The Yale football team accomplished everything it could have hoped for in 2017 — winning all six of its rematches against teams it lost to in the previous season, achieving a No. 24 national ranking, defeating Harvard by three touchdowns in The Game and posting a 9–1 record to earn an outright Ivy League Championship for the first time since 1980.
After a historic 2017 campaign in which the Bulldogs (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) ended a decadelong title drought, Yale will open the season with a visit to Holy Cross (0–2, 0–1 Patriot), a team the Elis defeated for their lone shutout of last year. Team 146’s experienced offense will look to attack a team that is still recovering from a 48-point thumping by its last opponent and has lost eight of its previous 10 games dating back to last season. Meanwhile, the defense will look to replace the seven All-Ivy picks that anchored Team 145.
“[We’re] a very young team on paper, we might only have one senior starting for us on Saturday,” head coach Tony Reno said. “But we’ve got a lot of guys who have played. Last year, the nature of our defense was playing 27 guys in games. We graduated a lot of talent, but we have a lot of guys who have played meaningful minutes.”
Last year, the Elis opened the season against defending Patriot League champion Lehigh, returning from Bethlehem with a 56–28 victory that foreshadowed the 9–1 season the team went on to register. Team 145 entered 2017 as underdogs after a surprise defeat of Harvard at The Game closed an otherwise underwhelming 2016. Team 146, however, is the team to beat, with a preseason media poll picking the Bulldogs to finish first in the Ivy League again.
But repeating as conference champions for the first time since 1981 will require a bevy of new contributors to step up for the Bulldogs, who must replace a combined 15 of 22 starters on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Fortunately for the Bulldogs — who have landed a top-five recruiting class in the FCS for each of the last three seasons, according to HERO Sports — they bring back their top skill players in quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 and Ivy League Rookie of the Year running back Zane Dudek ’21, who posted a school-record 7.1 yards-per-carry mark in 2017.
“This team has done a really good job of getting better and better each day,” Dudek said. “Our goal is to be better than we were yesterday. We haven’t really looked far ahead into the season at all. We’ve just been focused on us and getting better every single day, and we’ve done that. We feel good right now, and we’ve really stacked some days together the past few weeks.”
While Yale loses three All-Ivy selections up front on the offensive line, the team does return its leading rusher from 2016: running back Alan Lamar ’20, who missed the entirety of last season with an ACL injury. The one-two punch in the backfield of Dudek and Lamar will give Rawlings a reliable set of runners to hand off to. The Elis’ aerial attack will center around wideouts Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20, who combined for 1,135 yards and eight touchdowns in their first two seasons among a loaded receiving corps that graduated four of its top weapons in the spring, including Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18.
But like last season, the team’s success will hinge on Yale’s ability to control the line of scrimmage, after the Bulldogs finished top 10 in rushing defense and sacks in 2017 while also leading the Ancient Eight with 216 rushing yards per game. The focal point of the Elis’ defensive front will be captain and nose tackle Nicholas Crowle ’19, who has been limited by injuries in previous years but will look to lead a defense which terrorized quarterbacks and held its opponents to a conference-best 15.6 points per game in 2017.
“Nick [Crowle] has consistently been a great leader as an older member of the squad,” Shohfi said. “In the offseason he always led by example as a hard worker, and coming into [this season], he has been incredible with his vocal presence. He’s doing a great job pushing our team and keeping us focused. He’s there for his teammates and his attitude shows he wants the best for this team.”
As Yale enters its first game as Team 146 with Crowle at the helm, the Crusaders are also navigating roster turnover. Holy Cross’ fifth-year captain and quarterback last season, Peter Pujals, was one of the best in school history. Pujals took on the captainship beginning in his sophomore season and sits second in school history for career completions, touchdowns and total yards gained.
Despite the continuity of Pujals’ leadership, Holy Cross finished its last season with a 4–7 record. The last meeting of the Crusaders and the Elis came immediately after Yale fell by one point to Dartmouth in its only loss of the season.
The Crusaders enter Saturday’s match with valuable game experience against a pair of strong teams with a close loss to Colgate before falling to Boston College last week. Against both teams, quarterback Emmett Clifford stepped in to fill Pujals’ role. Clifford is a relatively inexperienced starting quarterback — he saw game time in a pair of matches as backup quarterback in his rookie season but did not play last year.
Holy Cross’s coaching staff has been thoroughly revamped for the 2018 season, with head coach Bob Chesney in his first year. Chesney is a two-time Northeast-10 conference coach of the year who arrives at Holy Cross after five years at the helm of Assumption College, where his team earned five straight winning records after doing so just twice in the 17 previous seasons. Other first-time members of the coaching staff include both the defensive and offensive coordinators, as well as the secondary, safety, wide receiver and tight end coaches. The most veteran member of this staff is the defensive line coach, who is in his fourth season — the remaining members each have no more than one year of experience with the Crusaders.
Chesney has a history of revitalizing struggling teams. Before his time at Assumption, he led Salve Regina to three consecutive winning seasons immediately after eight straight losing years.
Yale leads the all-time series between the Crusaders and Bulldogs 28–4.
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