The Yale football team gave fans another scare on Saturday, trailing by as many as 19 points early in its home opener against Cornell. But for the second straight game, the Bulldogs pulled ahead in the end, with 26 unanswered points sealing an improbable victory in Yale’s first Ivy League contest of 2015.
Though the defense held the Big Red (0–2, 0–1 Ivy) scoreless in the final 30 minutes, it was not until tight end Sebastian Little ’16 scored on a 52-yard catch-and- run with 32 seconds remaining that the Bulldogs (2–0, 1–0) took a 33–26 lead — their first of the game.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were going to find a way [to win],” head coach Tony Reno said. “I didn’t quite know what it was going to be, but I knew that some way, at the end of the game when the clock was at zero, we’d find a way to be on the left side of the newspaper.”
Key plays by special teams and the defense complemented a 479-yard day for the offense, which played much of the game without a pair of significant contributors.
Wide receiver Bo Hines ’18 and offensive lineman Mason Friedline ’17 never took the field, while running back Candler Rich ’17 exited the game early in the third quarter. Yale also played without defensive back Foye Oluokun ’17, who did not dress for the game.
The Bulldogs’ offense looked anemic throughout the first half, going 0–3 on fourth-down conversions and 4–7 on third-down attempts while Cornell — led by the ground attack of running back Luke Hagy — raced to a 26–7 lead late in the second quarter.
After 12 points by Cornell opened the game, the Elis’ first score came on a quarterback draw, when quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 took advantage of strong blocking and darted into the end zone from the seven-yard line, bowling over multiple linebackers on his way.
“[Cornell was] playing zone coverage, and we had two outgoing routes,” Roberts said. “I saw some green and I went for it.”
The Bulldogs were unable to put additional points on the board until the end of the second half, when Yale’s special teams provided a necessary spark with the first of three big plays by the unit in the game.
Following a Cornell touchdown that made the score 26–7, kick returner Jamal Locke ’18 fielded Cornell’s kick at the Yale 10-yard line with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. He juked two Big Red players before finding open space at the 35-yard line and shooting down the left sideline. He was ultimately dragged down at the Cornell sixyard line, completing an 84-yard kickoff return. Roberts found
Ross Drwal ’18 on a cross route on the ensuing play, and the Bulldogs cut Cornell’s lead to 13 with 30 seconds remaining.
Returning to the field after halftime, the Elis appeared to have found a better rhythm.
“I went in at halftime and I told [the team] about how they were going to make a memory today, and they did,” Reno said. “It was going to be one of those games they were going to talk about later in life, because they were going to come back and win it.”
On their first possession of the second half, Yale drove 66 yards in 11 plays. The drive concluded with kicker Bryan Holmes ’17 sending the ball through the uprights from 26 yards out — his first career field goal. With two successful field goals and three touchbacks on kickoffs, Holmes was named Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday.
On the other end of Yale’s special teams, the Elis blocked a pair of kicks, putting them ahead of all other Division I teams with four blocked kicks in just two games this season. One of the blocks was on an extra point following a touchdown, while the second was a blocked field goal at the end of a monster Cornell drive that chewed up almost 10 minutes in the fourth quarter.
These blocks, in conjunction with Locke’s kickoff return and a muffed punt recovered by Hunter Simino ’19, made contributions by special teams key to the victory. The defense also did its part.
Though it struggled to bring down Hagy outside the tackle box, Yale’s front seven regrouped after halftime, finishing the game with three sacks and eight tackles for losses.
“We make adjustments every second half,” captain and safety Cole Champion ’16 said. “We didn’t change our defensive play, we just did a better job doing our own jobs.”
Not everything improved after halftime, as penalties continued to cause issues for the Elis. After giving up 56 yards on eight penalties against Colgate last week, the Bulldogs committed 12 penalties for 119 yards on Saturday.
Seven of those penalties were called in the second half, including two pass interference calls that handed Cornell 29 yards.
Down 26–19 with just 3:27 remaining, the Yale offense unleashed an aerial attack. Roberts, who ended the day 25-for-47 with 371 passing yards and four total touchdowns, threw on seven consecutive plays and completed five of them. The first four of the five completions were for 10 or more yards, and the fifth was an eight-yard touchdown to wide receiver Robert Clemons III ’17, who finished with a team-leading eight catches for 86 yards.
“At that point [in the game], you know you have to throw the football just based on the clock,”
Roberts said. “I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking at. It felt like we were right there and we just didn’t execute on a couple of those drives. Some guys made some good catches or plays that we had just missed before. They played a bunch of guys man-toman so it was guys winning their matchups.”
With the score then tied at 26 and with 1:12 left on the clock, Reno used his final two timeouts during Cornell’s ensuing possession. The aggressive calls, combined with a forced three-and-out by the defense, gave Roberts just 49 seconds to march his offense 71 yards for the gamewinner.
After the game, Reno said that he believed the offense could score and therefore wanted to give them the opportunity to possess the ball once more.
“[Reno] really trusts us and believes in our offense and believes we can execute,” Roberts said. “We’re always no-huddle, playing up-tempo, so it’s not like we were out of our comfort zone.”
The Bulldogs needed just 17 of those 49 seconds, winning the game on Little’s first career touchdown.
Little, who hails from nearby Cheshire, Connecticut, capped the comeback in front of dozens of local youths, many of who wore navy-blue shirts with Little’s name and number emblazoned on the back, in the stands.
“The whole offense just came together,” said Little. “The offensive line did a great job up front.
[Offensive coordinator Joe Conlin] called a great play to put us in a position to succeed. I never would have guessed [my first touchdown would] happen this way … I’m super grateful and humbled.”
With the win over Cornell, Yale joins Harvard, which defeated Brown on Saturday, as the only team to win a league game. Princeton, Penn, Columbia and Dartmouth have yet to open their Ancient Eight seasons.
Yale’s next game at Lehigh kicks off next Saturday at 12:30 p.m.