The 3-0 start, a mark cemented with a stand-up-and-take-notice 24-10 comeback victory last Saturday afternoon at Cal Poly, is not an illusion.
But Tony Reno knows what he has percolating in New Haven — a selfless, young, and determined squad that, thus far, is playing with confidence, and the ferocity of a Bulldog entering Saturday’s Ivy League matchup at Dartmouth.
“We’re 3-0, but we could just as easily be 0-3,” acknowledged the second-year Yale coach, who vowed a “culture change” for the program when he arrived in January 2012 after a three-run run as an assistant at rival Harvard.
“They like playing with each other. It is a very young team, and they need to do all the little things to win. We have to earn every victory.”
And that will include Saturday in Hanover, N.H., against a 1-2 Big Green team that absorbed punches to the gut in each of the last two weeks, letting a fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 31-28 loss to Holy Cross and falling, 37-31, in four overtimes at Penn last week, the longest game in the annals of the Ivy.
In the opener at Colgate, Yale rode the sturdy legs of junior back Tyler Varga (39 carries, 236 yards, one touchdown) to a 39-22 victory. In Week 2, it was senior quarterback Henry Furman (29 of 36, 353 yards, three TDs), who outdueled the acclaimed Jeff Mathews (25 of 43, three TDs, two interceptions) in a 38-23 win over visiting Cornell.
And last week in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the stout Eli defense shut out the hosts in the second half, limiting Cal Poly to 37 total yards over the final two quarters.
“We have been a second-half team, last year we let games slip away in the second half,” said sophomore strong safety Cole Champion, who has quickly emerged as a playmaker on the back end of the Eli defense.
With his 14-tackle performance, augmented with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery, the 5-foot-11-inch, 183-pound Champion earned a number of salutes, including being named FCS national defensive player of the week by The Sports Network.
“At one point last year, I told him, ‘hey listen, even though you’re a freshman, you can’t play like one,’ ” said Reno of Champion, who left St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as the program’s career tackle leader, while playing linebacker.
And he didn’t play like a freshman while starting the last seven games last season. “Now he has gone from being the young guy to one of the oldest.”
During his recruitment, Champion said that one of Reno’s main points was “getting guys that could contribute right away, and have them develop a trust in each other.”
Another point: the best players will play, regardless of class.
His message has resonated, loud and clear.
“The first day Coach Reno came in, I knew that Yale football was going in the right direction,” recalled senior captain Beau Palin, the pride of Oconomowoc, Wis., who prepped for one year at Phillips Andover.
“I was certain of it. In the Ivy League, it’s a simple equation, you control the controllables. There is so much parity in the league. You have to focus on the little things.”
For Palin, that involved moving to other side of the ball.
Yale had glaring holes on the defensive front, prompting Reno to ask the 6-3, 247-pound Palin to shift from tight end to defensive end.
“He’s a natural leader, he made himself into a good defensive end [registering five sacks while starting all 10 games in 2012],” said the coach.
The culture change did not materialize in wins a year ago — the 2-8 finish capped by a 34-24 loss at Harvard in which a Furman-fueled rally fell just short — but the foundation was in place.
“It took a little bit of time, losing is never acceptable, it is not fun, but you still believe in what you are doing,” said Palin.
Reno said the offseason was big. “You could see the team forming,” said the 39-year-old coach.
Palin, finishing his pre-med requirements as an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major, proudly noted that there were 70 players on campus in July, working out.
“We would not be 3-0 without believing in the process, but we have so much to improve on,” he said. “You have to believe in the guy playing to your left and your right.”
Which is music to Reno’s ears.
“This team is a very selfless group, it’s been fun to watch,” said Reno. “I really like a lot of things about our makeup. The culture is what I wanted.”
Worcester State coach Brien Cullen is not at all surprised.
“Tony recruited himself to me,” said the 31-year head coach, recalling how Reno, from nearby Oxford had walked into his office after spending his freshman year at Hobart. He wanted to come home and play with rest of the Central Mass. crew.
A three-starter at strong safety (“he was the slow one,” cracked Cullen) for a Lancer club that was ranked No. 1 in New England his senior year (1996), Reno emerged as a coach on the field.
“He just a great understanding of what was going on,” said Cullen. “He was part of one of the top classes we ever had. There were a lot of leaders.”
Reno later returned to the program as defensive coordinator. “You can just tell, guys that have it, they stay the course,” added Cullen. “The kids really gravitated toward him.”
He’s having the same impact at Yale.
Craig Larson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.