Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 remembers it well. Last season’s dramatic 21–14 upset of Harvard snapped a nine-year losing streak to Yale’s centuries-old archrival, an eternity for a storied football program. But rather than pure euphoria, ecstasy or elation, the sophomore signal-caller recalled a sense of ambivalence.
“Sitting at the press conference after the Harvard game, I remember [thinking it’s] great we won … but looking at the season, that’s where we should have been in every game last season,” Rawlings said. “It made us kind of angry at the fact that we let a lot of games slip last year.”
One year later, Rawlings and the Bulldogs (8–1, 5–1 Ivy) find themselves right where they pictured themselves all along: sitting atop the Ivy League. With their win over Princeton last week, the Elis are guaranteed a share of the conference title with one game remaining and will have a chance to win their first outright championship in 37 years on Saturday. Still, to cap off a wildly successful 2017 season, Yale must emerge victorious against rival Harvard (5–4, 3–3), which has endured an inconsistent campaign following last season’s upset loss.
At Harvard Stadium one year ago, the Bulldogs stumbled in with a 2–7 record but shocked the 31,662 fans in attendance by dashing the Crimson’s title hopes. Harvard would have earned a share of the 2016 Ancient Eight crown with a victory in its season finale. But this year, the roles are reversed, with a Harvard win on Saturday seeming just as implausible a Yale win did a season ago.
Team 145 enters this weekend’s contest — estimated to draw a crowd of more than 50,000 fans — on a five-game winning streak, while the Crimson limp into the Yale Bowl on the heels of a one-sided, 23–6 loss to Penn. After some early season missteps, Harvard had worked its way back into the Ivy-title discussion with back-to-back wins over fellow contenders Dartmouth and Columbia but crumbled at home against the Quakers with a chance to stay in contention. The Crimson’s inconsistency leaves Yale as a firm favorite before the opening kickoff.
But head coach Tony Reno doesn’t want to hear that. Like he’s said all season, Reno always believes Yale’s next opponent will be its toughest. The Bulldogs have succeeded thus far largely because of their ability to remain focused on playing to the standard of the Team 145.
“Our goal at the beginning of the season was a little different than where it is right now, and we still have one more game that we need to play to accomplish to accomplish our goal,” Reno said. “So we’re going to continue to do what we do, and that’s … embracing the target, which is getting better every day, and that doesn’t change a bit.”
Along with the team’s goal, the formula that has won the Elis eight games should not change at all heading into The Game. Team 145 has succeeded all season in dominating the line of scrimmage, so its points of emphasis will be establishing the running game early and pressuring the quarterback.
With right tackle Jon Bezney ’18 and running back Deshawn Salter ’18 missing from action last week due to injury, the Bulldog running game proved it could still move the ball on the ground. Reno moved Sterling Strother ’20 from center to right tackle and inserted Steve Cepalia ’20 in at center. Behind the reshuffled-but-equally-effective offensive front, running back Zane Dudek ’21 ran the ball 35 times for 180 yards — both season highs for the rookie, and just five-yards shy of the all-time freshman record for one game. With Bezney’s injury status up in the air, Reno was noncommittal to this offensive-line configuration during a Tuesday press conference, but Yale should feel confident running the ball with either lineup.
On the defensive front, Team 145’s sacks per game and tackles for loss per game have recently dipped from their Football Championship Subdivision-leading marks from two weeks ago, but not at the expense of a drop in constant pressure. The Elis’ defensive line has continued to harry opposing quarterbacks, even if it has not shown in the box score. Against Brown two weeks ago, several Bulldogs registered crushing blows to quarterback T.J. Linta over the course of the game, and last week at Princeton, linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18 hit standout quarterback Chad Kanoff on his final throw of the day to force a victory-sealing interception.
“We’re not really thinking title, we’re just worried about our next opponent and our tenth game this season,” cornerback and captain Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 said. “I think we’ve built such strong relationships over the offseason, and that’s carried us to the point we’re at right now. It’s a big stage, and I think our whole team knows that, but we’re treating it like any other week.”
The Bulldogs’ conference-leading scoring defense will have to prepare for Harvard’s two-quarterback system featuring senior Joe Viviano and first-year Jake Smith. Viviano, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown against Yale in 2016, entered the season as the starter, but has split time with Smith as of late. In the Crimson’s most recent games against Columbia and Penn, the signal-calling duo averaged 190 passing yards per contest, but threw for just two touchdowns against five interceptions in that same span.
Whichever quarterback is under center for the Crimson, he’ll have the luxury of throwing to wide receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley, one of the most dynamic playmakers in the Ivy League. The 5-foot-10 wideout carved up the Bulldogs’ secondary for 119 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions in 2015, but was limited to just a pair of catches for 50 yards a season ago. Shelton-Mosely, a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection in 2016, has yet to catch a touchdown pass this year, likely a byproduct of the flux at quarterback, but he doubles as the top return man in the Ancient Eight, having already taken returns of 91 and 85 yards to the house this season.
Meanwhile, Harvard’s defense has been on a recent tear, generating nine takeaways in its last three games to help the Crimson notch a pair of one-possession victories against second-place teams Columbia and Dartmouth. Over those three games, Harvard limited its opponents to a respectable 19.6 points per showing. The Crimson also boasts safety Tanner Lee, who is tied for first in the Ivy League in interceptions and is tenth in total tackles in conference play. Yale’s offense, which averages more than 35 points per game, will look to showcase its balanced attack and plethora of scoring weapons on Saturday against a Crimson defense that has conceded an average of just 13.9 points in the previous 10 iterations of The Game.
Saturday marks the 134th playing of The Game and the final collegiate game for 31 Yale football seniors.
Won Jung | firstname.lastname@example.org
Joey Kamm | email@example.com