September 15, 2007

No. 21 Bulldogs Hold Off Hoyas in Season Opener, 28-14

Sept. 15, 2007

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Powered by four touchdowns and 157 yards rushing from junior tailback Mike McLeod, No. 21 Yale opened the 2007 season with a 28-14 win at Georgetown Saturday afternoon. The Bulldog defense made a pair of goal-line stands, one at the end of the second quarter and one late in the third quarter, to help keep the Hoyas at bay.

Despite an early 14-0 lead for Yale, this game came down to the fourth quarter -- and that was when McLeod ground out 68 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown run, to put the game away.

"It was a long game, and I felt at the end our off-season [conditioning] took its toll [on Georgetown]," McLeod said. "They were 0-2, and we knew it was going to be a fight out of the gate."

The defending Ivy League co-champions started strong. The defensive line, expected to be a major strength, passed its first test with captain Brandt Hollander sidelined by an injury. Senior Stephen Schmalhofer started in Hollander's spot, and senior Jared Hamilton was in on back-to-back stops during the first series. He combined with junior defensive end Larry Abare to wrap up quarterback Matt Bassuener for no gain on second down and then tag-teamed with junior linebacker Jay Pilkerton for a sack on third down.

That forced a Hoya punt that set Yale up with great field position for its first drive of the year, and the Bulldogs turned that into seven points. The drive started with the type of bread-and-butter play that keyed Yale's Ivy title run last year: a big run by McLeod, this one a 16-yarder. The drive-saving play came from a new source, however, as sophomore tight end John Sheffield's leaping basket catch down the right sideline for 20 yards converted a third and seven. Two plays later, McLeod took the ball at the nine and capped his run with a dive into the end zone at the 10:54 mark.

After missing last year with an injury, senior strong safety Nick Solakian officially announced his return by delivering one of his trademark pops on Bassuener while the signal-caller was running an option play midway through the first quarter. That, and some excellent coverage by junior cornerback Casey Gerald on a third-down pass, forced another Hoya punt.

Sheffield continued to emerge as a key part of the offense on the ensuing drive, including a 19-yard catch and a 26-yard catch that got the ball to the one. McLeod took it in from there for a 14-0 Yale lead at 3:06 of the first.

The Hoyas fought back in the second quarter with a 12-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that included a fourth-down conversion at the Yale 13. Bassuener's 10-yard pass to Mychal Harrison pulled Georgetown within seven.

Yale pieced together a long drive of its own, an 11-play sequence that included a 32-yard grab by junior wide receiver Jarrett Drake. But a missed field goal attempt helped keep Georgetown in the game, and the Hoyas nearly took advantage of that in the waning moments of the first half.

Georgetown drove to the Yale one with 29.5 seconds left before a wild sequence ended the second quarter. Hamilton tackled Harrison short of the end zone on first down, and that forced the Hoyas to spike the ball on second down. There were only 8.1 seconds on the clock for the next play -- a short toss into the end zone that fell incomplete. The Hoyas were called for illegal motion and the Bulldogs were hit with a pass interference call on the same play, which initially only took three-tenths of a second off the clock. After conferring, the officials set the clock at six seconds for a third-and-goal from the three. As Bassuener's pass was deflected and fell incomplete in the end zone the final seconds ticked off, causing the Hoyas to protest that the clock should have been stopped more quickly. That protest fell on deaf ears, and the Bulldogs kept their 14-7 lead into the break.

"That was a big momentum turn for us, stopping them there before the half," Abare said. "We came out in the second half and our offense did a great job driving down the field."

Yale got the ball to start the second half and started regaining control with an 11-play, 64-yard drive. A reverse to senior wide receiver Chris Denny-Brown netted 13 yards, and senior quarterback Matt Polhemus executed a nifty scramble to get the ball to the one where Yale faced a fourth down. The Bulldogs then gave the ball to McLeod again. He headed for the right side of the line, where the play was so well-executed that the only Hoya defender anywhere near McLeod was being blocked toward the back of the end zone by senior fullback Joe Fuccillo.

Georgetown answered with a drive to the Yale four, where the Bulldog defense made its next crucial stand. On second down from there running back Kyle Van Fleet took the ball up the middle and was stopped a yard short of the goal-line by Pilkerton and junior defensive end Brady Hart. On third down Van Fleet again tried the middle, but Hart and Abare brought him down for no gain. That set up a fourth down that was clearly going to be a game-changing play. Abare got credit for the stop as receiver Charlie Houghton was brought down short of the end zone after a toss left. Larry Abare was quick to distribute that credit, though, including his twin brother Bobby.

"I think Bobby was the one who stopped him," Larry said. "I got penetration, then [Houghton] cut it back and the rest of the defense cleaned up."

Still, the Hoyas would not go away. Field position swung in their favor when they stopped a Yale drive at the Eli 11; after the punt Georgetown took over at its own 39. A pair of third-down conversions kept that drive alive until it culminated with Bassuener tossing a seven-yard touchdown pass to receiver Anthony Hornsey in the end zone. That pulled the Hoyas within 21-14 with 6:08 to play.

The Bulldogs turned to McLeod, the Walter Payton Award candidate, to put some distance between themselves and the Hoyas. A 28-yard kickoff return by sophomore wide receiver Reid Lathan gave the offense the ball at the Yale 42. After that, other than a 12-yard completion to Drake to convert a third-and-seven, the rest of the yardage was covered by McLeod. His 14-yard trot into the end zone with 2:22 to play sent a good chunk of the crowd toward the exits. It also moved McLeod into a tie for second on Yale's all-time rushing touchdown list (29, Robert Carr 2001-2004; five behind John Pagliaro's total from 1975-1977).

The Hoyas' final drive did get to the Yale 21 with 1:41 to play, but junior free safety Steven Santoro's interception there put an end to the threat.

Yale hosts Cornell at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field next Saturday at 12:30, the Ivy League opener. It is also Youth Day.

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

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