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In yet another high-scoring matchup at the Yale Bowl, the Yale football team set itself up with a chance to secure a share of the Ivy League title by defeating Princeton 44–30. The win is the Bulldogs’ first victory over the Tigers since 2011.
With the win over the Ivy League preseason favorite, the Elis (8–1, 5–1 Ivy) will share the Ancient Eight championship with currently undefeated Harvard, and possibly Dartmouth, under one condition — if they topple the Crimson in Cambridge next Saturday.
“It was a great team effort,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Offensively, I thought our guys controlled the game on the ground, especially in the second half.”
Princeton (5–4, 4–2 Ivy), a team that also needed a win to remain in Ivy contention, jumped out to an initial lead thanks to scoring contributions from its pair of quarterbacks, Conner Michelsen and Quinn Epperly, as well as an early interception thrown by quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16.
But Yale snapped Princeton’s momentum with a blocked punt for a touchdown, eventually jumpstarting the Elis’ offense. In the latter three quarters, the Bulldogs outscored the Tigers 34–16, taking home a victory in the Yale seniors’ final home game.
And Roberts more than made up for the error, as he finished with a career-high 405 passing yards and a pair of touchdown passes against what has become the worst pass defense in the Ivy League this season.
“[The problem] was just big plays,” Princeton defensive back Matt Arends, who picked off Roberts’ pass, said. “That’s what’s happened all season, and that’s what we have to work on.”
Arends added that the Tigers, who had allowed just 87.9 rushing yards per game entering Saturday’s contest, did a solid job defending against Yale’s rushing attack. But against a running back like Tyler Varga ’15, evidently that does not mean much.
Using his speed and outstanding blocking more often than his ability to punish defenders in this game, Varga scored three of Yale’s five touchdowns — two on the ground and one through the air — and also tallied 137 rushing yards on 26 carries.
It was his eighth game this season of triple-digit yardage in rushing. The only time Varga failed to top 100 yards was at Cornell, when he was taken out after the first half with 83 yards in a 51–13 blowout.
“[Princeton is] a big pressure team, and they bring a lot of hats to the box,” Reno said. “Our offensive line did a really nice job, as the game went on, of picking those things up and creating new plays.”
Varga got the ball on six of Yale’s first 10 plays, setting up a seven-yard touchdown connection between Roberts and wide receiver Robert Clemons ’17 to tie the score at seven early in the first quarter.
Though Varga scored three times in the contest — on rushes of 30 and six yards, and a reception for 13 — the Elis utilized the pass to move the ball more so than they have done in previous games.
Roberts tied a season-high with 42 attempted passes, largely due to the simple fact that the aerial attack was working well with all of the Elis’ weapons, including previously injured tight ends Sebastian Little ’16 and Stephen Buric ’16, on display.
Wide receiver Grant Wallace ’15 finished another exceptional performance with 10 catches for 149 yards, putting the Ivy League receiving leader over 1,000 yards on the season.
Captain Deon Randall ’15, meanwhile, also put up triple digits with 112 yards. Randall, Wallace, Clemons and receiver Nick LaTesta ’15 all caught deep passes for more than 25 yards.
But that passing offense did not get going in earnest until the blocked punt by defensive end Marty Moesta ’17 in the second quarter. Linebacker Jaeden Graham ’18 dove on the loose pigskin in the end zone to score seven points and retaliate for the touchdown the Tigers registered earlier on a Yale interception.
“It was something we saw on film early in the week, something that we thought we could try to take advantage of on their punting team,” Moesta said. “We went out there with Jaeden [Graham] on my right and Everett Johnson [’15] on my left … I was able to get skinny through the hole and get my hand on the ball.”
The punt block also began a scoring drought for the Tigers, who took a 14–7 lead early on but allowed the Bulldogs 20 unanswered points in the middle of the first half.
Epperly was a central figure in Princeton’s offense with three touchdowns, but not because of his throwing arm for which he garnered Ivy League fame last year — all three scores were on the ground.
The 2013 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year traded time behind center with Michelsen, who has taken over the majority of passing duties for Princeton this season. They were both on the field for much of the game, however, as each lined up in the slot or as a running back on many plays.
“Princeton presents you with a lot of different formations and a lot of different ways to attack you,” Reno said.
Epperly was especially successful on third-and-short situations, on which a direct snap play almost guaranteed the Tigers positive yardage on every play.
But in the end, strong coverage downfield, as well as three sacks by Yale defenders, proved to be the difference. Princeton, meanwhile, did not sack Roberts a single time despite leading the Ancient Eight in sacks entering the matchup.
“It was a great defensive win,” Roberts said. “You look at a 44–30 game, and you might not say it’s a defensive win, but those guys went out of their minds today.”
Yale will seek an Ivy League title next Saturday at Harvard. Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m.