ESPN called the decision “insane.”
The Wall Street Journal said it “shined a needed light on just how awful game management can be in college football.”
And from Sports Illustrated: “Imagine those kids at Yale, walking off a football field for the last time in their lives, thinking ‘This is my last memory in football? My coach going for it idiotically on fourth-and-22, causing us to lose to our archrivals?’ ”
From SportsCenter to The New York Times, head coach Tom Williams’ trick-punt play in The Game last Saturday has been widely criticized. Two and a half minutes before the end of the game, Yale led 10–7 when the Bulldogs went for it on fourth-and-22 at their 25-yard line. Though safety John Powers ’13 gained 15 yards, the run came up short of a first-down. Minutes later, Harvard scored a touchdown to take a 14–10 lead.
But despite the criticism, Williams and the Bulldogs defend the play, which they say was more complicated than the national media have made it out to be.
In a phone interview Sunday night, Williams said the Eli defense was slipping and that he wanted to catch the Crimson by surprise, get a first down and run the clock down without giving the ball back to Harvard. Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs had run two fake punts and both had been successful, including one that captain and linebacker Paul Rice ’10 had run for a 40-yard touchdown at Lehigh.
And, according to Williams, a missed block was the difference.
“We’d had a lot of bad things happen to us, including a missed tackle on fourth down and a missed field goal, and I thought our defense was gassed,” Williams said Sunday night. “We missed a block on the play — otherwise we would have won the game. It was good for 40 yards, and we’d prepared it all year.”
A column in Sunday’s New Haven Register questioned whether Williams in fact called for the fake punt or if there was an on-field miscommunication. In response, Williams said Sunday, “Anything that happens on the field is my responsibility.”
Punter Tom Mante ’10 said the play was called by a collection of coaches and that the players knew what the play was.
“I was surprised, as most people were, but we all knew what was coming,” said the All-Ivy punter, who finished the season with an Ivy-best 41.2 yards per punt average and was averaging 51.3 yards per punt in his three punts that day.
Although Williams’ decision has been panned by many Yale football fans and Yale alumni — as evidenced by recent comments on the News’ Web site, some of which even call for Williams’ resignation — Athletic Director Tom Beckett said in an e-mail Sunday evening that he stands by the head coach.
“He and his coaches made a decision that they believed was in the best interests of the team as the goal was to try and win the game,” Beckett said. “I personally believe in Coach Williams and support his efforts on behalf of our students both in victory and defeat.”
Williams said he does not put much thought in reactions from people outside the Yale program, including television and newspaper commentators.
“None of those guys have played football, and they certainly haven’t followed our team,” Williams said. “It’s easy for them to make a judgment like that, but the fact is that’s the way our team plays.”
One football alumnus, Yale tailback Calvin Hill ’69, who played in the famous 1968 29–29 tie with Harvard and went on to become a four-time NFL Pro Bowler, said the play has to be looked at in the context of the rest of the game.
“You have to look at the ebb and flow of the game, and Harvard seemed to have the momentum,” Hill said. “Had Yale made that play, it would have gone down as one of the great plays in the history of the rivalry.”
Hill added historical perspective on last week’s contest, pointing out that longtime head coach Carm Cozza was met with similar criticism after he lost to UConn — a team that was ordinarily a “warm-up” for the Bulldogs — in his first game with Yale.
“There were Old Blues all over saying, ‘What have we done?’ ” Hill said. “But he went on to be a great coach.”
Still, Williams’ future isn’t the first priority for Rice and the rest of the team’s seniors, who ended their careers on a team that finished 4–6 and lost to Harvard for the eighth time in nine games.
“I’ve really just tried to stop thinking about it,” Rice said.