Entering its Nov. 19 contest with Harvard with just two wins on the year, the Yale football team defeated a 7–2 Crimson squad for the first time since 2006. The Bulldogs not only snapped their decadelong losing streak to the Cantabs, but also knocked Harvard out of contention for the Ivy League title with their 21–14 victory. The News breaks down nine crucial plays that powered Yale to victory in Cambridge.
Leggo my Egu (3:15 to play in the 1st)
Nothing was going Yale’s way in the first quarter of the 133rd edition of The Game, as the offense did not run an offensive play outside its own 30-yard line in the first 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the Eli defense had its back against the wall as the Harvard offense crossed into Yale territory.
On third-and-five from the Eli 45-yard line, Crimson quarterback Joe Viviano handed the ball to running back Semar Smith, who looked for a hole on the right side of the line. But the only thing Smith found was linebacker Victor Egu ’17. The senior, who missed much of the previous two games with injury, shot the gap and brought Smith down four yards short of the first-down marker to force a second Harvard punt in Yale territory. The Bulldogs held Harvard to just 36 percent efficiency on third down thanks to big tackles by seniors like Egu; the senior members of Yale’s defensive unit registered 28 tackles on the afternoon.
Alessi is more (14:52 to play in the 2nd)
The Crimson threatened again in Yale territory to open the second quarter. Facing a third-and-10 from the Eli 45-yard line, Harvard opted to throw a screen pass to speedy receiver Adam Scott. With Crimson wide receivers sealing off Bulldog defenders on the perimeter, Scott hit a hole and had just one man to beat on his way to the end zone.
Unfortunately for Harvard, that one man was cornerback Jason Alessi ’18, who wrestled down Scott in the open field and almost certainly kept six points off the board. Yale tackled better than it had all season in its finale against the Crimson, with open field takedowns like Alessi’s keeping Harvard off the scoreboard until late in the first half.
Rawlings on a river (4:32 to play in 2nd)
Coming off of Harvard’s first score of the game, the Yale offense jogged back onto the field down 7–0 with under five minutes to play in the first half. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 showed the handoff to running back Alan Lamar ’20 at his own 32, but the quarterback choose to keep the ball himself. Sprinting to his right, Rawlings fooled everyone — including the cameraman — as he gained the outside edge and took off down the Yale sideline before Harvard finally took him down at its own 40-yard line.
Though the freshman is known more for his accuracy in the pocket than for his speed, Rawlings led all players in rushing yards on the day, and brought the Yale offense to life with his 28-yard run, the longest running play by either team.
Fake it ‘til you make it (1:28 to play in 2nd)
Despite Rawlings’ long run, Yale’s drive stalled at the Harvard 19-yard line and on fourth-and-four, the Bulldogs had to send out the field goal unit with under two minutes to play in the half. But holder Andrew Johnson ’18 had no intention of teeing up the ball for kicker Alex Galland ’19. Coming to the line of scrimmage in an unusual formation, Johnson snapped the ball and lofted it over the middle to tight end Leo Haenni ’17, who caught the ball on his fingertips at the Harvard three-yard line.
Yale converted on the trick play after months of patience by the special teams unit. The Bulldogs lined up in the same swinging gate formation for almost every kick this season in attempts to catch opponents off guard. Though Johnson had run in for two points on an extra-point attempt against Dartmouth, Yale had to shift to its conventional kicking formation in every other instance this season. Head coach Tony Reno praised Johnson earlier in the season for embracing his role as holder, and the junior had his moment to shine as his pass to Haenni brought the offense back on the field. Lamar would scamper in for the game-tying touchdown four snaps later.
Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said after the game that the last thing he told his special teams players in their meetings was to watch out for Yale’s trickery.
Sound the Horn (15:00 to play in the 3rd)
The New Orleans Saints opened the second half of Super Bowl XLIV with an onside kick, recovering possession and all the momentum on their way to their first Super Bowl victory. Looking to capture the same magic, Yale employed the same strategy to open the third quarter of The Game. Reno said that after watching tape of Harvard’s nine games this season, he noticed that its return unit looked susceptible to a surprise fake. After confirming the Crimson’s tendencies in the first half, Reno chose to catch them off guard.
Kicker Blake Horn ’18 executed the play to perfection, bouncing a trickling ball 11 yards in front of him, chasing it down and diving on it himself before the Crimson realized what had happened. When the dust settled, Yale had the ball on the Harvard 49-yard line and scored four plays later to take its first lead of the day.
Rawlings to Klubnik with 2020 vision (13:46 to play in the 3rd)
With all the momentum on its side after the onside kick, Yale’s offense went to work. On first-and-10 at the Harvard 28-yard line, Rawlings delivered arguably the best throw of his year. Snapping the ball in the shotgun, the quarterback saw receiver Reed Klubnik ’20 streaking down the right side of the field in single coverage. Despite the Harvard defender draped all over his man, Rawlings put the ball in a spot where only Klubnik could grab it — just above Klubnik’s head. The freshman held on to the ball through Harvard’s pass interference and secured the ball with one foot in the end zone. The freshman-to-freshman connection proved successful all day; Klubnik finished The Game with 55 yards on five catches, with two of those receptions going for touchdowns.
Fourth down guts from Salter (7:59 to play in the 4th)
With the game tied at 14–14, Klubnik made an eight-yard reception on third-and-nine to force Reno into a difficult decision. Yale’s offense had found a rhythm with the ball at Harvard’s 38-yard line, and was just a few yards out of field goal range for Galland’s strong leg. A failed fourth-down attempt would give Harvard great field position for a game-winning drive. Reno elected to go for it on fourth down, trusting his steady running attack on the most pivotal play of the season to that moment.
Running back Deshawn Salter ’18 and the big men up front delivered, as the junior found a hole on the right side of the line of scrimmage and plowed forward for just enough to pick up the first down. Harvard safety Tanner Lee made contact with Salter before he had the first down, but the running back drove Lee backward to keep the Yale drive going.
The go-ahead (4:14 to play in the 4th)
Rawlings had a chance to give the Bulldogs the lead on the play immediately following the fourth-down pickup, but underthrew receiver JP Shohfi ’20 after he beat his defender on a double move. But Yale’s offense continued to march down the field, taking the ball to the goal line.
Facing third-and-goal from the three-yard line with under five minutes to play, the Elis could not have drawn up the go ahead score any better. Klubnik lined up on the right side of the formation, but ran to the left on a crossing route as the receivers on the opposite side cleared out the defense. Klubnik caught the ball at the one-yard line and stretched across the goal line, crossing the plane just before a Crimson defender knocked it out of his hand. Yale jumped out to the 21–14 lead and did not look back.
Game. Set. Match. (0:08 to play in the 4th)
Viviano had one final chance to bring Harvard back on fourth-and-six from his 47-yard line. The senior rolled to his left and nearly found his man past the line of scrimmage, but Alessi burst toward the ball from at least five yards behind the play to spike it out of the air. Yale took a knee to run out the clock after the turnover on downs and walked away from Harvard Stadium with its first win in The Game since 2006.