Steve Musco

Last fall, the Yale football team won the outright Ivy League crown for the first time in more than three decades. And yet this weekend, in its first conference fixture of the season, Team 146 already has something to prove.

The Bulldogs (0–1, 0–0 Ivy) opened the campaign last weekend with a humbling 31–28 overtime loss to Holy Cross, a team they defeated 32–0 in 2017. The Bulldogs, who started nonseniors in all positions but one, lost a three-touchdown first-quarter lead in that game, and ultimately ceded the advantage after an overtime field goal by the Crusaders. This weekend, the Elis travel to Ithaca, both to begin their Ivy slate and also seeking their first win of the year. In the first episode of their Ivy title defense, the Bulldogs will look to rebound from last week’s blow and bring home a win against The Big Red (0–1, 0–0 Ivy).

“Cornell is a very good football team,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They are a veteran team, they play very well at home, and they have a senior quarterback … They have a pressure defense, similar to ours. Offensively, they pose a lot of problems. They’re big, they’re strong and they’re physical.”

The Elis seemed to be cruising to a victory over the Crusaders after a strong start in Week One, beginning with a 100-yard kickoff return by wide receiver Melvin Rouse ’21 during the very first seconds of the contest.

Yale continued to push and amassed a 21–0 lead behind an unstoppable ground attack before Holy Cross rallied to narrow the gap to 21–14 by the end of the first quarter. A second-period touchdown by Yale expanded the lead to 28–14, but the Crusaders would hold the Elis scoreless in the second half while rallying late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 28–28. In overtime, a Holy Cross field goal sealed the 31–28 loss for the Elis, who were weighed down by 11 penalties.

“We definitely took our foot off the gas,” linebacker John Dean ’21 said. “But we have a lot of good film to look at from the week, and we’re going to use that as a learning experience.”

The Big Red enters the match equally hungry for its first win of the season after opening its own season with a 27–10 loss to Delaware. Cornell returns 17 starters from last year, though the 2017 Yale-Cornell game ended in a blowout 49–24 victory for the Elis.

The Big Red finished last season with a 3–4 conference record and a fifth-place finish, a performance that upended expectations in the league. A preseason poll by the media predicted a last-place finish — instead, the Big Red posed serious challenges to almost all of its opponents and even earned a pair of narrow upset victories against perennial championship contenders Harvard and Princeton.

A win against the Big Red will be critical for Team 146 — which was picked first in the Ivy Preseason Poll — to repeat as champions. Each of the Ancient Eight teams plays the others just once per season, leaving little room for error.

On both sides of the ball, Team 146 will need to execute a tighter game plan than it has thus far. The Eli offense was blistering in the first half — running back Zane Dudek ’21 rushed for 217 yards against the Crusaders, the 10th most ever by a Yale running back. Moreover, former second-team All-Ivy back Alan Lamar ’20 pitched in 66 yards in his first action since his season-ending injury last preseason.

Despite the success on the ground, the Eli offense came to a screeching halt in the second half. Penalties and turnovers impacted the team’s ability to convert yards into points after the initial scoring outburst. In Ithaca, Yale will have to play a more disciplined game of football to come away with a win.

“[Against Holy Cross] we showed that we can rack up a lot of yards,” Sterling Strother ’20 said. “But that doesn’t really matter if you can’t put points up on the board. We shot ourselves in the foot too many times … We need to keep progressing and this is a good week to do that.”

Defensively, Yale allowed 459 yards of offense in the game, along with a pair of touchdowns in the final five minutes of regulation that allowed the Crusaders to steal the game in overtime.

The Bulldogs dealt with a significant amount of turnover this season compared to last year’s title squad: Yale started just one senior defender last week, captain and defensive lineman Nick Crowle ’19, along with five juniors and five sophomores. Yet an underwhelming Cornell offense this Saturday provides an opportunity for the Elis to regain their footing.

Yale and Cornell face off on Saturday at 3 p.m. in Ithaca.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu