Just a week after a blowout win against an underwhelming Brown team masterminded by rookie quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’22, the Yale football team will face its toughest opponent yet as it hosts Princeton in its penultimate matchup of the 2018 season.
The Bulldogs (5–3, 3–2 Ivy) will host the league’s most formidable squad on Saturday afternoon after a morning memorial service in celebration of late former head coach Carmen “Carm” Cozza in Coxe Cage. The No. 11 Tigers (8–0, 5–0) are perennial crown contenders and this season’s de facto champions after they won a close defensive match against Dartmouth last week — a contest of two then-undefeated Ivy League teams. For the Elis, whose hopes of a repeat title have all but dissipated, the game against Princeton will demand a consistent, start-to-finish performance in a season that has been marred by inconsistency, errors and injuries. Yale will need to invoke its best performances from throughout its season to reasonably take on the Tigers, who have outscored their opponents nearly five-to-one. A Tiger win on Saturday would confirm a share of the championship for Princeton and leave the team in control of its solo-crown fate heading into 2018’s final weekend of competition.
“We still haven’t played 60 full minutes,” head coach Tony Reno said. “In all of our wins, we’ve played enough, we’ve played well enough, but we haven’t played a complete game yet. We need to continue to improve. The team coming to town this week is a heck of a group — Princeton’s had a great season. They have skill everywhere, they’re one of the best teams in the nation.”
In the Elis’ campaign thus far, they have struggled with a young defense, quarterbacking concerns after the injury of standout starter Kurt Rawlings ’20, difficulties in converting yards into points and loss of critical yardage to penalties. As the season has progressed, however, Team 146 has shown all the necessary pieces of a tight game but has yet to put them together perfectly in one performance.
The Bulldog defense, which lost a slew of All-Ivy starters to graduation last spring, has improved steadily and held Penn and Brown to 14 and 27 rushing yards respectively. Despite dominating the stat sheet, the offense looked shaky in the Elis’ loss to Columbia after Rawlings’ injury, but recovered its passing prowess at the hands of O’Connor. Last weekend’s triumph over the Bears demonstrated rookie signal caller O’Connor’s great potential and the combined scoring power of a trio of juniors — running back Alan Lamar ’20 and receivers JP Shohfi ’20 and Reed Klubnik ’20.
But all of the Elis’ recent games have had glaring imperfections, regardless of outcome. Even in its 46–16 thrashing of a dismal Brown squad, Yale’s execution was far from satisfactory. Team 146 amassed a staggering 12 penalties and fell back into early-season habits after several weeks of clean play. And in the face of late fourth-quarter Brown drives, the defense fell apart and allowed the Bears to march into the endzone a second time.
“We have a lot of young guys who have stepped up throughout the year in increased roles,” linebacker Ryan Burke ’20 said. “We put together a good performance [against Brown]. We’re looking to build on that, because we can improve in a number of areas as well.”
Fans on Saturday should keep a close eye on rookie O’Connor, who looked calm and composed taking his first snaps last week. In his collegiate debut, the first year lit up the Bears for 452 total yards — which places him second all-time in Yale history for total yards in a single game — while also connecting with receivers for four touchdowns on the day. His record-setting day came against the league’s worst defense; but now, just a week later, the Huntington Beach, Calif. native will get to prove his worth against the league’s best defense — Princeton.
The Tigers, who remain unbeaten through eight games, downed Dartmouth 14–9 in the Ancient Eight’s likely championship contest last weekend at Princeton. Despite such a low-scoring affair, Princeton entered the matchup averaging roughly 51 points and allowing just about nine points per game.
Much of Princeton’s offensive production can be credited to star quarterback John Lovett, who missed all of the 2017 season due to injury. Upon returning, Lovett has picked apart defenses as a dual-threat quarterback, who leads his team in rushing yards and passing yards with 661 and 1,433 respectively. His prowess on the ground and through the air has resulted in a tally of 24 touchdowns, more than Cornell, Penn, Columbia and Brown have as programs this season.
“It’s really, really exciting to have a team that talented come,” linebacker John Dean ’21 said. “The team as a whole sees it as a tremendous opportunity to show everybody else how good we can be and how we can compete with a team like that. To compete with them, it’s going to take our best brand of football.”
The contest against the Tigers kicks off at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Yale Bowl.
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