All season Yale’s first-year head coach, Tom Williams, has used trick plays to his team’s advantage. That changed for the Bulldogs, though, on Saturday — and in the most critical of ways.
With Yale on its own 25-yard line and leading 10-7 with 2:25 remaining in the game, Williams opted to try a trick punt play on fourth-and-22. The run by safety John Powers ’13 gained 15 yards but was well short of the first-down marker, causing the Elis to turn the ball over on downs.
Crimson junior quarterback Collier Winters took advantage of the favorable field position and threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Chris Lorditch with 1:32 left to play, as Harvard (7-3, 6-1 Ivy) overcame a 10-0 deficit in the fourth quarter and defeated the Bulldogs (4-6, 2-5) 14-10 at the Yale Bowl.
The defeat marks Yale’s first losing season since 2005 and the eighth time in nine years that Harvard has defeated Yale in The Game.
“With [2:25] on the clock left and the fact that [the Crimson] had used their last timeout, we felt that we if we had executed that play and gotten the necessary yardage, the game was over,” Williams said. “The other factor that came into mind was it seemed like they had gotten some momentum offensively. We didn’t want to give them an opportunity to get a quick score.”
Captain and linebacker Paul Rice ’10 added: “We have a very energetic team, so when Coach Williams brought in that kind of philosophy, we all bought into it. I agree with coach: play to win football games.”
For most of the game, the Bulldogs had the momentum — and the crowd — on their side.
During Yale’s first drive, tailback Alex Thomas ’12 had seven runs for a total of 35 yards, but the Bulldogs were stopped on third-and-nine in the red zone, forcing a field goal try. Kicker Alex Barnes ’11 made the 26-yard kick to give Yale the early 3-0 lead.
The drive showed a shift in the usual pass-heavy offense the Bulldogs have relied on recently. Thomas finished the game with 124 rushing yards — the first 100-yard game that an Eli tailback has had all season.
Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said Thomas caught the Crimson by surprise.
“We thought they would throw the ball until the cows came home,” Murphy said. “But [Yale] did a great job and took it right to us [and] ran the football well.”
On the Cantabs’ subsequent drive, they too showed the early ability to advance the ball, moving up 40 yards in four plays. But when Winters reached forward with the ball to try to get a first down, linebacker Tim Handlon ’10 forced a fumble and cornerback Adam Money ’11 recovered the ball.
Taking over on their 41-yard line, the Bulldogs quickly made it into the red zone after a 21-yard pass to fullback Shane Bannon ’11, a defensive pass interference call and a 15-yard run from Thomas. From there, tailback Rodney Reynolds ’10 ran for a touchdown on third-and-goal on the three-yard line to give Yale the 10-0 lead with five minutes remaining in the first quarter.
The score was not only Reynolds’ first career touchdown, but it was also the Elis’ first offensive touchdown against Harvard since 2006.
Both teams had other chances to score in the first half, but decisions to go for it on fourth down backfired on both offenses.
At the end of the first quarter, Winters threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-11 on Yale’s 24-yard line. Toward the end of the second quarter, the Bulldogs failed to convert a fourth-and-one on Harvard’s 27-yard line.
Harvard’s best chance to score came early in the second half when the Crimson were looking to attempt a 35-yard field goal. The play turned out to be a fake, but junior holder Matt Simpson’s five-yard pass was not long enough to gain the first down.
The Bulldogs too had their own desperation play when kicker Tom Mante ’10 missed a 62-yard field goal attempt short and wide left as the first half came to a close with the Bulldogs leading 10-0.
“We were relieved we weren’t down by more because we were outplayed terribly,” Harvard coach Murphy said.
From the start of the second half, the Crimson, which had had 188 total yards in the first half, continued to move the ball, and the Elis continued to stop them on fourth-down attempts.
After running 10 times and passing once, the Crimson had advanced 75 yards and had first-and-goal on the five-yard line. The Eli defense regained its momentum, though, and stopped the Cantabs’ fourth-down conversion on the one-yard line.
The defensive stop brought the Yale crowd to an uproar as the players jumped off the field and, according to Rice, helped the Elis regain the momentum.
“In my four years here, goal-line defense is something we’ve really prided ourselves on,” he said. “That play was a great momentum shift for us. It was a great team defensive play.”
Two drives later, the Bulldogs were in the red zone to start the fourth quarter and were looking to put the game away with a touchdown. But on third-and-12 on Harvard’s 15-yard line, quarterback Patrick Witt’s ’12 five-yard pass to wide receiver Jordan Forney ’11 was well short of the first down and — just like the Elis’ first drive of the game — the Bulldogs were forced to go for a short field goal.
This time, though, Barnes’ 27-yard kick was wide left.
“In the second half we failed to score, and that’s discouraging,” Thomas said. “You can’t expect to win with 10 points on the board against a great team like Harvard.”
The turning point in the game came with about eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Once again the Crimson elected to go for it on fourth down, but this time Harvard’s risk paid off. On fourth-and-four with the ball on their own 30-yard line, junior tailback Gino Gordon appeared to be wrapped up short of the first down, but he broke off the tackle and ran 19 yards. A defensive stop would have given the Eli offense a very short field to work with, but instead Harvard was still pressuring.
“I thought we had it,” Rice said. “I thought we had tied him up. I was sure we were off the field.”
Williams added: “If we make that play, we felt like we win the football game.”
Two plays later, Winters found a sophomore receiver Adam Chrissis over the middle for a 41-yard touchdown that brought the score to 10-7 with 6:46 left to play.
Getting the ball back, the Eli offense took four minutes off of the clock but were soon met with fouth-and-22 after a holding penalty was called and Witt was sacked for a five-yard loss.
It seemed the Bulldogs — with All-Ivy punter Mante — were going to punt the ball and force the Crimson to put together a long drive with no timeouts remaining and with only 2:25 left on the clock.
Instead, though, the Williams made a decision that he may regret for years to come.
The Bulldogs had already found success on a trick punt play that they had used twice this season, one of which had resulted in the Elis’ only touchdown last month in their 7-0 victory at Lehigh. Suspecting that Harvard was ready for this play, Williams said the Bulldogs added a slight alteration to it. Instead of Rice taking the snap and running right, this time Rice caught it and flipped it to safety Powers, who ran 15 yards down the left sideline.
It was not enough, though, as Harvard took over on Yale’s 40-yard line and as Yale players on the sideline threw their helmets to the ground in frustration.
“We had set that play up all year,” Williams said. “We thought it was worth 22 yards and we came [seven] yards short. The whole idea was to keep our foot to the pedal, to not play scared. If everybody is looking for somebody to blame, blame this guy right here.”
But Murphy said he does not think Williams should be blamed for the loss.
“I was surprised [they didn’t punt], but it’s like everything else: You’re a genius if that play goes; if it doesn’t, then, well, you know the deal,” he said.
Three plays later, on third-and-two, Winters found Lorditch for a 32-yard pass across the middle to give the Crimson their first lead of the game, making it 14-10 with 1:32 remaining.
It turned out to be all the Cantabs needed.
Though the Bulldogs still had all three of their timeouts left and were quickly able to drive 29 yards to midfield, Witt’s first down pass was intercepted by Crimson senior linebacker Jon Takamura with 51 seconds remaining.
It was Witt’s first interception of the game, but it was arguably the most damaging of his career.
The Bulldogs did get one more shot at a miracle comeback with 25 seconds left, but Witt was sacked at Yale’s four-yard line, and the Elis’ last-second hook-and-ladder play only went 18 yards as time expired and as Harvard fans rushed the field.
Yale had been so close to mounting the stunning upset, but as game ended the Yale crowd could only sit in stunned silence.
After the loss, Williams expressed a sense of empathy for the Yale senior class and the recent struggles the seniors have had against their rivals.
“You want so badly for [the seniors] to win their last game against their rival,” Williams said. “It hurts.”