With 140 years of football tradition and enough prestige to be considered one of the top universities in the world, Yale can afford to be fastidious.
Famous for selectivity in their admissions process, the Bulldogs can be just as picky when parsing their football schedules.
Located in New Haven, Conn., Yale plays 10 games a year, and most of them take place in the east. In all those years, the Bulldogs have played in California just twice — relatively recent games at fellow nonscholarship FCS program San Diego.
So, today’s 2:05 p.m. nonconference game against Cal Poly at Alex G. Spanos Stadium represents a step up for Yale.
The Bulldogs (2-0) get some welcome exposure to California recruits and an upgraded challenge in facing a playoff-contending opponent ranked in the top 20 in both major FCS polls.
The Mustangs, meanwhile, can revel in the association.
Long considered one of the top public academic institutions on the West Coast, Cal Poly now knows exactly how it must feel to open that Ivy League acceptance letter.
“They chose us,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “They could have chosen somebody else out here on the West Coast to play. They wanted West Coast exposure, but I think it’s a great compliment to Cal Poly as a university as well as to our football program and what we’ve accomplished.
“They wanted to play against a team that is ranked, against a team that has a chance to go to the playoffs. So to get a school that has the academic reputation that we have as well as the football reputation, we made sense for them.”
The Mustangs (2-2) are ranked 18th in The Sports Network media top 25 and 19th in the coaches’ poll. After opening Big Sky Conference play with a come-from-behind 38-34 victory at Portland State last week, Cal Poly has the seventh-best rushing offense in the FCS at 278.3 yards per game and is 22nd in total offense (458.5).
The Mustangs’ two losses came against FBS teams who overmatched them in the first half, but in the season opener against San Diego, Cal Poly romped to a 38-16 win at home.
Second-year Yale head coach Tony Reno was not in charge when the game was originally scheduled but echoed Walsh’s comments on the reasoning of the contract, a single-game engagement.
“They’re definitely the best team on our schedule,” Reno said. “I haven’t seen the other Ivy League teams, and Fordham, I know they’re having a good run. I haven’t seen them on film, but Cal Poly’s the best team I’ve seen in my time in the Ivy League on film.
“I think it’s a great challenge for us. We’re an Ivy League school. We don’t have scholarships, and we’re not in the same situation as they are. Our guys are on financial aid or are paying to go to school. We’re looking at it as a great challenge for our team and our program.”
With both being nonscholarship schools, the Bulldogs’ talent might be more comparable to the Toreros’ with one major difference.
While San Diego rarely if ever beats a scholarship program like Cal Poly in recruiting, Yale is able to snatch players who might value the academic prestige.
The Mustangs coveted Yale junior receiver Deon Randall, who had four touchdowns in last week’s 38-23 victory over Cornell, when he was playing at a San Diego private school.
They wanted the Bulldogs’ senior center, John Oppenheimer, as well.
“They have a couple guys on their team that we really did want and that we did recruit,” Walsh said, “and they told us up front that if they got into Yale, they were going to Yale. That’s up to them, but I’m sure they’re going to come out here to try and prove what kind of football players they are as well as the students they were.”
The Bulldogs are confident after a hot start. They’ve already equaled their win total from last season and have one of the most efficient offenses in the FCS.
Averaging 551.5 yards in its first two games, Yale ranks fourth in total offense. Randall is third in the country with nine catches per game, quarterback Henry Furman has the top completion percentage in the country (75.5) and sits sixth in passing efficiency (170.5), and running back Tyler Varga is second in the FCS with 170.5 rushing yards per game.
Both Randall and Chris Smith, the second-leading Yale receiver, sat out last season with injury. So did tight end Keith Coty, and Furman played most of his games at receiver last season as the Bulldogs battled injuries at both positions.
Now that all are back healthy, Yale can run its offense as intended. Associate head coach Joe Conlin worked with Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly at New Hampshire, and the Bulldogs have been trying to mimic the speed and tempo Kelly’s gameplans are known for.
“We have a tremendous offense and a foundation for a great offense for playmakers to make plays,” Randall said. “When you run an offense like that with such versatility, and you lose a couple of your playmakers, it’s hard to produce points.
“I think the biggest difference” from last season, he added, “is we got a lot of depth at receiver. We got a great running back that runs hard.”