The last time the Yale football team was in the thick of the hunt for an Ivy League crown, a middling defense left it seven points short of the 2014 title. The Elis gave up 31 points in the de facto title game against Harvard, including a game-winning 35-yard touchdown in the final minute of the contest.
But a shaky defense is not a concern for the 2017 Bulldogs (6–1, 3–1 Ivy), who lead the Ivy League in scoring defense and the nation in tackles for loss. After Yale held previously undefeated Columbia to just six points last Saturday, former head coach Jack Siedlecki said the dominant pass rush reminded him of his 1999 team, in which the team finished top of the Ivy League with a 9–1 record.
Driving Yale’s success is a front seven that has dominated the line of scrimmage this season. Although 11 players have contributed to Yale’s conference-leading 31 sacks, one constant has anchored the 2017 defense. At the heart of the unit, linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18 has played nearly every defensive snap for the Bulldogs, serving as the glue of the team’s front seven.
“[Oplinger] has really pushed others,” head coach Tony Reno said. “That’s one of the best signs of leadership when you have guys who can exemplify what you’re trying to do but who can also teach others that same skill set. He’s been a rock star for us.”
Oplinger, a two-time All-Ivy honorable mention recipient, came into the season with an already impressive resume. But the senior has raised his level of play in his final season with a FCS-leading 9.5 sacks through seven games, as a linebacker, no less.
Defensive end Kyle Mullen ’18 credited Oplinger’s work ethic for his increase in sacks. Although Oplinger plays linebacker, he practices his pass rush with the defensive line whenever he has free time in practice and works closely with defensive line coach Jordan Stevens, according to Mullen.
Oplinger has been on a tear coming off Yale’s 21–14 victory over Harvard last November, when he recorded seven tackles, 1.5 of them for a loss. This season, he has recorded at least one sack in six of the Bulldogs’ seven games to anchor a pass rush that leads the FCS in sacks per game. During his tenure in New Haven, Oplinger has recorded 181 total tackles, the third-most of any Bulldog over that span behind linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18 and safety Hayden Carlson ’18.
“I attribute [my success] to the guys around me,” Oplinger said. “[Our] middle linebackers and other defensive linemen … bring an attitude of maximum effort and loving everything. Rushing the passer is more of an attitude thing than a talent thing, so if you go there and you’re confident in everyone else, then you feel good doing some moves that are a little more out there, going and taking a shot. [My teammates] hold me accountable on making sure I’m improving.”
But Oplinger’s success has not been limited to just tackles and sacks this season. Against Holy Cross, he wrestled down quarterback Peter Pujals in the end zone for a safety and also caught a pass for a two-point conversion in Yale’s 24–19 victory over Penn.
Off the field, Oplinger is known as one of the top performers in the weight room. The 6-foot-3-inch, 242-pound linebacker owns several Yale weightlifting records and has improved on his power and physical fitness over the course of his career. When assistant strength and conditioning coach Tom Newman informed Oplinger that he had broken a record, the senior’s explanation was simple: “I pick it up and put it down.”
“Matt has been a warrior in the weight room,” Reno said. “He’s worked extensively on improving his strength, his flexibility, his speed and his ability to be a better football player.”
Oplinger is the second sibling in his family to play football at Yale, following in the footsteps of his brother Justin Oplinger ’10, who also played outside linebacker and started all 10 contests his junior year.
As someone who has played in every game during his four years of college football, Oplinger will look to end his career on a high note by helping Yale clinch an Ivy League championship over the final three games of its 2017 campaign. The first of those games comes this Friday against Brown, a team that ranks last in the Ivy League in both rushing yards and sacks allowed.
“I got three more weeks of Yale football left, and I’m going to enjoy every single day,” Oplinger said. “Regardless of whether it’s a Friday night in the Bowl versus Brown or whether it’s Tuesday afternoon or someday like [Sunday] when it was pouring rain … I’m going to love it.”
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