Riding on the back of five touchdowns by running back Tyler Varga ’15, the Yale football team made history on Saturday, defeating Army 49–43 in overtime without once holding a lead during regulation.
The Bulldogs (2–0, 0–0 Ivy) emerged victorious over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent for the first time since 1981, and over Army (1–3) for the first time since 1955, by employing the same method they used in their comeback win over Lehigh the week before: Put up big numbers on offense, and let the defense make stops when it counts.
Varga rushed for 185 yards on 28 carries, while quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 completed 23 of 40 attempts for 290 yards and two total touchdowns. The Bulldogs stayed with Army’s offense the entire way, never trailing by more than 14 points and eventually stopping the Black Knights’ triple option attack on four consecutive drives at the end of the game.
“It was really a team effort,” Varga said of the performance. “The offensive line blocked incredibly for all the backs. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to rotate backs so I’m fresh throughout the game … It’s going to show up one way on the stat sheet, but ultimately it’s a team effort.”
Following a game-tying touchdown by Varga late in the fourth quarter, Army missed a 42-yard field goal as the clock ran out, sending the game into overtime with the score tied at 43. By college overtime rules, each team was given a chance to score from its opponent’s 25-yard line.
Army started off the overtime period by bringing the ball all the way to the two-yard line, but Yale eventually forced a fourth down at the goal line. A false start penalty brought the Black Knights back to the eight-yard line, and they missed their kick again, giving Yale a chance to decide the game.
The Elis capitalized quickly, marching with the read option that Roberts and Varga had been executing perfectly throughout the game. Roberts ran the ball himself on three plays in overtime. Varga took it for the other three, eventually bowling over several defenders on his way to the end zone for the three-yard score.
“When you get into the fourth quarter, or a situation in overtime, and you have Tyler Varga on your team as running back, he’s going to get the football,” head coach Tony Reno said.
The Elis outscored the Cadets 27–7 in the final 21 minutes of regulation plus overtime, with the help of several third-and-short stops by the defense. The rest of the game, however, was primarily a back-and-forth offensive battle, with Army leading by more than one score for just seven total minutes of play.
Of the 18 drives that the two teams executed in the first three quarters, 11 ended in touchdowns, and nine totaled over 60 yards. In total, Yale and Army combined for 1,222 yards of offense, narrowly surpassing the 1,204 yards produced by Yale and Lehigh the week before.
“When you play one of these teams, you need to be ready to score points,” Reno said. “You’re not going to beat these guys if you don’t score points. Our guys did an incredible job.”
The teams traded touchdowns twice in the first half, with Roberts and Varga each scoring on the ground for Yale. Army took a one-score lead going into halftime with a touchdown, and then picked off a Roberts pass for another seven points shortly into the third quarter.
The Bulldogs and Black Knights then exchanged scores again, and Yale finally closed the 14-point gap in the third quarter with two consecutive touchdowns. Running back Aaron Kemper then set up an Army touchdown just seconds later after a 74-yard run to bring the Cadets to the one-yard line, but Yale tied the score for the fourth time late in the fourth quarter with Varga’s fourth touchdown of the day.
Reno decided not to go for the win with a two-point conversion right there and then, he said, because he trusted the defense to do its job and win in overtime if need be.
Yale proved him correct, as the defense forced two consecutive missed field goals to allow Varga to win the game.
Though Varga was the source of most of Yale’s scoring, Roberts spread the ball around on offense, as nine players had receptions and four different rushers — Roberts, Varga and running backs Candler Rich ’17 and Kahlil Keys ’15 — recorded positive rushing yardage.
Notably, though, Yale showed off its ability to adjust its offensive scheme based on what was working.
While last week’s win over Lehigh featured a 376-yard, four-touchdown aerial assault by Roberts, Yale transitioned to a running offense in Saturday’s game, keeping it on the ground 56 times and completing just 23 passes.
And though captain and wide receiver Deon Randall ’15 was Roberts’ primary target last week with 14 receptions, 172 yards and two touchdowns, receiver Grant Wallace ’15 was the leader this week, catching six passes for 101 yards.
The only touchdown through the air came from the freshman class, as wide receiver Ross Drwal ’18 scored for 22 yards on just his third reception as an Eli.
Prior to the game, the crowd of 34,142 fans in the Yale Bowl was treated to an impressive pre-game ceremony that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Bowl as well as the 46th matchup between two historic rivals that had not played against each other since 1996.
Hundreds of Army cadets marched onto the stadium in unison, setting the stage for five cadets to jump out of a helicopter with parachutes and deliver the game ball. Bands from Yale and Army also combined to play the national anthem.
“A lot of hype and buildup went into this game,” Wallace said. “We weren’t really focused on that during the week, but stepping onto the field for warm-ups, you could really feel the energy … We fed off that. We decided we weren’t going to let the moment be too big for us, that we were going to step up to the moment.”