Yale Athletics

For the first 55 minutes of its season-opening contest, the Yale football team seemed to be picking up where its 9–1, Ivy-winning 2017 campaign left off. Then, just as quickly as Team 146 had built its advantage in the game’s opening moments, the Bulldogs surrendered it as the clock ticked down — and lost the game soon thereafter.

On Saturday, Yale (0–1, 0–0 Ivy) lost in overtime to Holy Cross (1–2, 0–1 Patriot), which overcame an Eli score on the very first play and erased deficits of 21–0 and 28–14 to knock off the visitors 31–28 in a thriller. The sides combined for 42 points in the contest’s first 16 minutes before a nearly three-quarter pointless streak reset the game’s momentum, and the Crusaders broke through with two touchdowns on their final two regulation possessions before knocking through the game-winning field goal in the first extra frame.

“A concern about every year in the opener is just the amount of mistakes that a young team makes, like the amount of missed tackles we had,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said. “As the game wore on, the guys didn’t finish tackles. We didn’t finish on the quarterback, we let plays get extended. We held out in space where we wouldn’t have early on in the game.”

The game started about as well as Yale could have hoped, as wide receiver Melvin Rouse ’21 took back the opening kickoff for a 100-yard return touchdown. The sophomore dropped the kick at the goal line and seemed to be bottled up after picking up the ball. But a nifty juke and a reversal of field gave way to space along the Yale sideline, which Rouse turned into a 7–0 Yale lead 16 seconds into the game.

Just as quickly, it seemed, came Yale’s second touchdown. A subsequent interception of a Crusader pass by defensive end J. Hunter Roman ’19 gave the Elis the ball. On the ensuing first play from scrimmage, running back Alan Lamar ’20 found a hole and doubled Yale’s advantage to 14–0 with fewer than 120 seconds gone by.

Holy Cross’ following drive stalled after one first down and a botched snap, and Yale went back to work on a much more methodical series that saw quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 scramble 10 yards on a key third down. The highlight of the possession was its final play, on which field-goal holder Patrick Conte ’21 exercised his option to pass the ball from an unorthodox formation rather than attempt a 40-yard kick. The junior found tight end J.J. Howland ’21 over the middle for a 23-yard score, extending the Bulldogs’ lead to three touchdowns.

On the following Crusader possession, however, backup quarterback and senior Geoff Wade replaced the junior starter Emmett Clifford, who wasted no time in making his presence felt. Wade converted two third downs en route to putting Holy Cross on the scoreboard. A beautiful onside kick gave the Crusaders the ball right back, and a quick six plays later, another touchdown had cut Yale’s lead to seven.

The Elis responded however, with Rawlings tossing a 20-yard score to Reed Klubnik ’20 on the second play of the second quarter and for the last score of the first half, which finished 28–14. The remaining pre-break action notably included an injury scare for running back and 2017 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Zane Dudek ’21, who required medical attention on the field. But the sophomore was able to walk to the Yale sideline by himself and soon returned to the game, ultimately finishing with 217 rushing yards — more than three times what any other player recorded.

“I think Zane Dudek might’ve had 150 rushing yards that were called back because of [penalties],” Reno said. “We had numerous opportunities to really put the game away. I thought we should’ve had 42 [points] at the half.”

If Rouse’s kickoff return had been a harbinger of all the first-half action, Holy Cross’ punt on the first possession of the second half foreshadowed the battle of attrition that the game would soon become. The teams combined for four punts in the first half, all by Holy Cross; they had five in the third quarter and another three in the first 10 minutes of the fourth. Yale’s offense, which had motored for a remarkable 160 yards per quarter in the first half, racked up 78 in the third; Holy Cross’ hardly broke 50 yards in that frame after averaging more than 100 in the two prior.

It ultimately took 39 minutes and 41 seconds of scoreless play before the stalemate broke, which happened when Crusader receiver Martin Dorsey made a diving touchdown grab on a 29-yard Wade throw with 4:32 remaining. Holy Cross then forced a Yale punt with fewer than two minutes left. Wade, working with one timeout, led Holy Cross right back to the end zone, delighting the stadium a 30-yard, equalizing strike to tight end Spencer Gilliam with 52 seconds to go.

“At the end of the day we just gave up too many big plays,” linebacker Ryan Burke ’20 said. “In that first half, I thought we came out focused. Everyone was doing their job, everyone was on top of things. And then we kind of slipped away from that — fatigue set in. It was our first time playing a full 60-minute game and I think that we started to lose that focus. Big plays started to happen; guys were missing their responsibilities.”

The Bulldogs’ last effort in regulation yielded no result. With the game in overtime and Yale with the first possession, Reno decided twice to keep his offense on the field on fourth-down-and-one situations. Dudek managed to convert the first but was stuffed at the line on the second, giving Holy Cross the ball needing only a field goal to win.

Despite the Bulldog defense’s best efforts — the Crusaders lost a yard on their three overtime offensive plays — the standard overtime starting position of the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line meant Holy Cross was already within range. Rookie kicker Derek Ng knocked through the 45-yard kick, completing the turnaround and sending Fitton Field into a frenzy.

The Crusader victory was Holy Cross’ first in the series since 2005 and avenges a 32–0 Yale rout at the Bowl last October. It was also the first win on the Holy Cross sideline for first-year Crusader head coach Bob Chesney, who next week will try to make it two in a row over Ivy teams when his squad hosts Dartmouth. Yale, meanwhile, will seek its first win of 2018 next Saturday in its Ivy opener at Cornell.

David Weller | david.weller@yale.edu

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Sept. 17.