Yale Athletics

After erasing a two touchdown deficit in the final 90 seconds at Richmond last weekend, the Yale football team eagerly awaits a matchup with Penn on Saturday in hopes of keeping the momentum going.

The Bulldogs (4–1, 1–1 Ivy), fresh off of a two-game split on the road, make their awaited return home this week to take on the Quakers (2–3, 0–2 Ivy). For the Elis, whose only loss of the season came against division rival Dartmouth, a defeat on Sunday would deliver a crushing blow to their chances of securing their second Ivy League crown. As of now, three undefeated teams sit atop the Ancient Eight throne. Penn, likewise, suffered a 13-point loss to the Big Green earlier in the season — far less than the 32-point deficit faced by Yale. Penn displayed audacious resolution in muffling Dartmouth’s high-powered offense for several quarters, something Team 147 was only capable of doing for minutes. However, last week in a matchup against Columbia, that ferocious Quaker mentality was nowhere to be found on the field in what became a 44–6 beatdown at the paws of the Lions. Given these statistics, Saturday’s game could very well make or break either team’s season.

“Penn is always a tough, physical team,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They’re good up front on both sides of the ball; they got two very good interior defensive linemen; they have the best running back that we will have faced at this point — maybe the best running back we’ll face all year.”

Reno added that Penn was within a few plays of being within a score of Dartmouth, and nobody else has even come close to that. The game is going to be one heck of a test, but at the end of the day, it’s about the Bulldogs, Reno said.

“If we just worry about ourselves and stay true to our process, we’ll have the best chance for a favorable outcome,” Reno said. “I have a lot of confidence in this team that they’ll put in a great week of preparation and play great on Saturday.”

As the go-to running option on the Quaker offense, Brooks has helped catapult Penn’s running game to the best in the Ancient Eight. The junior has not only been averaging a whopping 138 yards on the ground — which leads all other Ivy League running backs by more than 30 yards — he has also tallied a total of seven touchdowns and 689 yards, all ranking first in the conference. Against Dartmouth’s top-ranked defense, Brooks averaged nearly five yards a carry with two touchdowns to boot.

Halfway through the season, the Red and Blue offense as a whole possesses the best ground game in the Ancient Eight, averaging an unsettling 197 yards per game — 50 more yards than that of the Bulldogs rushing attack. This could spell serious trouble for a Bulldog defense that ranks fifth in stopping the run.

But last week against Columbia marked the first time Penn’s highly touted run-game sputtered, as it was barely able to muster 93 yards. Penn’s ground performance was less than half of what the squad normally averages. The Quakers were held scoreless for three quarters and Brooks was never able to get into any sort of rhythm running the ball, as the Lions went on to dominate every facet of the game. It goes without saying that the Red and Blue will need to step up their game come Saturday if they want to have any chance of keeping their season alive.

The Penn contest provides a golden opportunity for the Yale offense to really show what it can achieve, as the team still ranks rather low in the Ancient Eight in terms of production. The Bulldogs have found the end zone only 14 times this year, but as last week’s game showed, this tally could be much higher. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 sits as the fourth-best quarterback statistically in the league, but has done a great job avoiding interceptions with just four so far on the year. Wideout Reed Klubnik ’20 has continued to make his presence felt in his final year, as his 23 receptions tie him for the second most in the Ivy League. With the Quaker secondary managing only four picks this year, Rawlings and Klubnik will look to establish aerial dominance and blow the game open.

“There’s certainly a lot of experience on this team,” captain and wide receiver JP Shohfi ’20 said. “We have a lot of players that have played a lot of football here. Looking at the display of leadership we put on [against Richmond], one great thing to take away from that going forward is our ability to keep our guys up. We don’t get down on ourselves a lot; for us, it’s just as simple as keeping other guys focused on what we have to do.”

The Eli defense has been effective in the secondary, but getting to the passer is a major issue facing the team. Yale ranks second in the Ancient Eight with six interceptions in just five games, thanks to the excellence of defense backs like Rodney Thomas II ’21, Kyle Ellis ’22 and Melvin Rouse II ’21.

Rouse was outstanding against Richmond, flying into three tackles and also snatching a pivotal interception out of the air. The pass rush, however, has not been as dominant. The Bulldogs have sacked opposing quarterbacks only eight times, placing them at sixth in the conference. This statistic will serve as motivation to talented defensive linemen like Spencer Matthaei ’20 to start racking up sacks.

Saturday could mark a historic day for Rawlings, the fearless shot-caller of the Blue and White, as he sits just one touchdown pass away from breaking the record for career touchdown tosses held by Alvin Cowan ’04. Additionally, the Bel Air native was named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week for his instrumental role in pulling off the miraculous victory against the Spiders. He passed for 249 yards and four touchdowns in that contest.

“Now that we’re back to Ivy League play,” offensive guard Dieter Eiselen ’20 said, “I’m really excited for myself, the offensive line-unit, and everyone else on the team to utilize all the lessons that we have learned, specifically over these past two weeks to the best of our ability going forward in division play. From having faced opponents that are really good at what they do [in Dartmouth and Richmond], it helps you to improve your craft and assess where you are and what you need to get better at.”

Yale squares off against Penn at noon on Saturday at the Yale Bowl.

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu

Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu

Jared Fel currently serves as a sports staff reporter covering football, baseball, and hockey for the Yale Daily News. Originally from Ossining, New York, he is a rising junior in Saybrook College majoring in Cognitive Science.