October 30, 2010

Yale Holds Off Columbia, 31-28

Bulldogs Force Three Fumbles, Pick Off Two Passes

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – In the end, Yale's first half was better than Columbia's second half -- and as a result, the Bulldogs kept themselves in the hunt for the Ivy League title with a 31-28 win over the Lions Saturday afternoon at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field. Yale built up a 31-7 lead in the first 30 minutes thanks to three touchdown passes from junior quarterback Patrick Witt, including the first two career TDs for freshman wide receiver Cameron Sandquist. The Yale defense forced three fumbles and picked off two passes, along with coming up with a stand on Columbia's final drive of the day, to deny the hard-charging Lions after they scored 21 unanswered points in the second half.

With the win, Yale (5-2, 3-1 Ivy League) remains a game out of first place in the Ivy League standings, trailing 4-0 Penn. The Bulldogs lost to the Quakers a week ago but bounced back in a big way at the start of Saturday's game before denying the late Columbia rally.

"This was not exactly how we drew it up," said Tom Williams, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "We talked this week about being a championship-caliber team. We were disappointed last week. But if you're a championship-caliber team, you come back with a vengeance. We showed that in the first half today, but in the second half we didn't finish the way we wanted to finish. We'll have to keep the momentum going from this win, but also eliminate the mistakes that we made."

The Bulldogs couldn't have asked for more out of the first minute of the game. First, sophomore wide receiver Chris Smith returned the opening kickoff 48 yards to the Columbia 47. Then, after a short completion from Witt (19-30, 213 yards) to freshman running back Deon Randall, junior tailback Alex Thomas (19 carries, 137 yards) burst through a huge hole on the left side of the line and had room to race down the sideline and into the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown. Sophomore placekicker Philippe Panico's extra point made it 7-0 Yale.

"Coach [Rod] Plummer told us before the game it was going to be one of those games where you just pound it, pound it, pound it, and then you break one," Thomas said. "It just happened that we broke one on the first running play."

The Yale defense generated the first turnover of the game when senior defensive end Tom McCarthy tackled Lions QB Sean Brackett behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble that was recovered by senior defensive end Sean Williams at the Columbia 22. Four plays later Panico booted a 32-yard field goal to make it 10-0 Yale.

Yale's first drive of the second quarter started with back-to-back holding calls against the Bulldogs, but Yale overcame the first-and-30 thanks in part to Witt finding senior wide receiver Jordan Forney for a 28-yard completion on third down. Witt later found Randall for a 26-yard gain to the Columbia 14, and then converted another third down with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Sandquist for Sandquist's first career catch and first career score. Panico's extra point made it 17-0.

On the first Columbia play after that Yale TD, Williams forced a Lions fumble and senior strong safety Adam Money recovered at the Columbia 15. Witt then found a wide-open Sandquist in the end zone on the next play, giving the freshman two touchdowns on his first two career catches.

"I couldn't have imagined it any better," Sandquist said. "I was just excited to get out there and get my number called. The line blocked perfectly and Pat threw me a great ball."

Columbia (3-4, 1-3 Ivy) put together its first sustained drive of the game midway through the second quarter. The Lions drove from their own 11 in 14 plays, ending with Brackett finding tight end Andrew Kennedy in the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown 2:40 before halftime.

The Lions appeared to have the defensive stop they needed on the next Yale possession, but a Columbia fumble on a fourth-down Yale punt gave Money another chance to come up with the ball -- this time at the Columbia 22 with 1:23 left in the half. He now has a pair of fumble recoveries to go with his three interceptions for the season. This one set up a 16-yard touchdown pass from Witt to sophomore wide receiver Allen Harris 35 seconds before halftime to put the Elis up 31-7.

The Yale defense started the second half with tackles for loss on Columbia's first two plays, one by senior outside linebacker Jesse Reising and one by Williams. Later, the defense negated a Yale turnover by picking off a Columbia pass at the Bulldog eight three plays later. Sophomore outside linebacker Will McHale grabbed the tipped pass to deny the Lions a chance to creep back into the game.

Brackett and Kennedy combined for another touchdown at 1:36 of the third quarter, this one a 23-yarder, to continue Columbia's rally. The Lions were finally able to convert an interception into points when they got their third pick of the game near the start of the fourth quarter. Three plays after free safety Adam Mehrer nabbed a Yale pass at the Columbia 41, Brackett led wide receiver Nico Gutierrez in the end zone to pull the Lions within 31-21 with 12:21 to play.

The Lions got right to Yale's doorstep with less than eight minutes to play, but after McHale brought Brackett down a yard short of the end zone a holding penalty brought the ball back to the Eli 16. Junior linebacker Jordan Haynes' interception temporarily ended the drive there, but the Lions got the ball back at the Yale 34 after a Bulldog fumble on the very next play. Brackett then found Kennedy, who tiptoed along the back of the end zone while hauling in the touchdown that pulled Columbia within 31-28 with 6:22 to play.

The Yale defense finally put the game away with a stop in Columbia territory late in the fourth quarter. After a 51-yard punt by freshman Greg Carlsen, Columbia got the ball back at its own seven with 4:26 to play. The Lions drove as far as their own 41, but Williams got a tackle for loss there, and a sack by McCarthy and Williams on third-and-four forced the Lions to go for it on fourth down. When Brackett's pass was broken up by Reising, the Bulldogs were able to take over at the Columbia 35 with 2:10 to play.

Thomas went to work behind the Yale offensive line there, pounding away with four straight runs right up the middle that killed the clock and sealed the win.

As impressive as the Bulldogs' first half was (245 yards of total offense, no turnovers), the second half (111 yards, four turnovers) left Yale with room for improvement with three games left on the schedule.

"It was frustrating," Witt said. "We had a great first half and were hitting on all cylinders. The second half was a tale of two halves -- they made some adjustments and we had some miscommunications. It's stuff we can get fixed."

Yale visits Brown next Saturday. The Bulldogs, Bears and Harvard all sit at 3-1 in the league and are in need of wins to keep pace in the Ivy title chase.

Report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity