FOOTBALL: Yale’s offense explodes for five touchdowns, blanks Lehigh 34–0 in first shutout victory since 2017
Griffin O’Connor ’23 and Nolan Grooms ’24 combined for 245 yards and three touchdowns, while Clay Patterson ’24 notched a game-high four sacks to go along with nine solo tackles, as Yale shutout Lehigh 34–0 in the team’s first road tilt of the season.
William Gallagher, Contributing Photographer
In the Yale football team’s first road test of 2021, Team 148 dominated every facet of the game, from kickoff until the final whistle. The offense scored more touchdowns than it had across the first two weeks of the season, while the defense held its opponent scoreless — a feat not accomplished since its 2017 win against Holy Cross.
The Bulldogs (2–1, 1–0 Ivy) entered Saturday yet to have played a game defined by offensive brilliance, the likes of which fans had become accustomed to witnessing back in 2019. While the Bulldogs have gotten consistent play from their defense through the first two games of the season — holding Holy Cross to 20 points and notching three picks last week against Cornell — the Eli offense and its 20 points-per-game average ranked sixth in the Ancient Eight.
Penalties notably created a lot of problems for the Blue and White against Cornell, stalling several drives in the red zone and preventing the offense from finding its rhythm.
“After Cornell, we all had a good idea that those kinds of [penalties] can’t happen if we want to win big time games against big time opponents,” offensive lineman Nick Gargiulo ’23 said. “There were some tangible things that the offensive line, receiving core and defense were able to work on this past week to ensure that those penalties don’t happen in the future. It all comes down to just focusing on those types of things during practice.”
This weekend’s contest against Lehigh (0–4, 0–1 Patriot), which saw the Blue and White dominate both sides of the ball from the game’s first minute to its 60th, has put a dent in that narrative. Team 148 racked up 420 yards of total offense as the quarterbacking tandem of Griffin O’Connor ’23 and Nolan Grooms ’24 combined for three touchdowns and 245 yards spread out among seven different receivers. On the ground, running back Zane Dudek ’22 and his 56 rushing yards and touchdown score led the way for a rushing unit that finished with 175 yards on the afternoon.
“I thought we improved for the second week in a row after our first-week setback,” head coach Tony Reno said. “The guys were really intentional throughout practice this week and they’re bringing preparation to their performance, which is something that we really stressed and is something that can make us a championship level team. We have a long way to go before we can start to talk about being championship-level, but we are better than we were two weeks ago.”
While the Eli offense certainly put on a show for those in attendance, it was Yale’s defense that was the real showstopper. The Bulldogs held the Mountain Hawks to just 146 total yards and allowed a mere 11 completions. The linebacking unit amassed an astounding eight sacks, tied for the most since Reno took over in 2012. The Blue and White finished the game with 13 tackles for loss en route to securing the squad’s first shutout victory since a 32–0 blanking of Holy Cross back in 2017.
Defensive lineman Clay Patterson ’24 continued his excellent start to the year, tallying a game-high nine solo tackles and five tackles for loss, four of which were sacks.
“Clay [Patterson] has done an amazing job of growing week in and week out,” Reno said. “You can see how he’s been playing more freely and more confidently as the season has been progressing. He’s a very athletic interior defensive lineman and has a skillset that’s really tough to handle if you’re an offensive lineman. Our defensive coaching staff has done a great job of putting [Patterson] in good positions and he’s been making the most of those opportunities.”
Just as it did against Cornell a week prior, Team 148’s offense wasted no time in putting points on the board. On the second drive of the afternoon, a 15-yard pass interference penalty on Lehigh set Yale up deep into enemy territory. On the Bulldogs’ ensuing play, and with the Mountain Hawks in a man-to-man defense, outside receiver David Pantelis ’25 expertly side stepped his defender and had an open lane to the endzone. O’Connor read the play immediately and lofted a well-timed pass that fell barely out of reach of a roaming safety and into the arms of a leaping Pantelis. The Blue and White quickly jumped out to a 7–0 lead.
With the Eli defense holding Lehigh to just 23 yards of offense through the entire opening quarter, Yale looked to be putting a nice drive together as the final seconds of the first ticked off the clock. Inside the red zone to begin the second quarter of play, the Bulldogs turned to Dudek for some offensive juice on a fourth-and-1 situation. Dudek rewarded his team with a 9-yard gain, and immediately followed it up with a signature 7-yard bulldozing run into the endzone. It was Dudek’s first touchdown of the season and gave Team 148 a 14–0 lead.
After holding the Mountain Hawks to just one first-down across the next two drives, and with just over a minute remaining in the half, Reno decided to give Grooms an opportunity to command the offense for the Blue and White. Rather than have Grooms run with the football, a play design that Reno has consistently used with Grooms all year, it was apparent as soon as the ball was snapped that Grooms was instead looking to throw. It appeared that Lehigh was expecting the run as well. Grooms caught the zone defense sleeping and hit a wide open Mason Tipton ’24 at the right sideline. After evading a charging safety, Tipton sprinted up the sideline for a 57-yard touchdown. It was Tipton’s first score of the year and Grooms’ first touchdown pass of his collegiate career, as Yale led the Mountain Hawks 21–0 to close out the half.
“With the offense playing really well, it gave us an opportunity to put Nolan [Grooms] in and have him get extended playing time,” Reno said. “It then gave [Grooms] the opportunity to come in and run the offense rather than have him be used as a situational piece. I thought he handled the offense really well and he did some really nice things that he can hopefully build on.”
After both teams exchanged three-and-outs to begin the third quarter, Reno decided to give backup running back Elliott McElwain ’22 some action. McElwain, after breaking a tackle at the line of scrimmage, slipped his way through a hole in the defensive line and let loose a 48-yard run to set up the offense at the opponent’s 20-yard line. Fellow running back Spencer Alston ’23 picked up right where McElwain left off, eluding defenders before finding an opening at the left sideline for a 15-yard touchdown run. With the score, the Bulldogs now led 28–0 halfway through the third.
Lehigh answered with what was, at that point, its most competitive drive of the day as it pushed the ball into field goal range to the Eli 34-yard line. However, a sack on third down brought the Mountain Hawks back to the 39-yard line and they were left with no other option but to punt the ball away to end the third quarter.
Grooms was now in complete control of the offense to begin the fourth quarter. After finding Tipton for a 28-yard gain, Grooms was once again in the red zone. With the ball snapped, wideout Chase Nenad ’24 ran a simple fly route down the sideline towards the left corner of the endzone. Lehigh’s zone defense completely misread the play, giving Grooms a wide open target that he hit in stride for Yale’s fifth touchdown of the afternoon. After kicker Jack Bosman ’24 missed the extra point, the score read 34–0.
“We gave up quite a few explosive plays on defense today, which allowed them to break the game open and it really changed the complexion of the game,” Lehigh head coach Tom Gilmore said in a postgame press conference. “I thought we were doing some good things offensively. We just need to tighten some things up, make some of the catches that we didn’t make, break a couple runs here and there.”
On the Mountain Hawks’ final drive of the game, the team appeared to be making a bid for its first touchdown of the season after a pass interference penalty on the Eli defense moved Lehigh to the Yale 15-yard line. The Blue and White responded by sacking the quarterback on second down, and then again on fourth down.
With the defensive stop, the Bulldogs had secured their first shutout win in nearly four years.
“We talked a lot about stopping the run on the way to the quarterback and our defensive line and linebackers did a great job of pressuring,” Reno said. “It helps the secondary so much when you’re able to put pressure on the other team’s decision maker. The secondary was able to stay on top of routes, it’s great to see them grow as a group and see them get better as the season progresses.”
The Bulldogs handed Lehigh its 12th loss in a row dating back to 2019, which is tied for the longest losing skid in team history.
With Dudek’s 56 rushing yards, the Pennsylvania native secured a 6.3 yards-per-rush average — a mark that has propelled him past Eli legend Dick Jauron ’73 and his 5.7 average for the highest total in Yale history.
Team 148’s road trip continues this weekend as they travel north to Hanover on Oct. 9 to face Dartmouth.