This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Nov. 16.
In a meeting of two teams battling for pride, rather than for a championship on the line, the Yale football team built crucial momentum before next week’s matchup against Harvard with a 35–28 victory at Princeton on Saturday.
The Bulldogs (6–3, 3–3 Ivy) dug themselves into an early 14–0 hole against the Tigers (5–4, 2–4) but, reminiscent of their early-season comeback victories, stormed back behind a balanced attack from the offense and game-changing plays from the defense when they were needed most. The loss marked Princeton’s first on home turf this season.
“I think Princeton was doing a great job with the pace of their offense and catching us off guard,” head coach Tony Reno said. “[We had to] settle down and play our brand of football, which is to focus on the play and the process and don’t worry about what happened before, just on what we can control. We did a great job of that.”
The team did settle down, mostly due to a dominant running game and a series of calculated risks that paid off. Converted cornerback Dale Harris ’17 set the game’s pace as running back, utilizing his impressive speed to tally 177 yards on just 30 carries.
Harris, who took over the bulk of carries after the first series of the game, began Yale’s scoring with a 71-yard rushing touchdown just three plays after Princeton’s second-consecutive scoring drive. Despite Harris’ monster day of rushing, though, the remainder of the Eli points were initiated by either quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 or Yale’s special teams. Roberts ran in his third rushing touchdown of the season before tossing a perfect dime to wide receiver Robert Clemons ’17, and kicker Bryan Holmes ’17 was on the field for three additional Yale scores: two field goals and one in which, on fourth-and-eight, holder and quarterback Logan Scott ’16 lobbed a 22-yard touchdown to tight end Leo Haenni ’17.
The go-ahead score was Roberts’ touchdown pass to Clemons, which put the Elis up 35–28 with just 4:31 remaining in the game. The winning drive came after a key interception by cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 — his second in as many games — gave the Bulldogs a short field.
Roberts looked like the veteran signal caller he is, going 5–5 on the drive and finding Clemons for the 19-yard game-winner. On that play, Clemons ran a seam route, finding a gap between four defenders before Roberts tossed what he later called “the best throw of my career.”
“We almost had [the touchdown] earlier, to Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18, and we’d run it a couple times and really liked the look we were getting,” Roberts said. “The safety actually came over late, which wasn’t what I was anticipating, so I had to put a little more height on it, but it was a great play by Rob and a great job with the protection up front.”
Linebacker Darius Manora ’17 iced the win with another interception, picking off Princeton quarterback Chad Kanoff with three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game to provide the cherry on top of a fantastic performance from Yale’s defense.
The Bulldogs held Princeton, which entered the game averaging 31.8 points per game, to just seven in the final 30 minutes. The defense hung tight in key situations: in addition to the pair of picks, which came on third- and fourth-down, respectively, the unit forced the Tigers to go 0–2 on fourth down and 6–13 on third-down attempts.
Individually, there were several standouts: safety Hayden Carlson ’18 led the team in tackles for the fourth straight game, and linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 notched his fifth sack of the season.
“They’re finishing,” Reno said. “That’s the difference. Some of the games earlier in the year, they weren’t finishing. Defensively, we’re starting to finish and are on the road to becoming a great defense.”
The game also saw each team pull out a few trick plays. Princeton ran a flea-flicker in the first quarter, which picked up 34 yards and put the Tigers in scoring position. Yale responded later in the half when, down by seven and facing fourth-and-eight from Princeton’s 22-yard line, Reno called the trick play that resulted in Haenni’s touchdown.
The Bulldogs made a similarly bold call for their next score: On fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, Reno called a quarterback keep. Harris went into motion, emptying out the backfield and confusing the Princeton defense before Roberts plunged into the end zone to equalize the game.
“I really felt comfortable with what we were doing,” Reno said. “I had confidence at the end of the game, and I had confidence early on with the plays we called, and I had confidence in the players.”
The final gamble came after the Elis’ final touchdown. Up by five points, Reno took a timeout before electing to go for a two-point conversion. Tight end Jackson Stallings ’17, who had three receptions for a career-best 29 yards, caught a perfectly placed ball from Roberts to extend Yale’s lead to seven.
In addition to converting three of its four fourth-down attempts, Yale finished the day 11–20 on third-down, a season-high clip for the Bulldogs.
“We talk process all the time, and we’re a big family out here,” Stallings said. “We believe in each other every time we go out here. We just stick to our process, play our game and over the 60 minutes we know we’re going to come out on top.”
Yale’s offensive game plan includes, as Reno said in a press conference last week, a commitment to the ground game. Of the Eli offense’s 467 yards, 260 came from the rushing attack on a season-high 55 attempts. While the story of the rushing performance was once again the explosive Harris, the Bulldogs were able to rotate him out. Fellow converted running back Austin Reuland ’16 added 50 yards on 13 carries, while injured starter Deshawn Salter ’18 played one series, picking up seven yards on his two carries before exiting the game.
That consistent ground attack allowed Roberts to attempt just 30 passes, of which he completed 21 for 185 yards. Half of Roberts’ receptions went to slot receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18, who followed up a career-day against Brown last week with a 10-catch, 69-yard performance.
Right guard Jon Bezney ’18 joined Salter on the sideline, leaving the game with an injury. Siragusa, who sustained a knee injury against Maine, took the field for the first time since mid-October. Despite a clunky knee brace, the sophomore wideout still picked up 17 yards after Roberts tossed him a lateral on an option run in the second quarter.
It is unknown how many, if any, of Yale’s injured players will return next week in the Bulldogs’ final game of the season against Harvard.
Kickoff at the Yale Bowl next Saturday is at 2:30 p.m.