De­fense looks to learn from mis­takes

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - PAGE 2 - By Chip Malafronte cmalafronte@nhreg­is­ter.com

NEW HAVEN — Since turn­ing things around at the end of the 2016 sea­son, Yale’s run de­fense has be­come its call­ing card.

No op­po­nent ran the foot­ball with any sort of con­sis­tency dur­ing the Ivy League cham­pi­onship run of last fall. And though grad­u­a­tion and in­jury trans­formed a vet­eran Bull­dog de­fense to one lack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, they’d con­tin­ued to be stingy against the run through the sea­son’s first three games.

But af­ter Dart­mouth came to the Yale Bowl last week and rolled up 347 rush­ing yards (the Bull­dogs first three op­po­nents com­bined for 400) and with an­other tough non-league foe, Mercer, on the docket Satur­day — Yale was forced to do a quick re­assess­ment.

“Peo­ple have not been able to run the ball against us for the last year and a half. At all,” Yale coach Tony Reno said. “Dart­mouth did, and quite ef­fi­ciently. We weren’t fit­ting (gaps) prop­erly and things were run­ning off the ta­ble.”

Yale fixed the prob­lems against Dart­mouth and was much bet­ter against the run in the sec­ond half. The de­fen­sive line and lineback­ers ex­pect to be back to their old selves against the run game against Mercer, a dan­ger­ous op­po­nent from the com­pet­i­tive South­ern Con­fer­ence.

Mercer (3-2) played Alabama and Auburn last sea­son, giv­ing the lat­ter a hard time in an even­tual 24-10 loss. Among its three wins this fall is a vic­tory over Sam­ford, at the time ranked ninth in the Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion.

The Bears av­er­age 157 yards on the ground and are more ef­fec­tive in the pass­ing game. But with two ca­pa­ble run­ning backs in Tee Mitchell (416 yards and five touch­downs) and Tyray Devezin (7.2 yards per carry) Yale will need to be at its best.

“At the end of the day we have to take care of what we need to do,” said Yale ju­nior de­fen­sive end Spencer Matthaei. “You ei­ther win or you learn. The fo­cus is on tak­ing what we can (from the Dart­mouth loss) and learn­ing from it.”

Yale (2-2) missed an op­por­tu­nity to take com­mand of the Ivy League race last Fri­day night. In­stead, it suf­fered its worst loss in nearly two years and finds it­self with no mar­gin for er­ror.

It’s a fa­mil­iar sce­nario. Last Oc­to­ber, af­ter a one­point loss to Dart­mouth, the Bull­dogs re­cov­ered to win out the sched­ule while get­ting help around the league that re­sulted in an Ivy cham­pi­onship.

Mercer presents one last non-con­fer­ence game be­fore an all-im­por­tant stretch of five Ivy games to con­clude the sea­son, in­clud­ing tough matchups with Prince­ton and Har­vard at Fen­way Park.

Yale is slowly re­cov­er­ing from an early rash of in­juries. Most no­tably, tail­backs Zane Dudek and Alan La­mar re­turned against Dart­mouth. But the Bull­dogs re­main a young team that started only two se­niors last week.

“We have a lot of guys who’ve played some, but not a lot,” Reno said.

“What you’re see­ing is a team ma­ture, and as they ma­ture they im­prove. It’s a lot like life. You ma­ture by go­ing through ex­pe­ri­ences.”

To­day’s game is the first meet­ing be­tween the schools, who signed a fouryear con­tract that in­cludes an­other game in New Haven in 2022 and games at Mercer in 2021 and 2023.

Mercer, lo­cated in Ma­con, Ge­or­gia, fielded a foot­ball team from 1906 un­til the out­break of World War II. The school dropped the sport un­til re­viv­ing it five years ago. It’s been a con­sis­tently solid team in the al­ways com­pet­i­tive South­ern Con­fer­ence.

While Mercer’s de­fense is prone to al­low­ing a lot of points, Yale needs to pick up its vaunted ground at­tack. Dudek, a fresh­man All-Amer­i­can last fall, may still be re­cov­er­ing. Quar­ter­back Kurt Rawl­ings took a beat­ing at the hands of Dart­mouth’s heavy pres­sure, and will need to be bet­ter pro­tected.

“Yale does ev­ery­thing ef­fi­cient,” Mercer coach Bobby Lamb said. “They keep the ball from you. They av­er­age 34 min­utes time of pos­ses­sion. It’s not an hurry up, up-tempo of­fense, it’s get to the line of scrim­mage and try to get right play called. But it’s im­per­a­tive we run the ball to be suc­cess­ful.”

For Yale, stop­ping the run could be the key to vic­tory.

“De­fen­sively, ear­lier in the year it took us a bit to get go­ing as far as play­ing to­gether and giv­ing an all-out ef­fort for each other,” Matthaei said. “That’s some­thing we’ve worked on and started to come into. We are start­ing to per­form that way, and we are go­ing to con­tinue to play to­gether. We’re grow­ing with how hard we’re play­ing.”

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