From close battles to blowouts, the Yale football team has underperformed in 2016. But there remains one last chance to salvage the season: the Bulldogs will travel to Cambridge on Saturday for the Harvard-Yale football game, with a shot at preventing archrival Harvard from obtaining its fourth-straight Ivy League title.
The Elis (2–7, 2–4 Ivy) will face one of the most balanced teams in the Ancient Eight. Boasting the second-highest scoring offense and the third-stingiest defense, Harvard (7–2, 5–1) will challenge Yale in all phases of the game.
“This team that we have at Yale, Team 144, is resilient,” head coach Tony Reno said. “The guys are able to turn the page better than any group we’ve had. They bring an infectious attitude to practice, and they play together.”
The Crimson’s offensive matches up against a Yale defense that ranks last in points allowed. The Elis are also in the bottom half of the Ivy League in passing and rushing defense. However, Yale’s secondary has performed much better in recent weeks — the 194 and 175 passing yards ceded to Brown and Princeton the past two weeks are the lowest totals of the season.
While the Bulldog defense as a whole has the second-fewest turnovers and fewest sacks out of the Ivies, Yale has several playmakers capable of turning the tide. Safety Hayden Carlson ’18 leads Ivy defenders with six total takeaways to go along with 9.8 tackles per game, and in the trenches, defensive end Kyle Mullen ’19 has tallied five sacks and 10 tackles for losses — figures that make him one of the most productive Ivy pass rushers.
“We have to do all the little things that make defenses good,” Carlson said. “[We need to] stay on top of routes in the secondary, be great tacklers and hopefully get a few turnovers.”
In addition to a third-ranked passing offense, the Harvard’s rush offense is third in Ancient Eight with 150.1 yards per game. Running back Semar Smith handles most of the carries for Harvard and averages 57.9 yards per contest to go along with seven scores on the season.
On the other side of the ball, Yale’s offense enters The Game as the sixth-best scoring unit in the Ivy League. While the Elis’ passing offense has yet to establish itself, the rushing offense is averaging 139 yards per game, fourth best in that category in the conference, and the red zone offense remains atop the Ancient Eight.
Despite battling injuries in recent weeks, running back Alan Lamar ’20 still averages 100 rushing yards per game in contests in which he has taken offensive snaps. The numbers racked up by the Mississippi native — a potential Rookie of the Year candidate — compare favorably to those of last year’s winner Justice Shelton-Mosley. In his five games at running back, Lamar has tallied 500 yards and four touchdowns; in his 10 games, Shelton-Mosley racked up 589 receiving yards and hauled in six scoring receptions.
Lamar is not the only freshman making an impact offensively for the Bulldogs. On the ailing Yale roster, injuries have hit the receiving corps the hardest; wide receivers Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20 have emerged in the past three weeks, with the former averaging 68 yards per contest in that span.
The Elis have notably relied on another freshman: quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, the third signal caller to start under center this season. Rawlings posted 252 yards against Brown in his first start, but managed only 164 against Princeton. The freshman has faced tough pass rushes the past two weeks, and his accuracy has suffered as a result. As he has done for most of the season, Reno said he will evaluate the progress of Rawlings and Tre Moore ’19 at the end of the week to determine who will start at quarterback.
Additionally, first-year linemen Sterling Strother ’20 and Dieter Eislen ’20 have seen significant playing time, though the latter was injured against Princeton and is likely to miss the contest against Harvard. Noting his offense’s inexperience, Reno said changing the speed of the game — and his traditionally fast-paced, spread offense — would put his freshmen in the best place to succeed.
“We’re slowing everything down for them,” Reno said. “A lot of times when guys play young they get in a situation where their focus isn’t where it needs to be, and they play a step lower than their ability.”
Opposing the Eli offense will be a traditionally strong Harvard defense, which this year boasts the second-best rush defense and the fourth-best pass defense in the Ivy League. The group’s 25 sacks top the Ancient Eight, with defensive end DJ Bailey leading the front-seven with six sacks of his own.
Still, the Crimson has looked mortal in recent weeks, with narrow wins over Dartmouth and Columbia followed by a 27–14 loss to Penn in Week 9.
Last week, Harvard held Penn to just 21 rushing yards but gave up 263 through the air. Self-inflicted wounds doomed the Crimson, as it was penalized seven times, threw three interceptions and gave up six sacks. In addition to the three picks, Harvard quarterback Joe Viviano fumbled twice, though the Crimson recovered both.
Viviano enters The Game ranked third in the Ivy League in both yards and touchdowns, with 229 and 14, respectively. Throughout the season, the senior quarterback has depended on wide receiver Shelton-Mosley, who is second only to Penn’s Justin Watson in receiving yards, with 74 per contest. The Crimson sophomore recorded 589 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns in his 2015 campaign, with 119 of those yards and two of those scores coming against Yale in Week 10.
“Harvard’s strength is its consistency,” Reno said. “They’ve got a group of guys that have played for them a long period of time and have played together. Offensively, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year last year, Justice Shelton-Mosley, is a tremendous player.”
Yet Harvard has the lowest scoring margin of the three teams atop the standings. When considering conference games, Princeton boasts a +161 point differential compared to +65 for Penn and +25 for Harvard.
The Crimson has won or tied for the Ivy League title three years in a row and currently have a nine game winning streak in The Game, the longest streak in the 119 year history of the rivalry. While Harvard head coach Tim Murphy has won 14 of the last 15 contests — including the last nine, a record streak in the rivalry — the Elis lead the overall series 65–59–8, with their most recent win coming in 2006.
Captain and linebacker Darius Manora ’17 is focused solely on preparing himself to play Harvard rather than it being his last game.
“My focus is on the preparation,” Manora said. “We’re doing a good job putting away the idea that we’re coming to the end but I’m excited to play. … I’ll embrace the atmosphere and the moment and worry about the rest of it afterwards.”
As Yale attempts to spoil Harvard’s title contention, Princeton will face off against Dartmouth and Penn will battle Cornell. The Tigers and Quakers can both secure their share of the Ivy League championship with a win of their own or a Harvard loss.
The 133rd edition of The Game will kickoff in Cambridge at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.