After an unconvincing but ultimately successful start to the season last week against Holy Cross, Yale enters all-important conference play versus Cornell on Saturday. The Bulldogs are out to avenge their disappointing fourth place finish amongst the Ancient Eight last season.
Yale (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) takes on Cornell (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) in a huge matchup that will bring or break early season momentum. The 2019 Ivy League Preseason Football poll ranked Yale first and Cornell seventh, and the Bulldogs will look to earn their lofty projected mark. When these two teams squared off last season, it was an offensive explosion for the Elis. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 completed 18 of his 25 passes on the day, totalling 283 yards through the air. Running backs Zane Dudek ’21 and Spencer Alston ’22 also had tremendous days, combining for three touchdowns. Alston showed no signs of first-year jitters as he rumbled through defenders en route to a 121 yard game. Yale took the victory 30–24 in a strong overall showing.
While the Yale offense took center stage last season against the Big Red, the Bulldog’s defense has already shown signs of real quality this season. Holy Cross was an abysmal two of 13 on third downs last weekend, due to the strength of the Blue and White defensive line. Defensive tackle Spencer Matthaei ’20 was a force up front, bullying the offensive line of the Crusaders. He registered a total of six tackles and a sack in what was a dominant performance from the New York native. The secondary was also largely involved, especially defensive back Kyle Ellis ’22. He was all over the field, making four solo and two assisted tackles.
“It was a great way to open the season,” coach Tony Reno said. “It wasn’t pretty, and we have a lot to work on, especially on offense and special teams. However, in the end, our guys are driven and we found a way to win against Holy Cross. Cornell is a very good team, a much better one than the team we played on Saturday. They start 13 seniors. They’re very experienced and they’ve changed their offensive attack from last year to an option-style one. We have to try and stop a very aggressive rushing attack; they’ve got a big, strong offensive line, and are exceptionally coached on defensive. We’ve got a lot of work to do and we want to walk onto the field on Saturday as a much better version of the team we were last week.”
Despite what can only be described as a disappointing preseason ranking, Cornell came out strong against Marist in the first game of their season and look ready to challenge Yale. The Big Red defense held the Red Foxes to only two rushing yards in a stalwart showing. Mike Catanese took the most snaps under center for Cornell, completing 15 of his 20 attempts for 130 yards.
However, the running backs did the majority of the damage. Harold Coles darted for 127 yards on 16 attempts and also found the end zone once. Catanese was also effective scrambling from the pocket, picking up 86 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns.
“We came into last week’s game with a lot of energy,” wide receiver and captain JP Shohfi ’20 said. “I expect nothing different for this week’s game. We have a really competitive game ahead of us [against Cornell]. They’re a really great team that has played in close games with us in seasons prior. Our focus has always been on how we can play our best game, so the expectations are that we bring a lot of energy and have the focus to play the best we can. If we do that, the outcome will be there.”
When these two teams battled it out last year, everything on offense was clicking for the Bulldogs. Rawlings dominated the Big Red’s secondary — completing 72 percent of his passes for 283 yards — with 191 of those yards coming from star wideouts Shohfi and Reed Klubnik ’20. On the ground, Eli running backs absolutely had their way against Cornell’s defensive line, with Dudek tallying two touchdowns and Alston exploding for 121 yards rushing. With all these offensive pieces returning onto the field against the Big Red, Yale looks poised to put on an offensive clinic of the same caliber.
One of the biggest storylines heading into Saturday’s matchup is how prepared the Bulldog defense is for Cornell’s new style of option offense. A year ago, the Eli defense came out of the gate as cold as can be, conceding two touchdowns on Cornell’s first two drives of the game. However, from that point on, Yale’s defense would bend but not break and conceded just 10 points en route to a 30–24 victory. However, with Cornell’s new-look offense, the Bulldogs are prepared to defend against the run-pass option and are in no mood to submit to Cornell’s excellent clock-managing.
“We trust our back end, we trust our safeties,” defensive back Melvin Rouse II ’21 said. “We trust our guys and our defense players at every position, whether they be a linebacker, corner or safety, and they are encouraged to be aggressive. While at the same time that it’s going to be difficult to defend Cornell’s new option offense, it’s going to be difficult for them to play against our fast and physical defense.”
The Bulldogs kick-off against the Big Red at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday.
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