Defense looks to learn from mistakes
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.”