Examining the unexpected rise of Dartmouth football
The team has shot off to a dominant start with a 5-0 overall record and 2-0 Ivy League record.
The team has averaged 38 points a game on offense — 13th highest in the Football Championship Subdivision — while only allowing 249 yards per game — fourth best in the nation.
After being picked in most preseason polls to finish in the bottom half of the Ivy League standings, the Dartmouth football team has shot off to a dominant start with a 5-0 overall record and 2-0 Ivy League conference record, demonstrated most recently by a 41-18 bludgeoning of defending conference champions and preseason favorites Yale University in New Haven last Saturday and a 42-0 shutout of Sacred Heart University at home on Saturday. The performances by the Big Green so far have been textbook examples of offensive and defensive power. Under the leadership of head football coach Buddy Teevens ‘79, the team has averaged 38 points a game on offense—13th highest in the Football Championship Subdivision—while the 249 yards allowed per game on defense puts them fourth in the country among the teams at their level. Since the disappointing 2016 campaign, where the team went 4-6 on the year and 1-6 in conference, the Big Green has gone 13-2, and the reasons behind this start go beyond simple statistics.
When asked why he felt this year had been such a success so far, Coach Teevens found a simple answer.
“There’s just great cohesion,” Teevens responded. “The guys get along together well, and there is a very clear feeling of a common goal.”
Rather than a few individuals being integral to the team’s performance, Teevens could run off the names of more than 20 players on the team that he felt had been contributors to the team’s success.
Linebacker and defensive captain Jack Traynor ’19 believes the offensive line has excelled and allows the defense to thrive.
“It’s tough to single out anyone on the offensive line, but their play has been dominant this year,” Traynor said. “I think it’s going to be a key cog of our success going forward if they’re able to keep their success up there.”
Traynor also notes the quarterback play is consistent and impressive.
“[Derek Kyler ’21 and Jared Gerbino ’20] have done a great job filling in and managing the game from the quarterback position,” he said.
Left tackle Matt Kaskey ’19 was quick to point out the significance of the coaching staff as well.
“These guys are working 100-hour weeks every week over the season to make things happen,” Kaskey said.
Kaskey also found this dedication to the team and to each other to be the key factor.
“[Despite the four game improvement last year], we won a lot of games by the skin of our teeth and on last second drives, and lost to Harvard and Columbia, so we knew we weren’t there yet,” Kaskey said.
The team pressed on to work even harder in the offseason—a mentality which they’d doubled on after the 2016 campaign — a year that Kaskey described as simply “a bad time to be a Dartmouth football player.” Kaskey, a preseason FCS All-American selection, added that this team seems to be more dedicated.
“I kind of think that what the difference has been this year, and what has made us so good, is what we put into it, and we care a lot more than we did two years ago,” Kaskey said. “I think that’s really shown in how hard guys are playing on the field and the success we’ve had with things.”
It is perhaps the result of this unified goal that the team has been able to adapt to the challenges they have faced so far. Teevens described preparing for games as having more of an “evolutionary process” than any kind of hard-set system.
“You go into things with some definitive thoughts, and morph them into what your offense can do,” Teevens said.
Dartmouth has had a particularly deep team this year, with few injuries and the ability to play multiple players at each position. The coach thinks this stems from the team’s style of practicing, which has famously eliminated the use of contact in practice and focuses on the use of remote controlled dummies, called “MVPs” or “mobile workout players.”
“The elimination of contact allows us to be faster on gameday, and keep a standard of being very efficient and technically sound,” Teevens said.
With the results that the team is producing and the standards of the defense, it is difficult to find an argument against the approach.
One example of this adaptation is the quarterback system the Big Green has been running so far this year. After losing expected starting quarterback Gerbino for the first games of the season, Kyler stepped in, leading the Big Green to its initial victories. In the most recent game against Yale, however, Gerbino was in most of the action, with 169 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Teevens described this as an example of the adapting the team has done, noting that “you take advantage of the skillsets people have.” Now that both quarterbacks are in the mix, the team has the increased ability to adapt their offensive approach to their opponents.
“Adjusting in the course of the ball game, and having multiple running backs and wide receivers, and multiple quarterbacks, is tough to defend,” Teevens said. “The key is keeping a balance and keeping them off balance.”
Kyler, in his first season as Dartmouth’s starting quarterback, expects to succeed in the role.
“I personally expect a lot out of myself. I just need to keep being smart with the ball and not having any turnovers,” Kyler said.
He also wants to become a leader of the team.
“I find that you have to earn leadership,” Kyler said. “You can’t just go and say whatever you want to anyone, so I feel I have a couple games under my belt, but I’m still not top dog of our system. We have our captains, so I feel like I’m a leader for example of what I do. I’m vocalizing myself more and more as time progresses.”
While the Big Green have boasted a devastating offense so far, their defense has been equally important. Traynor is thrilled with the defense’s start.
“Obviously, being 5-0 is the best you can hope for at this stage,” he said. “I think we’re really coming together in terms of team chemistry and everybody really feeling good about where they are right now.”
The team has allowed only 9.2 points and 233 yards per game on average so far, fitting with the team football philosophy promoted by Teevens, which focuses on “dominating on the time of possession, and getting the defense on and off the field quickly.”
Traynor attributes the dominance of the defense to the experience of the unit.
“We’ve had a lot of guys who have taken a lot of snaps before this year and seen a lot of stuff in game situations,” he said.
Eight of Dartmouth’s 11 defensive starters are seniors or 5th-year players. Traynor also notes how impressive the defensive line has been so far.
“We have a bunch of talent and experience up there, and that makes the job easier on everyone else involved,” Traynor said.
Traynor believes the defense is playing well as a unit.
“When anyone needs to step up, they make a play,” Traynor said. “I’ve been impressed with everyone’s readiness to step in there and perform on the defensive side.”
Kyler highlights how the defense’s success is helping the offense.
“They’re getting other offenses off the field immediately, which is why our time of possession is so long,” he said.
The Big Green is averaging 10 more minutes in time of possession than opponents.
Following the shutout of Sacred Heart in the final non-conference game of the season, the team is looking forward to the final five Ivy League battles.
“Our goal is to obviously win the Ivy League Championship,” Traynor says. “We have the experience, we have the talent everywhere. Now it’s just maintaining the level of focus and intensity because every team on our schedule is capable of really doing some damage.”
One of the most important keys to continuing the defense’s success is to take things one game at a time.
“If you look ahead, that’s where you can run into some issues, so we’re just trying to take it one game at a time,” Traynor said.
Traynor is feeling good about where the team is at and is excited for the second half of the season.
“Everyone really feels confident in everyone else’s ability to do their job on any given play,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust in each other right now.”
On the whole, there would appear to be very little weaknesses in the Big Green; the offense is high-powered and versatile, the defense is akin to a brick wall and the players and coaches themselves are at the top of their game. So where does the motivation come from? According to Teevens, “there was not a lot of expectation or respect for us.” Dartmouth was sixth in the preseason Ivy League poll, despite the 8-2 finish the year before. Kaskey echoed this, mentioning that a current sore point was that while Dartmouth received three points in the FCS poll before the Yale game, they dropped to none in the most recent one, while Princeton is No. 23. Kaskey describes the dedication that came about in the offseason after the 2016 season as the initial spark for this success, which is still continuing to pay off.
Traynor sees similarities between the current team and one-loss Ivy League champion 2015 squad.
“We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of snaps and a lot of experienced guys,” Traynor said. “There’s a lot of talent on every team that we’re going to play this year, but hopefully the experience that we’ve gained through the snaps we’ve had before this year will allow us to be successful in those high pressure situations.”
He also feels that the victory over Yale will be valuable for the team moving forward.
“To come into their place and hopefully set the tone like we did gives us a lot of confidence going forward,” he said. “We just have to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep taking it week-by-week. We feel that we should be able to compete and win every game we play if we come out with the right effort and intensity.”
Kyler echoed a similar sentiment regarding the win over Yale.
“We knew that Yale was going to be wanting to beat us after what happened last year,” he said. “We knew we had that chip on our shoulder to them, and so we just brought a lot of energy before the game.”
Kyler, like many, also has high hopes for the rest of the season.
“My only goal is to win the Ivy League, and to do it going 10-0,” he said.
He believes this team has what it takes to accomplish this task and hopes that the team will not get distracted.
“I think a lot of teams, when they’re doing as well as we are, would relax, but I think that’s opposite of what our team is doing,” Kyler said. “I think we are staying on the gas pedal and we feel like we’re not going to stop, especially after we felt like we should have won the Ivy League last year and we let a couple games slip. If we play at our best, nobody in the Ivy League can beat us.”
The idea of already looking ahead to the game at Princeton on Nov. 3 is appealing particularly after the team’s 42-0 demolition of Sacred Heart University at home Saturday night. However, Teevens and his players are trying to keep things on the here and now.
“In order to get to the ‘what ifs,’ you’ve got to get through the ‘here nows,’” Teevens said, noting that the next three teams on the schedule — Columbia, Harvard and Princeton — were all picked to finish ahead of the Big Green in Ivy League competition.
“We’ve had some success early, obviously, but you need to control the emotional peaks and valleys,” Teevens said.
Despite the complexity of the sport and the adaptations necessary in order to be successful, the coach felt that in the end, what really matters is to “go out and play solid football from the very first snap.” In the end, Kaskey finds the outcome of all of the hard work the Big Green team has put in to be worthwhile.
“Being on a winning team is so fun,” Kaskey said. “Practice is better, games are more fun, everyone is just happy around the team. I’m just having a great time in my last season at Dartmouth, and I’m just hoping we can bring back this last title, but it’s gonna take a lot of work.”
If things keep going as they have been, hopefully that hard work will pay off.