CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A 2–7 Yale football team limped into Harvard Stadium on Nov. 19 to face a Crimson squad that needed one win in order to lock up its fourth consecutive Ivy League title. But after 60 minutes of play, it was Yale that ended up celebrating on the field, a 21–14 victory in hand, while Harvard fans and players filed out of their stadium, shocked.
The Yale (3–7, 3–4 Ivy) defensive unit played its best game of season and held the Harvard (7–3, 5–2) offense to just 14 points after it came into The Game averaging 27.6 points per contest. Bolstered by a cadre of freshmen — including quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, the first Yale freshman quarterback to start against and beat the Crimson — the Eli offense put up three touchdowns and did not turn the ball over a single time.
“There’s a long streak — we didn’t want to talk about it, but it’s over,” Rawlings said. “Now it’s our streak, and it’s the start of something new. I’m excited to get rolling in the off season and build on this.”
The Yale defense played its best when it mattered most, holding Harvard scoreless in the final 23 minutes of the game. Crimson quarterback Joe Viviano — who finished third in the Ivy League in passing yards this season — completed just two passes in the first half, while his top receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley gained just 50 yards all game. As the game progressed, the Elis’ pass rush heated up and prevented Viviano from finding his receivers on late drives.
Reno also made several gutsy play calls that proved crucial to Yale’s victory. Down 7–0 late in the first half, holder Andrew Johnson ’18 executed a fake field goal, completing a 16-yard pass to tight end Leo Haenni ’17 on fourth-and-four. Running back Alan Lamar ’20 scored a touchdown four plays later.
“The bottom line is that it was a great call, a great play and they executed,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said. “Obviously, we should have covered it better and that’s on me.”
Head coach Tony Reno made an even bolder decision to start the second half when kicker Blake Horn ’18 attempted an onside kick, tapping the ball 10 yards and recovering it himself to catch Harvard completely off guard. Five plays later, the Bulldogs found the end zone for another touchdown.
Although the Harvard defense held Yale scoreless for almost the entire first half, the Elis found their stride in the final minutes of the second quarter and excelled after that point. In just his third career start, Rawlings rose to the occasion, throwing for 131 yards and two touchdowns in addition to 74 yards on the ground and no turnovers.
“That’s why you come to Yale or Harvard,” Rawlings said. “You come here to play in this game. It’s an amazing atmosphere. It’s so much fun, looking up and seeing all those people, and it’s the dream to play like this with amazing teammates and amazing coaching.”
The Bel Air, Maryland, native was not the only key freshman contributor for the Bulldogs. Wide receivers Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20 combined for 85 yards, and Klubnik came down with two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with under five minutes to play. Additionally, fellow freshman Lamar gained 62 total yards and scored the first touchdown of the game.
Even without top cornerback Dale Harris ’17, the Eli secondary was rock-solid for its third straight game, allowing just 181 passing yards and just 34 in the first half. Linebackers Victor Egu ’17 and captain Darius Manora ’17 made several big plays on third downs late in the game, and Manora led the unit with nine tackles.
“I think we did a good job on defense, [though] obviously we had a few breakdowns when we let things get away from us,” Manora said. “[We had] some huge plays in the pass game. Any time we get a victory it’s a great defensive effort.”
While this season was, in many ways, a disappointment — five of the team’s seven losses were by 14 points or more — it ended on the highest of highs. Saturday marked Reno’s first victory against Harvard as a head coach in his five-year tenure, though he was an assistant for the Bulldogs when Yale defeated Harvard in 2006.
“You grow as the season goes on, and this team grew every week,” Reno said. “Sometimes it wasn’t easy to see in the score … but what we saw today was the hard work these kids have put in all season long.”
The Elis finished the Ivy League season in a fourth-place tie with Brown. Penn and Princeton took the title in a tie for first, with Harvard ending the season in second.