As the final moments of the penultimate game of the Yale football season ticked down, Princeton quarterback Chad Kanoff dropped back to pass, looking for his fifth touchdown pass of the game to overturn decisively the Elis’ 35–31 lead. Bulldog linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18 powered his way around the Tigers’ left tackle and laid a crunching hit on the signal caller, leaving his pass to float harmlessly into the grateful arms of fellow linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18 to seal an Ivy League title.
That crucial intervention did not count as one of Oplinger’s league-leading 11.5 sacks, nor one of the 14.5 occasions he brought down an opposing ball-carrier behind the line of scrimmage. This, like so many other plays the senior pass-rusher made in his swan-song campaign, did not show up in the box score, but represented an integral contribution to a Yale win.
“We saw him grow as a person and player week in and week out,” Reno said. “He was showing guys the way to do things right.”
Oplinger capped off his superb season on Monday, when he received the Asa S. Bushnell Cup for Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year at a ceremony in New York. The hardware represents the first time a Bulldog player has brought home the Bushnell Cup since running back Tyler Varga ’15 took home Ivy Player of the Year honors in his senior season. Oplinger may follow further in Varga’s footsteps, as he looks to become the first Eli graduate to earn a National Football League contract since the Ontario native signed with the Indianapolis Colts for the 2015 NFL season.
Oplinger terrorized Ivy League quarterbacks on the season, playing a starring role on the defense that led the Ivy League. The New Jersey native also served as the emotional leader in spurring the team’s almost-miraculous defensive turnaround from a year ago. The Bulldogs had given up 33.9 points per game during his junior campaign, and they transformed from one of the most moribund defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision into one of the most feared.
“Defense isn’t a one-man show out there. It’s a team award,” Oplinger said at the award ceremony in New York. “It’s good to be able to walk away as … a Yale defensive player to see we got some acknowledgment for what we did this season, and I know this award isn’t just for me. It’s my one-eleventh [of the award and the rest goes to] the 10 other guys out there.”
Oplinger finished the season with 11.5 sacks in just 10 games, tied for the second-highest total in the FCS after San Diego’s Jonathan Petersen’s 18, in the fewest games of anyone on the leaderboard. The postseason could get even sweeter for Oplinger, who is also a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top defensive player in the FCS. The Buchanan Award will be presented on Jan. 5.
Oplinger shone throughout the season but saved his finest moments for the biggest stage. He recorded a two-sack performance in The Game to help Yale claim exclusive possession of Ivy League title for the first time since 1980. That year also represents the last time a Bulldog defensive player, nose guard Kevin Czinger ’81, lifted the Bushnell Cup, back when there was just one trophy for Ivy League MVP.
Rookie linebacker Micah Awodiran ’21 said that Oplinger was a great mentor to the four first-year linebackers on the team. Awodiran also praised Oplinger’s knowledge of the game and ability to explain difficult concepts to the rookies.
“Being on the field and in the meeting room with him, you see how hard he works and the product he puts on the field is really unmatched by anyone I’ve seen in the league,” the rookie said. “The energy that he brought every single day kind of made you want to run through a wall for the guy.”
Oplinger’s 11.5 sacks this season rank him second in Yale history in sacks per season.
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