The Yale football team found itself in an unfamiliar position at Franklin Field on Saturday. The Bulldogs (5–1, 2–1 Ivy) trailed Penn (2–4, 0–3) with a little over nine minutes to play, and the momentum favored the Quakers after a late touchdown run.
But quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 and Team 145 proved resilient, orchestrating an 11-play, 80-yard drive with just four minutes on the clock and securing an 24–19 victory over the defending Ivy co-champions to stay in the conference title race.
Yale — off to its best start since its historic 2014 season — overcame a pair of fourth quarter turnovers in its own territory and a slew of penalties to defeat the Quakers for the first time in the past three seasons. Rawlings connected with wide receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 for a touchdown with less than five minutes remaining to all but clinch the win for Yale. The Bulldog defense sealed the victory by forcing a three-and-out the next drive.
“This is something we hadn’t done this season,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been in some ball games where we’ve had a big lead … so this was a great [experience] for us. As a coach, you don’t ever hope for a game like this, but we needed a game like this to see where we were at. We needed to see if we could do what we needed to do at the end.”
Just two weeks ago, Yale failed to close out an important game against fellow Ivy contender Dartmouth. The Bulldogs built up an early 21-point lead against the Big Green, but they let the home squad snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the final minute of play.
A similar, down to the wire scenario played out this Saturday against Penn, but this time in Yale’s favor.
Team 145 went into halftime leading 18–10 behind its ever-dominant running attack and stifling defense. However, the Elis went cold to start the second half. Although the Yale defense did its part, holding the Quakers at ten points through the end of the third quarter, the Bulldog offense failed to build on its lead and mustered just 45 yards in the frame.
The Elis’ struggles continued in the final quarter, as Penn recovered fumbles from both running back Zane Dudek ’21 and Rawlings — neither of whom had lost a fumble in the first 23 quarters of the season. The Quakers, who have been hampered by fourth quarter struggles in conference games, capitalized on both turnovers and ultimately took a one-point lead behind a two-yard touchdown run by Tre Solomon.
With nine minutes remaining in the game, the Yale offense stepped on the field looking to avoid another late collapse. Rawlings led a masterful 80-yard drive, with Dudek accounting for 47 of those, to regain the lead. The deciding score came on a 4-yard pass from Rawlings to Williams-Lopez in the front of the end zone.
“I looked at the coverage and made eye contact with Kurt,” Williams-Lopez said. “I knew it was going to happen the next play. He put a great ball on me and I went up and got it. Our success today relied on our offensive line and Kurt leading us.”
Team 145 relied on a game-tested formula to propel itself to a close victory in Philadelphia. Yale’s calling card all season has been its ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, a trend that continued on Saturday. After posting a second-consecutive season low in rushing yards last week, the Elis’ potent ground attack returned to form with 217 yards on 34 carries. Whether it was Dudek, Rawlings or Deshawn Salter ’18, the Bulldogs ran all over the Quakers, a team that surrenders more rushing yards per game than any other in the Ancient Eight.
The Elis displayed their superiority on the ground in the final minutes after the defense forced a three-and-out. Yale needed to run out the final 3:28 of game time to seal its victory, and it did so by handing off the ball four straight times to Salter and then once to Dudek, allowing Rawlings to kneel out the rest of the time.
Yale’s dominant defensive front continued to demonstrate why it leads the Football Championship Subdivision in sacks per game. The Bulldogs wrestled down Penn’s combination of quarterbacks, Will Fischer-Colbrie and Nick Robinson, five times on the afternoon, including three sacks on third down. The Elis also posted a season-high 14 tackles-for-loss and limited Solomon — a 2016 First-Team All-Ivy selection — to a measly 41 yards on 21 carries.
The Bulldogs’ secondary, playing without captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 for much of the game, struggled to defend against one of the FCS’s top offensive weapons in Penn wide receiver Justin Watson. The 6-foot-3 wideout averaged 12 yards per reception and caught the opening touchdown en route to posting his 16th 100-yard receiving game, an Ivy League record. Watson’s efforts proved for naught in the Quakers’ loss, which came on the heels of two straight, last-second conference defeats to Dartmouth and Columbia.
“The fourth quarter has not been nice to us over the last couple weeks,” Penn head coach Ray Priore said. “From the get-go, I thought we had some opportunities to make some plays and move [the ball]. The kids played hard. I loved their effort, I love how they battle right to the very last play. Their hearts are in it, [we’re] just not capitalizing on opportunities we can have.”
The Bulldogs will be back in action at the Yale Bowl this Saturday when they host the undefeated Columbia team.
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