Yale Athletics

For the Yale football team, Senior Day is a cherished tradition which bids a fond farewell to the outgoing players and celebrates their accomplishments both on and off the field.

That moment never came for Yale’s 2016 seniors. In its final home game, Team 144 was blown out 31–3 by Princeton. Despite a monumental victory over Harvard the following week to salvage an otherwise disappointing 3–7 campaign, the Bulldogs had posted their worst record since head coach Tony Reno’s first season in 2012. But fast forward one year, the Bulldogs (8–1, 5–1 Ivy) have guaranteed themselves at least a share of the Ivy League championship — they can win it outright next week with a victory over Harvard — for the first time in over a decade following their thrilling 35–31 triumph over Princeton (5–4, 2–4) on Saturday.

“I was so proud of this team, first of all,” Reno said. “It speaks volumes to the culture that these guys have created, the ability to focus on winning plays, and we talk about how your response to any event is twice as important as the actual event itself, and that’s [what is] going to affect the outcome.”

Yale, picked to finish fourth in the Ivy League Media Poll in August, has largely defied all preseason expectations. Through nine contests, the Bulldogs rank top-15 nationally in scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, completion percentage, yards per carry and sacks, demonstrating how far Yale has come since last year’s Senior Day.

The emergence of quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, who posted 205 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in Yale’s 21–14 win over Harvard last season, heading into 2017 was further bolstered by the returns of a bevy of key contributors who sat out the bulk of last season due to medical hardship. Three of Yale’s top four wide receivers from 2015 — Christopher Williams Lopez ’18, Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18 and Ross Drwal ’18 — all returned after sitting out most of 2016, as did starting tight end Jaeden Graham ’18 and offensive tackle Jon Bezney ’18. The defense also benefitted from the return of captain, cornerback and interceptions-leader Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 as well as defensive tackle Copache Tyler ’18, a pair of first-team All-Ivy selections in 2015.

With a revamped offense laden with seniors as well as several underclassmen who were pressed into duty in 2016, Yale proved it was a force to be reckoned with. In their first three games against Lehigh, Cornell and Fordham, the Bulldogs compiled 1,447 yards and 146 points en route to a triumvirate of early victories that matched last season’s win total before the calendar even flipped to October.

As Yale began to receive votes in the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches Poll, the Elis seemed poised to assert themselves as the surprise favorite to win the Ivy League, especially after early losses by defending co-champions Princeton and Penn. But following a heartbreaking 28–27 loss to Dartmouth in Hanover, in which the Big Green scored a touchdown with 34 seconds remaining to erase a 24–7 deficit, the Bulldogs championship aspirations were put on hold.

But the Bulldogs’ defense would weather the storm in the team’s next three games, limiting Holy Cross, Penn and Columbia to just 25 points combined. While Yale’s secondary has made significant improvements in avoiding the coverage breakdowns that too often plagued it in 2016, its dominant defensive line is the main reason for the Elis’ success. The Bulldogs rank second in the FCS with 33 sacks in nine games, which matches their combined total from the previous two seasons. Their dynamic pass rush is anchored by linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks, and has also received a boost from linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18 who sat out a portion of the 2016 season.

“I came back [from injury], put my head down and worked in my offseason,” Oluokun said. “We didn’t really know what to expect this year. I think that was actually a blessing for us because we came from a long way being 3–7 last year. All we did was work.”

When the latter victory over the Lions vaulted the Elis atop the hotly contested conference standings race, the Bulldogs followed up that performance with a wire-to-wire 34–7 rout over lowly Brown to put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Ancient Eight crown with just two games remaining.

In Yale’s most important game of the season against Princeton, its most important player — running back Zane Dudek ’21 — delivered in spectacular fashion with 35 carries for 180 yards for three touchdowns in the victory. Twice this season has Dudek seen his role expand following injuries to running backs Alan Lamar ’20 and Deshawn Salter ’18 but the Kittanning, Pennsylvania native has proved himself more than capable in his first season of college football. With one game to go, the Ivy League’s leading rusher has 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns and is also third on Yale in receptions. Dudek’s efforts have earned him a spot on the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award Watch List, handed out annually to the division’s top rookie, and propelled the Bulldogs to an average of more than 230 rushing yards per game behind by a veteran offensive line.

“It’s a lot of fun when you’re blocking someone and they’re on the ground, and you can just see Zane 30 yards up the field,” right guard Dieter Eiselsen ’20 said. “I’ve never seen a running back as elusive as Zane Dudek.”

Yale will look to secure its first outright Ivy League Championship since 1980 when the Bulldogs play host to Harvard in the 134th playing of The Game on Saturday.

Joey Kamm | joseph.kamm@yale.edu