September 30, 2006

Early Turnovers, Late Touchdowns Give Yale 37-34 Win at Lafayette

Sept. 30, 2006

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EASTON, Pa. - The Yale defense generated four turnovers, all in the first half, and sophomore tailback Mike McLeod ran for three touchdowns, all in the second half, to lead Yale to a 37-34 win over Lafayette Saturday afternoon at Fisher Field. Senior wide receiver Ashley Wright added 151 yards receiving, including a 63-yard touchdown, to go along with McLeod's 172 yards on the ground.

The Bulldog defense produced a three-and-out on Lafayette's first drive, and the offense started at the Blue 33 after a short punt. Two big plays got the drive started right, as junior quarterback Matt Polhemus hit Wright for 13 yards and McLeod followed with a 14-yard run. The Elis eventually came away with a 36-yard field goal from junior placekicker Alan Kimball.

That led into the series of Lafayette turnovers that had Yale in control of the game early on. The next Leopard drive ended when senior cornerback Kevin Littleton arrived just after the ball to drill fullback Joe Russo on a pass play, popping the ball so far back from where Russo caught it (the Yale 46) that by the time junior defensive lineman Jared Hamilton pounced on it the ball was all the way back at the Lafayette 44.

"Our coaches have emphasized all season long to run those extra couple of steps to get to the loose ball, to get to the ball carrier," Hamilton said.

The Yale offense took advantage of the turnover quickly. Senior fullback Taylor Craig was called on to convert a third-and-one at the Leopard 35 and chugged forward for two yards. Two plays after that, Polhemus saw his receiving options covered so he tucked the ball and took off. With Wright down the field running interference, Polhemus sprinted into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs missed the extra point but had a 9-0 lead 10 minutes into the game.

There was only intermittent rain on the day, but the ball looked slippery when Leopard tailback Jonathan Hurt took a pitch right and never got a handle on it. The ball squirted off toward the sideline, where a crowd of players from both sides converged on it. Yale sophomore linebacker Bobby Abare eventually emerged from the pile with it at the Yale 45.

The Eli offense did not get any points out of that turnover, but the defense came up with another on Lafayette's next drive. Sophomore defensive lineman Joe Hathaway knocked the ball away from tailback Maurice White on a run from the Yale 23, and senior defensive end Brendan Sponheimer grabbed it. That snuffed out the Lafayette drive, even though once again the turnover did not lead to any points for Yale.

Lafayette (2-3) closed to within 9-7 with a 28-yard pass from Maurer to wide receiver Travis Hutson halfway through the second quarter. The Bulldogs answered with a homerun ball. Polhemus lofted one deep down the field to Wright, who had a step on his man. As Wright hauled in the ball he also high-stepped over an attempted arm tackle from behind, then had clear sailing into the end zone. Kimball's extra point gave Yale a 16-7 edge.

The turnover parade continued when Maurer made an ill-advised attempt at an off-balance throw while scrambling at the Yale 35. Sophomore defensive back Steven Santoro stepped in front of the intended receiver and raced 16 yards to the Bulldog 38. The teams went into halftime with Yale up 16-7.

Wright, an All-New England pick last year, had been held to five catches for 78 yards receiving in Yale's first two games. He had 76 yards receiving on two catches by halftime Saturday, then increased that total in dramatic fashion on the Bulldogs' first drive of the second half. A 12-yard pass to Craig converted a third-and-12 to get the ball to the Yale 39. Two plays later, Polhemus rolled left and spotted Wright once again behind the defense. Defensive back Torian Johnson eventually brought Wright down, but not before his 58-yard catch brought the ball to the goal-line. McLeod punched it in from there to give Yale a 23-7 lead at 10:29 of the third quarter.

"This week in practice we put an emphasis on trying to get the ball to Ashley," Polhemus said. "I know he's a great player, I've just got to throw it up for him."

Lafayette crept closer with a three-yard touchdown run by Russo with 6:58 to play. The Bulldogs then promptly pushed the Leopards back again with a 64-yard, 11-play drive that culminated with a one-yard dive into the end zone for McLeod. The drive was kept alive by three third-down conversions, one a leaping 17-yard grab by Wright, one a pass interference penalty generated by senior wide receiver Chandler Henley and one a 17-yard run by McLeod. Kimball's extra point gave Yale a 30-14 lead with 1:19 remaining in the third.

Another three-yard run by Russo set up a two-point conversion attempt that could have made it a one-score game. But sophomore linebacker Bobby Abare had the draw play to Hurt covered, wrapping him up well shy of the end zone. The Bulldogs' lead was 10 with 12:10 to play.

An unlucky break for Yale gave Lafayette a chance to get right back on the scoreboard. Polhemus' third-down pass slipped through Wright's hands and wound up in those of linebacker Andy Romans, whose interception at the Yale 27 enabled Maurer to take the ball in from there two plays later. The Leopards pulled within three with a Rick Ziska extra point.

The Yale offense was set back by a holding call on the next drive and had to punt. Punter Tom Mante pinned the Leopards back at their own 10, part of a strong day for the freshman in which he consistently kept dangerous return man Shaun Adair out of the picture. A short pass got Lafayette six yards but Maurer's toss fell at Hurt's feet on third-and-four.

The Bulldogs appeared to be stymied after taking over there, picking up just five yards on a pair of McLeod runs to set up a third down. But Yale caught Lafayette by surprise with a draw to McLeod on third down, as he took off all but untouched for a back-breaking touchdown with 4:04 to play.

"Once I get the ball [on that play], the middle is definitely going to open up because the blocking up front was tremendous all day," McLeod said. "I just have to make one person miss and it's a touchdown."

The Leopards got a three-yard touchdown pass from Maurer to tight end Adam Gill with 30 seconds left, but Henley recovered the onside kick to enable Yale to run out the clock.

Yale (2-1, 1-0 Ivy) travels to Dartmouth next Saturday.

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

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