Saturday’s game between Yale and Holy Cross had it all — big plays, tough-nosed running and the most excitement at the Yale Bowl in some time.

After maintaining a 21-7 lead for virtually the entire second half, the Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1 Ivy) allowed the Crusaders (1-3) to score two touchdowns in the last 3:47 of regulation time to tiethe score at 21 and force overtime.

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After two overtimes, the Elis recovered and pulled off the win, 31-28.

The Bulldogs’ 14-point lead held up until the Crusaders’ furious comeback in the fourth quarter.

Holy Cross’s touchdown drive at the end of regulation was brilliantly orchestrated by quarterback Dominic Randolph.

Following the first Holy Cross scoring drive in the fourth — a 24-play, 91-yard series — the Bulldogs were unable to run the clock out with Mike McLeod ’09 sidelined after rolling an ankle, an injury head coach Jack Siedlecki has confirmed is not serious.

With 56 seconds remaining in regulation, Randolph drove the Crusaders 90 yards in just 50 seconds and found Ryan McGuire in the end zone with six seconds on the clock to knot the game.

“That last drive [Randolph] just made some plays, and sometimes you got to give them credit,” captain Bobby Abare ’09 said. “I don’t think it was our defense not stepping up.”

Holy Cross began the first overtime session from the 25-yard line and was quick to the punch. Randolph, who completed 41 of his 63 passes for 376 yards and four total touchdowns, hit Nick Cole in the end zone on the drive’s third play for a 10-yard touchdown.

The 41 completions and 63 passing attempts are new Holy Cross records for the Walter Payton Award candidate.

After the extra point was made, the Bulldogs needed a touchdown and point-after attempt of their own to stay alive. And they were even quicker to the punch.

On their first play quarterback Ryan Fodor ’09 found Jordan Forney ’11 on a crossing pattern for a 25-yard touchdown.

“We’ve had a lot of success with that play, and we saw on film that teams are also having success with it on that crossing route,” Forney said. “I just came across the middle, kind of got lost in some traffic, came wide open, and Fodor put the ball where it needed to be like he always does.”

The Tom Mante ’10 PAT knotted the game at 28 and forced a second overtime.

The Yale offense began the second overtime at the other end of the field, on the 25-yard line, but could not find the same success. The Elis went three-and-out after failing to convert on third-and-one at the 16 yard line.

Mante, in his most important field goal attempt in his first year as the Eli placekicker, nailed a 34-yard field goal to force the Crusaders to convert at least a field goal to stay alive, or a touchdown to win it.

The Bulldogs’ hopes were then placed on the defense.

“For me personally, I got pumped up, I was ready to go,” cornerback Paul Rice ’09 said. “When the game is resting on the defense’s shoulders, I like that. I feel like our defense thrives on that.”

And thrive they did.

After Mike Kielt rushed for five yards on first down, Randolph threw incomplete passes on second and third down.

The third-down attempt on third-and-five was a pass in the flat to running back Terrance Gass that was broken up by converted defensive end Travis Henry ’10. The former safety spotted Gass and was able to dive and knock the ball down to force fourth down.s

As a result, Holy Cross kicker Matt Partain went out to try to make a 37-yarder to force a third overtime. But the senior hooked it left, and the Bulldog celebration ensued.

In the win, the Bulldogs established the run early and often with McLeod — something they failed to do in their first two games. The Walter Payton Award candidate was a workhouse, carrying the ball 39 times for 161 yards and a touchdown — his first 100-plus-yard game of the season and 20th of his career.

The performance was a far cry from last week’s loss against Cornell (2-1, 1-0), when the Big Red held the Bulldogs to zero net rushing yards.

“We have to run the ball to be good, and we didn’t run the ball in the first two games,” Siedlecki said.

The run game allowed Fodor, who played the entire game after splitting time with Brook Hart ’11 in the first two, to use plenty of play-action to find open receivers. The senior completed 17 of 23 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, he led an offense that did not turn the ball over once.

According to Siedlecki, as long as Fodor continues to perform, he will remain the full-time quarterback.

“We’re going to go now by if we’re doing well, we’re not going to make the change,” Siedlecki said. “He is the starter now.”

While Holy Cross put points on the board late in the game, the Elis did most of their damage early in the contest.

Yale jumped out to a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Fodor to h-back John Sheffield ’09.

The Bulldogs extended it to a 14-0 lead when Abare intercepted Randolph for the second time on the day, this time taking it back 32 yards for a touchdown.

Abare’s second interception was his eighth of his career and third career touchdown.

“The defensive line really got good pressure up front,” Abare said. “I just read [Randolph’s] eyes a couple times there.”

The captain also led the team in tackles with 10 (nine solo). Fellow linebacker Jay Pilkerton ’09 had nine tackles (seven solo), while Kyle Hawari ’09 and Tom McCarthy ’09 each had a sack for the Bulldogs.

The Crusaders quickly responded to the interception return with a four-play, 72-yard drive, which culminated in the team’s first touchdown — a 28-yard pass from Randolph to Ryan McGuire to cut the Eli lead to 14-7.

The Bulldog offense then marched on its longest drive of the day. Yale consumed 7:24 of the clock and drove 71 yards on 17 plays to extend its lead to 21-7 on McLeod’s 51st career touchdown run from one yard out.

This loss marks the third narrow defeat for the Crusaders this season. Their losses to No. 11 UMass (3-2), Harvard (2-1) and the Bulldogs have come by a combined seven points.

The Bulldogs now have their eyes set on their second Ivy League game of the season. Yale travels to New Hampshire on Saturday to take on Dartmouth (0-3, 0-1 Ivy). The game is scheduled for a 12:30 start and will be televised on NESN.