Courtesy of Don Clark

The Yale men’s lacrosse team began to bounce back from its humbling season-opening loss by taking down the nation’s second-best squad, Penn State.

The then-No. 6 Bulldogs (1–1, 0–0 Ivy) returned to Reese Stadium on Saturday to host the then-No.2 Nittany Lions (3–1, 0–0 Big Ten) after the Elis suffered a one-goal loss to Villanova in their first act of title defense. The game got off to a slow start for Yale, but play on both sides — helped by another standout performance from faceoff specialist Td Ierlan ’20 — settled in long enough to build up a substantial Eli lead mid-match. Despite a continuously tight battle with the Nittany Lions, the Elis returned to the win column with a 14–13 victory.

“It was a big difference from last week’s game,” attacker Matt Gaudet ’20 said. “We were able to run our offensive play fundamentally and … we just stuck to our defensive game plan, and it worked incredibly well.”

Penn State had registered three lopsided victories to begin its season — including a ten-point win over No. 10 Villanova — but dropped to No. 5 after the loss, while the Bulldogs inched back up to fourth overall after losing their preseason No. 1 standing last week. Still recovering from their loss to the Wildcats, the Elis looked shaky to start. Penn State entered New Haven having defeated its first three opponents by a combined 61–21 margin, while Yale managed a relatively meager 10-score game just the week before.

After Ierlan, a transfer from Albany, lost the opening faceoff, the Nittany Lions went straight from the X to the back of the net, grabbing the lead just seconds in. Despite Ierlan’s quick recovery — he won the next four draws — Yale still looked shaky and lost its first offensive possession to a turnover, which Penn State converted into a 2–0 lead. But the Eli offense improved steadily through the quarter, as attacker Lucas Cotler ’20 and midfielder Jack Tigh ’19 capitalized on Ierlan’s consistency at the faceoff to equalize at a score of two.

The defense continued to struggle with its challenges from the first match, particularly in executing clean clears, and the Nittany Lions broke through twice more before the end of the period. But Yale’s offense dominated possession late in the quarter and, after a solid back-and-forth, managed a pair of late-period scores to end the first quarter knotted at 4–4.

In the second quarter, Yale’s defense finally settled in. Combined with Ierlan — whose ruthlessness caused Penn State to twice briefly swap out its faceoff specialist Gerard Aceri in ultimately futile attempts — the defensive revival allowed the offense to control the pace of the game and take its first lead. While the Nittany Lions fought back — both sides forced turnovers and played particularly tight defense — the Elis ended the half up 7–5.

A penalty on Yale then gave Penn State a man-up, which the Nittany Lions converted to even the score at seven. On the next faceoff, Ierlan grabbed his fifteenth win and, instead of running off the field, took it straight to the goal for his first tally in as Bulldog. By the end of the period, the Elis led 11–8 thanks to a hat trick from Gaudet and a pair of scores from attacker Brendan Rooney ’19.

The Elis continued to gain momentum early in the final quarter. Rookie attacker Matt Brandau ’22, who started and scored in his collegiate debut en route to an Ivy League weekly honor roll nod, put another one in the cage before returning to find attacker Jackson Morrill ’20 to tack on an assist.

Against Villanova, Yale put Morrill — a returning 40-goal starter who will likely assume the lead playmaking position after the graduation of Tewaaraton-winning attacker Ben Reeves ’18 — behind the cage, where he scored just twice. Against the Nittany Lions, Morrill moved out and, with Brandau’s assist, put his second one of the game in the back of the cage to give the Elis their biggest advantage of the afternoon, 13–8, two minutes into the final frame.

The contests remained close as the Nittany Lions mounted a formidable comeback despite clutch defense from the Elis. By the halfway mark of the period, Penn State had cut its deficit to two. Another round of back-and-forth scoring rallies left Yale with a precarious 14–12 lead with three minutes left to play.

“We still have a lot to get better at,” Morrill said. “It’s early, and we have a lot to get better from…  we gotta keep moving the ball. When we get stagnant, that’s really when we struggle. I really hope we can become one of the better ball-movement teams in the country.”

After battling diving saves from the Eli defense, Penn State called a timeout before sneaking one past goalie Jack Starr ’21 to make it a one score game with less than a minute remaining.

In crunch time, Ierlan delivered a final, critical win on the faceoff to secure a 14–13 victory for the Elis. On the day, he was 25 for 31 against Aceri, including a victory on a monstrous 44-second struggle to open the second half. Aceri entered the match 39 for 49, atop the NCAA’s percentage-win standings. For Ierlan’s performance, he was the Ivy League’s Player of the Week.

“Both coaches would have asked for 50-50 [on faceoff] in this game,” head coach Andy Shay said. “They’re both two incredible faceoff guys. What [Ierlan] did, that was just absolutely ridiculous … we didn’t make anything of it in scout … we were hoping that it would work out, and he was incredible.”

No. 4 Yale is one of two ranked Ivy League teams — along with third-ranked Cornell.

Angela Xiao | sammy.westfall@yale.edu