For the first time since 2014, the Yale football team will play for a chance to win an Ivy crown. But this Saturday’s contest will not feature all the fanfare of the 2014 classic at Harvard, in which the Crimson snatched the title from the Bulldogs in front of a sold-out crowd and ESPN’s national College GameDay audience. Instead, the Elis will travel to New Jersey play a Princeton team with a losing record in Ivy play, likely before a sparse crowd, with a game-time temperature expected to drop as low as 24 degrees.
But for a Yale program seeking its first conference championship since 2006, Saturday’s game could prove to be the most memorable in over a decade, as the Bulldogs (7–1, 4–1 Ivy) look to clinch at least a share of the 2017 Ivy League title when they head south to take on defending co-champion Princeton (5–3, 2–3). Even with their championship hopes all but dashed, the Tigers, whose three losses have come by a combined total of just eight points, will look to play spoiler against their centuries-old rival. But to do so, Princeton’s conference-best offense will have to break through against its toughest challenge of the season: Yale’s conference-best defense.
“[Princeton has] the most explosive offense we’ll face,” head coach Tony Reno said. “When the quarterback’s completing at a ratio of 75 percent, that’s unheard of. That’s FCS Player of the Year type numbers … For us, it’s just going to be our ability to run our packages and run them well against a great offense.”
In three of Team 145’s last four games, the defense has held the opposing team to seven points or fewer, with its most impressive performance of the season coming in a 32–0 shutout against Holy Cross. The key to the Bulldogs’ stifling defense has been dominant play at the line, which has allowed the Yale secondary to implement aggressive man-to-man packages against virtually any passing scheme. Even with captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 playing sparingly in recent weeks with an injury, the Bulldogs have stayed true to their aggressive philosophy, as their pass rush has continued to wreak havoc.
But against Princeton, the defensive line will face the strongest resistance it has encountered all season. The Tigers’ offensive line is tied with Elis’ for the fewest sacks allowed this season in the Ivy League, and although the line’s steady play has not translated to much success running the ball, it has reliably provided a clean pocket for the conference’s unquestioned top passer, Chad Kanoff.
The three-year starter has enjoyed a prolific season in his final year at Princeton. Kanoff currently paces the Ancient Eight with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, while completing an astounding 74.4 percent of his passes. He also ranks first in the Football Championship Subdivision in completion percentage and fifth in both passing efficiency and passing yards per game. For Team 145’s defense to be effective this weekend, it will need to break through the Tiger’s strong pass protection and get inside Kanoff’s mind with a flurry of quarterback hurries and hits.
The Yale secondary will also need to be at its best, and, with a healthy Rymiszewski set to return to the lineup, it is already a step closer. The Bulldogs’ captain, along with cornerback Malcolm Dixon ’20, can expect to see a lot of action against a team that throws upwards of 37 times per game. Kanoff has proven all season that he can get the ball out of his hands quickly and accurately, which could present problems against a secondary that lives on the edge.
“[Yale’s] a really high-risk, high-reward defense,” Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli said in a postgame press conference following his team’s game against Yale two weeks ago. “They’re going to press you, and they’re going to plan man. If you can make some of those vertical throws, they become one-play drives.”
On the flip side of the ball, Team 145’s offense should have little trouble moving the ball against a middling Princeton defense. With running back Deshawn Salter ’18 sidelined for the second straight week due to injury, Zane Dudek ’21 will shoulder the load against the Tigers. Dudek has enjoyed a fairly light workload all season with an average of 12.4 carries per game, which has kept the rookie fresh. However, Reno expects that “all those carries we banked [are] going to be used on Saturday, every last one.”
Against Brown a week ago, Dudek made the most of his 13 carries, scoring three touchdowns and amassing 165 yards in his first start of the season. He was occasionally spelled by Melvin Rouse II ’21 during the blowout, but will likely see the brunt of the workload if Saturday’s affair proves to be a close one.
“I’ve never seen a running back as elusive as Zane Dudek,” left guard Dieter Eiselen ’20 said. “I remember during camp this year, there was a drill that he had to do with the linebackers. It’s basically just a one-on-one tackling drill, and I don’t think any of the linebackers were able to tackle him at all.”
The Tigers’ pedestrian rush defense struggled in the team’s most recent outings against Cornell and Penn. The Big Red and Quakers, ranked second and fourth in the Ivy League in rushing offense, combined for 480 yards on the ground against Princeton the last two weeks. The top rushers for each team, Cornell’s Jake Jatis and Penn’s Abe Willows, averaged 5.1 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively.
Apart from running the ball, quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 should find success in attacking a Tiger pass defense that allows more than 260 passing yards per game. If Dudek can find some early seams on the ground, the play-action pass and read-option run for Rawlings could prove deadly against Princeton.
Team 145 hopes to be able to slow Princeton’s potent offense, which has not scored fewer than 24 points in a game this season. But if need be, the Bulldog offense should be able to keep up with that of the Tigers. Yale trails Princeton in scoring offense by just 2.6 points per game and, similarly, has scored at least 23 points in each of its eight games this season.
Seven teams remain in contention for the Ivy League title with two games remaining in the season.
Won Jung | firstname.lastname@example.org
Joey Kamm | email@example.com