When Yale football takes on Mercer this Saturday, fans can be sure that head coach Tony Reno will wear khakis and the team will make its traditional walk from Walter Camp Memorial Gate towards the Yale Bowl. But what happens on the field is anybody’s guess.

This year’s Bulldogs started 2018 by jumping out to a 21–0 lead over Holy Cross and thrashing then-No .16 Maine two weekends later. But they also blew the 21-point lead over Holy Cross and were crushed at home last weekend by Dartmouth. Capable of beating one of the top teams in the Football Conference Subdivision one week and losing by 23 points the next, Team 146 is enduring the growing pains of a squad with plenty of talent but limited game experience.

“What’s happening is you’re seeing a team mature and improve as the season goes on,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Like in life, you need to go through experiences to mature and become better and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Yale has shown flashes of brilliance this season, with many coming from quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20. With 13 starts under his belt heading into the 2018 season, Rawlings has emerged as the Ivy League’s top quarterback, leading the league in passing yards per game. When Team 146 plays up to its Ivy-favorite potential, Rawlings is at the center of Yale’s success. The junior threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns in Yale’s win over Maine.

Few other players on Yale’s roster have started as many games as Rawlings, and as a result, Team 146 has struggled to find consistency. At times, the offensive line has left Rawlings hanging out to dry, giving up a league-leading 12 sacks. Additionally, the Bulldogs have suffered an astounding number of mental lapses. Team 146 has committed 33 penalties this season, compared to a combined 14 from its opponents. The defense — which at its best held Maine to just 14 points — gave up 27 first-half points to Dartmouth and 14 points in the final five minutes against Holy Cross.

The reason for this inconsistency? Yale has a lot of players without much game experience. Against Dartmouth, Yale started just two seniors between both its offensive and defensive units. But penalties and missed assignments on defense are not the only mark of this inexperience — the 2018 Elis have struggled to protect the football, committing eight turnovers while forcing just two of their own.

“We were are own worst enemies in a lot of ways,” Reno said of the Dartmouth loss. “[We’re committing] turnovers and penalties on offense and giving up big plays on defense.”

Injuries have made an already inexperienced team more vulnerable. Reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Zane Dudek ’21 has missed two games already and is not running at 100 percent. Wide receiver Melvin Rouse II ’21 returned the season-opening kickoff for a touchdown, but has not played in the last three games. The injury bug has not been as bad as it was for the 2016 team, when a scourge of injuries largely contributed to the team’s 3–7 record, but it has taken playmakers off the field.

How does Yale respond without these playmakers? Reno and his players pointed to veteran players who have spent several years in the program’s culture even if they have not started many games while in the Elm City.

“Not a lot of guys in our senior class are starting right now, but we’ve been through those moments like losing to Dartmouth early [last year],” kicker Alex Galland ’19 said. “It’s not a time to panic. There’s a lot of football to be played and as soon as [Dartmouth] loses one we’ve got our fate in our own hands again. Even if we aren’t on the field, we want to guide these younger players through these moments and keep them within our culture.”

Part of that culture is “a heavy emphasis on the response after every game win or loss,” according to defensive lineman Spencer Matthaei ’20. The junior said the team mantra is “you either win or you learn.” Yale has done both of those things twice this year, and will likely continue to do both as October turns into November.

Which Yale team — the one that beat Maine or the one that lost to Dartmouth — shows up for the rest of the season, especially on Nov. 17 at Fenway Park? Nobody knows for sure, but the culture that Galland and Matthaei mentioned might give fans a hint. In each of the last two seasons, Reno’s squad has progressed throughout the season, and put a stamp on its campaign with a complete, 60-minute effort against Harvard.

With fewer veteran players than each of the last two years, Reno and the Bulldogs have their work cut out for them in the next few weeks. But don’t let turnovers and penalties make you sleep on the reigning Ivy League champions.

Matthew Mister | matthew.mister@yale.edu