Up until the final seconds, it seemed like 2014 was going to be the year the Bulldogs did it.
The Yale football team (8–2, 5–2 Ivy) entered the 131st rendition of the Harvard-Yale game boasting one of the most prolific offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision, still grasping a chance at an Ivy League title and facing the imminent graduation of several key players. If there was any season for the Elis to defeat Harvard (10–0, 7–0 Ivy) for the first time since 2006, it appeared as if this one was their best chance.
Things still appeared that way when Yale led 7–3 after the first half, and they did again as the Bulldogs erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the score at 24 with just 3:44 remaining. But in the end, Harvard had one last trick up its sleeve that Yale could not overcome, clinching its eighth straight victory in The Game with 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,” Yale 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 last-minute 31–24 defeat put a disappointing cap on an otherwise impressive turnaround season for Yale. The Elis finished third in the Ivy League, holding an 8–2 record that directly opposes the 2–8 showing with which Reno began his Yale head coaching career in 2012. Harvard, meanwhile, captured the outright Ancient Eight title and completed its 17th perfect season in program history.
The Bulldogs had relied on their high-powered offense all year to outscore opponents, but much of its matchup with Harvard was instead a story of defense and special teams. Harvard held Yale to its lowest point total of the season — which also tied the most that Harvard’s nation-leading defense had given up all year. In addition, the Eli defense held the Crimson to just three first-half points despite three Harvard chances inside the 30-yard line.
But after forcing four Harvard fourth downs in the first half and benefiting from two fumbles by Harvard running back Paul Stanton, Yale ultimately failed to capitalize fully on its defensive opportunities. The Bulldogs scored zero points in the middle two quarters of the game, the first time all season that they failed to score in two quarters of a game.
“We had a ton of missed opportunities in the first half, and I think the game would have been very different if we didn’t,” Reno said. “We drove the ball down the field and we didn’t finish drives … like we’d done all season long. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
The Cantabs scored three consecutive touchdowns in the third quarter: first on a rush by Stanton, then on an end-around pass from wide receiver Seitu Smith to Fischer and finally on a 90-yard pick-six by linebacker Connor Sheehan. And once Yale came back to deadlock the two teams at 24, Harvard was able to march 78 yards in less than three minutes for the touchdown that gave Yale its second seven-point loss of the season.
Fischer’s deep catch from Hempel, who was fighting through a shoulder injury in his last game at Harvard, will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most exciting ends to a Harvard-Yale game in the rivalry’s history.
“It was a double-move, a slant-and-go basically,” Hempel said. “We’d been running slants all game, and [Yale’s cornerback] just kind of bit on it, and [Fischer] beat him with his speed.”
Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 and his offense then had 55 seconds and three timeouts to respond, something they looked poised to do when a pass to wide receiver Grant Wallace ’15 brought the Bulldogs to the Harvard 26-yard line with 25 seconds on the clock. After second-half comebacks against Lehigh, Army and Brown this season, it seemed as if the Elis’ final game of the year could be just another instance of overcoming adversity.
But those hopes soon came crashing down when Harvard defensive end Zach Hodges came through with a sack on Roberts, and then Roberts got caught trying to force a first down when defensive back Scott Peters picked off his pass at the 15-yard line. The play sealed the victory for his team and cued a rush of Harvard fans onto the field after one quarterback kneel.
“There wasn’t a doubt in our mind that we could [win the game],” running back Tyler Varga ’15 said. “We were really just playing for each other out there, playing for our brothers, playing for the 142nd football team at Yale. The scoreboard is what it is, and I think we left everything out on the field.”
Perhaps a central reason for the failure of that last drive was the Elis’ inability to utilize Varga, who tallied all three Yale touchdowns in his final collegiate game but got the ball just once in the last possession because the time crunch forced Yale to pass.
Varga’s 30 carries in the game were good for 127 rushing yards, a total that was modest for him but significant against a rushing defense that, before the game, had led the FCS and had not allowed that many yards to an opposing player since November 2012. With his three scores against the Crimson, two on the ground and one receiving, Varga broke the Yale record for all-purpose touchdowns in a season with 26.
“We have a great offensive line, I think the best in the Ivy League, hands down,” Varga said. “So I think that’s a huge accomplishment for those guys up front who are blocking. I wouldn’t be going anywhere without those five guys up front.”
Harvard’s defensive line held Varga to a season-low 4.2 yards per carry, and it also limited Roberts’s passing performance by sacking the junior twice and forcing him to run several other times.
Roberts finished 26–48 with 305 passing yards, but only 133 of them came before the fourth quarter. On many plays, the Cantab defense pressured Roberts into squeezing a pass into tight coverage, a theme best exemplified by Sheehan’s pick-six during Harvard’s 21-point run. Roberts threw the ball outside to wide receiver Robert Clemons III ’17 at the 10-yard line, but Sheehan was right there to rip the ball out of Clemons’s hands and take it to the house.
During Yale’s two touchdown drives in the fourth, however, fans saw Roberts playing at a different level. Varga’s second rushing touchdown of the day was set up by four consecutive completed passes, the last of which was a 38-yard rainbow to wide receiver Michael Siragusa ’18 to the one-yard line. On Yale’s next possession, Wallace brought the Elis to the 10-yard line — losing a cleat in the process and being interfered with before making the catch — allowing Varga to score on a screen pass later in the drive.
Just a few minutes later, it was again the senior Wallace who nearly set up the tying touchdown in the final seconds of the game. Despite losing their final game, Wallace, Varga, Randall and 17 other seniors will leave behind a program they have seen rapidly improve from a bottom-tier Ancient Eight team to a serious contender.
“The last time I sat [at Harvard] we were 2–8, and just happy to be in the game,” Reno said. “Today we were playing for the league championship. This group … has done an unbelievable job of moving Yale football back to where it belongs, and that’s to be competing for a league championship year-in and year-out.”