In one of the closest and most exciting renditions of The Game in recent history, the Yale football team erased a 17-point deficit in the second half but wound up falling, 31–24, in its eighth straight loss to Harvard.
With a share of the Ivy League title on the line for the Elis (8–2, 5–2 Ivy), the rivalry matchup featured numerous shifts in momentum. Yale surrendered an early 7–3 lead, then came back from a 24–7 deficit, but ultimately could not overcome a 35-yard touchdown pass from Harvard quarterback Conner Hempel to wide receiver Andrew Fischer in the final minute of the game.
“It was a great football game, between two very good teams,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Harvard made the play in the last drive, and we unfortunately didn’t. That was the difference in the game.”
The Bulldogs had relied on their high-powered offense all year to outscore opponents, but faced a strong Harvard (10–0, 7–0) defense that limited the Bulldogs to their lowest total all season.
But 24 points also tied the most that Harvard’s defense, which entered the contest as the stingiest defense in the Football Championship Subdivision, had given up. Running back Tyler Varga ’15 tallied three total touchdowns and 127 rushing yards against a defense that had previously not allowed 100 rushing yards to an opposing player since September of 2013.
“We were really playing for each out there, our brothers on the 142nd football team at Yale,” Varga said. “The scoreboard is what it is, and I think we left everything out on the field today.”
After a failed possession for each side to start the game, the Bulldogs faced a three-and-out that only worsened as a low snap led to a blocked punt, which gave the Crimson great field position at the Yale 7. Harvard could not maximize its opportunity, settling for a 25-yard field goal to get a three-point lead midway through the first quarter.
The Bulldogs answered on their next drive, with Varga playing a key role throughout. The senior broke through numerous tackles to power his way into the end zone. Making six of 13 plays en route to his touchdown, Varga put the Bulldogs up 7–3 with 38 seconds to go into the first quarter.
The Eli defense stood strong against the Crimson, forcing a three-and-out. A punt gave the Elis possession at the Yale 46-yard line, and the Bulldogs drove deep into Harvard territory, reaching the Harvard 24. However, a fumble and a couple of penalties pushed Yale back to the 36, and the Bulldogs were forced to punt.
The two teams traded punts and were both unable to get their offenses going as Harvard also punted on its next possession. The Elis could not move the chains and punted the ball to the Harvard 31-yard line. A big play by Fischer, a 58-yard reverse, put the Crimson at the Yale 11. But a fumble on the next play by running back Paul Stanton ended the drive, as linebacker Darius Manora ‘17 recovered the ball.
Consecutive completions by Roberts helped the Bulldogs pick up a first down, before three straight incomplete passes forced a punt, which was carried by the wind to the Harvard 15-yard line. The Crimson made one play before the clock ran out to finish the first half with Yale still leading 7–3.
Harvard dominated the third quarter as the Crimson scored 21 unanswered points to take a 17-point lead going into the final quarter. The Cantabs moved steadily into the red zone following a 28-yard return on the opening kickoff to the Harvard 42-yard line. Hempel then carried the ball himself for a first down at the six-yard line. The Crimson turned to the run to get to the one-yard line on third down, and Stanton pushed the ball across the line to reclaim the lead, 10–7.
The Bulldogs gave the ball back to the Crimson after a three-and-out. Hempel completed a 45-yard pass to Fischer to put the Crimson quickly in the red zone again at the Yale 13. A good play by cornerback Dale Harris ’17 led to an incomplete pass and a third down for the Crimson. On fourth down, safety Foye Oluokun ’17 blocked a 24-yard field goal attempt to keep the deficit at three.
Yale was limited by the Harvard defense, and Harvard made another big run on its next possession. The Crimson caught the Eli defense off guard on a reverse play, and Stanton picked up 40 yards. The Cantabs then fooled the defense again as wide receiver Seitu Smith threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Fischer, putting the Crimson up 17–7.
The Bulldogs’ offense had an opportunity to cut the deficit, with three straight completions to Randall, tight end Sebastian Little ’16 and Wallace, putting Yale at the 32-yard line in Harvard territory. But a poor read by Roberts, as well as an aggressive strip of the ball by linebacker Connor Sheehan, led to an interception and 90-yard return for a touchdown, ending the third quarter with the Bulldogs trailing 24–7.
A kickoff and 20-yard return put the Bulldogs at the 21-yard line to start the final quarter of the game. A long pass of 28 yards to wide receiver Michael Siragusa ’18 gave Yale a first down at the one-yard line, and Varga then bounced off a goal line scrum for his second score of the day, closing the deficit to 10 points.
Harvard picked up again at the 24-yard line and moved the markers following a completion by Hempel and run by Stanton. But a penalty pushed Harvard back, and a short punt of 14 yards gave Yale the ball at the Harvard 46. A huge 36-yard reception by Wallace, who lost his shoe and muscled through a pass interference call, gave the Bulldogs a first and goal. Another completion, this time on third-and-six, to Varga put the Bulldogs down three, 24–21, with 8:21 to play on Varga’s third score of the day.
Harvard returned the ball to the 22-yard line, and Hempel completed a long 24-yard pass to the 46. But the Yale defense struck gold again with another fumble by Stanton, which was recovered by defensive end Marty Moesta ’17. Yale again turned to Varga, who rushed forward for two first downs. Running back Candler Rich ’17 put Yale in field goal position, and kicker Kyle Cazzetta ’15 tied the score up, 24–24, connecting on a 32-yard field goal.
A strong hit by Oluokun on the kickoff put Harvard at the 22-yard line with 3:38 left in regulation. Hempel connected with Fischer on a 35-yard pass into the end zone to put Harvard up 31–24 with 55 seconds remaining the game.
The drama did not end there as Varga received the kickoff and put Yale at the 29-yard line with 52 seconds on the clock for one last drive. A completion from Roberts to Varga picked up the first down with 38 seconds to go in regulation. Roberts then found wide receiver Robert Clemons ’17 just past midfield, and he connected with Wallace for 22 yards to bring the Bulldogs to the 26-yard line. A sack pushed Roberts to the 32-yard for a two and 16 with 15 seconds remaining. However, a Harvard interception by defensive back Scott Peters sealed the win for the Crimson with 10 seconds remaining, sending Yale home with a 31–24 loss.
Yale finished the season 8–2, a six-game improvement from Reno’s record of 2–8 in his first season as head coach two years ago.
Correction: Nov. 23
A previous version of this article misstated the name of Harvard wide receiver Andrew Fischer.