task. Dudek dominated the fourth quarter, carrying the ball 11 times for 83 yards and setting up a late touchdown by wide receiver Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18.

On the other side of the trenches, Yale’s defensive front produced three sacks, one and a half of which came from linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18, the Football Championship Subdivision’s sack leader. Oplinger and his fellow pass rushers applied constant pressure to Columbia quarterback Anders Hill, forcing him to hurry his throws even when they didn’t take him down.

The Bulldogs opened the game with aggressive play-calling that set the tone for the entire afternoon. After both teams punted on their first offensive possessions, the Elis drove nearly the length of the field but were stopped 10 yards short of a score. Faced with fourth-and-seven, Reno sent his kicking unit out onto the field.

But to the surprise of both the Lion defense and the audience, holder and quarterback Andrew Johnson ’18 took the fourth-down snap out of the Elis’ pre-kick formation and feigned a run, only to elevate and loft a pass right before he got to the line of scrimmage. He found tight end Jaeden Graham ’18, who came down with his third touchdown of the season.

The early-game gamble paid off for Yale, and the team never relinquished its lead after the fake field goal, which brought back echoes of the equally aggressive and momentous decision to open the second half of last year’s Harvard game with an onside kick.

The Bulldogs’ secondary played a crucial role against the Lions, as it limited Hill to just 175 yards through the air and no passing touchdowns. Playing without captain and shutdown cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 for the third consecutive week, the Bulldogs also contained dynamic wideout Josh Wainwright — who came into the contest as the Ivy League’s second-leading receiver — as the sophomore caught just three passes for 34 yards.

In the Lions’ three conference victories, over Princeton, Dartmouth and Penn, their offense generated 12 plays of 20 yards or more. But against a secondary ranked second-to-last in the Ancient Eight, Columbia failed to generate the chunk plays that have been the cornerstone of its success. Hill continually attempted to force the ball downfield, but the Bulldogs limited the senior to a meager five yards per passing attempt. The longest plays Yale conceded were 40- and 41-yard receptions by wideout Kyle Castner. Columbia’s lone score came on a one-yard sneak from Hill, after the first of those completions on a third-and-eighteen.

“We were kind of out of rhythm, and some of it was caused by the [Yale] defense,” Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli said. “We’ve been really good at creating one-play drives and playing home run [football]. We just could never get that one play to put us over the top and give us some momentum.”

The biggest defensive play for Yale came in its final line of defense. Facing a 10-point deficit, the Lions seemed poised to make the game a one-possession affair; but an acrobatic interception by cornerback Deonte Henson ’21, deep in Yale territory, derailed any hopes of a Columbia comeback.

This sequence came two plays after Henson committed a facemask penalty, and a snap after a holding penalty negated an interception by safety Hayden Carlson ’18, which would have been his second on the day.

“It starts with the older guys, they told me to keep my head up … and just brush it off,” Henson said. “I just completely forgot about it, and I made a good play on the ball, but it all starts up front. The defensive line dominates every week, week in and week out, so you [have] to give all the respect and credit to the defensive line.”

While Yale neutralized the Lions passing game, Team 145’s aerial attack did not fare much better, as quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 generated just 137 yards through the air, only 14 more than the team’s season-low against Cornell. Rawlings had an abysmal 37-percent completion rate on Saturday, by far the lowest mark of his 2017 campaign. Still, the sophomore signal-caller proved his versatility by finding the end zone twice, once through the air and once with his feet. In the end, Dudek and the Eli running attack compensated for the aerial struggles with their superb ground display.

The Bulldogs also got a boost in the kicking game, as Columbia kicker Oren Milstein, a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection from a season ago, missed a pair of short kicks from 30 and 38 yards in the contest.

With the victory, Yale moved into a tie for first-place in the Ivy League standings alongside Columbia and Cornell. The Bulldogs will host Brown at 8 p.m. on Friday.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Joey Kamm | joey.kamm@yale.edu