In the wake of Yale’s 35–31 win over Princeton, head coach Tony Reno credited the team’s desire to play to its standards as the impetus behind the comeback victory, considering the Bulldogs once trailed 24–7.
It’s the reason why he gave his team a C-grade following its 56–28 thrashing of Lehigh. It’s the reason why running back Deshawn Salter ’18 answered a 57-yard Cornell touchdown with an 82-yard scoring scamper of his own one play later. It’s the reason why he sees playing Brown (2–7, 0–6 Ivy) as equally important to a date with Dartmouth (7–2, 4–2). But most importantly, it’s the reason why the Elis are on the cusp of winning their first outright Ivy League championship since 1980 when they host Harvard this Saturday.
“My expectations of this team had nothing to do with wins and losses it was standards,” Reno said. “These guys came to Yale to be part of something bigger than themselves. These guys came to Yale to be part of a football family that really truly is a family. For me, that was first and foremost [was] them being able to relate with other at a different level than they ever have.”
Last season, the Bulldogs plodded through a 3–7 campaign, decimated by a throng of injuries to key contributors on every level of the offense and defense, and also struggling to plug the hole left by the graduation of record-setting quarterback and Clemson transfer Morgan Roberts ’16.
But now, in Reno’s sixth season, with a proven starter in quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 and four classes of players all recruited by Reno and his staff, the future of Yale football has come into focus. The Elis look to validate Reno’s team culture by winning nine games for the first time since 2007.
“[It’s] about a culture where it’s not about one person, one player,” wide receiver Chris-Williams Lopez ’18 said. “[It’s about] one person doing their job for the greater cause of the team. I would say we’re a very unselfish team. Whereas many people were worried about whether it was stats, or recognition, Ivy League recognition, everybody is ready to do the dirty work in order to help or better the team. You’ll see seniors who are willing to go onto the scout team, just because they know it’s going to help the team develop and hopefully make another player better.”
After leading the team in receptions and yards in 2015, Williams–Lopez saw his role diminished after he missed half of last season due to injury. His medical hardship, as well as injuries to fellow receivers Bo Hines ’18, Ross Drwal ’18 and Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18, opened the door for the emergence of then-rookies ’20 Reed Klubnik and JP Shohfi ’20. In their first season of college football, the rookies combined for 53 receptions, 582 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns against Harvard to give the Elis their first victory over the Crimson since 2006.
With three of those four injured receivers poised to return this season, on top of the talented tandem of sophomores, Yale’s receiving corps knew they would likely, individually, see a decrease in production. Ultimately, that depth and experience allowed the Bulldogs to substitute their wideouts more frequently, with little drop in performance. Through nine games, Yale ranks second overall in the Ivy League in scoring offense and its per game average has increased more than 160 yards compared to last season. Even a player such as Drwal, who had just six catches for 59 yards and zero touchdowns before last week, came up huge for Yale with a game-breaking 33-yard touchdown on a fourth down pass late in the win over Princeton.
“Ross has done a lot of things that don’t end up in stat lines,” Reno said. “He’s one of the best blockers on the team, he’s one of the best special teams guys we have. When you look at our receiving corps … not one of them is really in the top couple in the league in receptions but we have arguably one of the best offenses in the league. We rotate seven receivers in a game so the opportunities for Ross to catch 20 balls over a two-game span or eight in a game hadn’t been there. It speaks a lot about how when an opportunity is presented you make the most of it and he did.”
Two of the core beliefs Reno has preached to build a championship culture include focusing on winning individual plays as “one-play warriors,” and how the response to an event is twice as important as the event itself. These values have manifested throughout the season. Against Columbia, cornerback Deonte Henson ’21 recorded a late, game-sealing interception right after committing a costly facemask penalty. And at Franklin Field, Rawlings orchestrated a gutsy, game-winning 11-play, 80-yard drive after his fumble on the previous series allowed Penn to steal a late lead.
The consistency of Reno’s culture is reflected throughout the entirety of the football program, from All-Ivy talents to fourth-string reserve players, to assistant coaches. He sees each game as a one-week season, and the primary matchup is Yale versus itself. Players echo his vision and beliefs almost as if they were younger facsimiles, a dynamic that’s contributed to a clique-free locker room with unity between all four class years.
“It really comes down to the relationships,” right guard Anders Huizenga ’18 said. “We have a lot of young guys playing and [we’ve been] able to bring them along to get them to accept the culture. You can’t force culture upon players on the team. What we’ve been really able to do is get guys to buy into the culture of what we’re creating here. The offense, since camp started, we’ve just been having a ton of fun with practice, with meetings, and all of that goes into creating those relationships and those bonds that guys are going to carry far beyond Yale football.”
Yale will conclude its championship season on Saturday against Harvard in the 134th edition of The Game. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series 66–59–8.
Joey Kamm | firstname.lastname@example.org