Courtesy of Jack Warhola

Looking to reestablish itself after a thrashing from Dartmouth last weekend, the Yale football team defeated Mercer — its first new opponent at home since 2010 — in a nail-biting contest on Saturday.

Coming off of a disheartening 41–8 loss against the Big Green last week, the Bulldogs (3–2, 1–1 Ivy) entered the contest hoping to return to the form that carried them past then-No. 16 Maine two weeks ago. Mercer (3–3, 2–1 Southern) traveled from Georgia to face Team 146 in a match propelled by big plays and exciting touchdown snags. The Eli built up a clean 21–0 lead at the game’s opening, but the Bears took advantage of temporary lapses to make the remainder of the contest uncertain. The two teams battled it out into the final seconds, but crucial stops on defense and first-down rushes in the final frame allowed Yale to cap off the University’s celebration of Heroes Day — a day set aside to honor the service of military veterans — with a 35–28 victory against its final nonconference opponent.

“These guys press our standards every single day to be great,” head coach Tony Reno said. “I challenged them this week to play to our standard and nothing else. Control what they can control. Stay within a play. Finish plays. At the end of the game, respond when you need to. When you look back at the football game, they had to do all of those things to gain the outcome they did. I am just very proud of this team.”

After Dartmouth’s defense stifled the Elis’ running game last week, questions lingered going into Saturday’s contest about Team 146’s offensive prowess. But at the start of the game, the Bulldogs’ offense looked rejuvenated. After Mercer opened the contest with a scoreless drive, Yale jumped out to grab the early lead. In the Elis’ first possession of the game, quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, who took multiple blows the week before, found wideout JP Shohfi ’20 down the middle of the field for a 57-yard touchdown, the first of several important connections between the pair of juniors.

Team 146’s defense, which previously looked incapable of responding to the Big Green’s situational quarterback runs, took the field and turned heads at Saturday’s game. Just as the Bears began to put together a solid drive, Mercer quarterback Kaelan Riley fumbled after threat of a sack from an impressive Yale blitz. Defensive back Rodney Thomas II ’21 ran it back 41 yards for another touchdown to bring Team 146 up by two scores.

Yale’s pressure defense continued to dominate throughout the contest. While the Elis have previously struggled with making quick and strong coverage, they locked down the Bears’ offense. A far cry from the chaotic play that defined the Dartmouth game, Yale forced Mercer to capitalize on fleeting moments of opportunity for any substantial yardage gain.

But it was another Rawlings and Shohfi connection that set the Elis up for success. Early in the second quarter, Shohfi caught his second touchdown pass to put the Elis up 21–0. Shofhi finished the day with six receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was fun to be able to make a few plays today,” Shohfi said. “We were ultimately just taking what they gave us, so we did a really good job of getting plenty for them. Our entire offense has a really fun time trying to physically dominate the other team.”

Just as Yale opened its scoring with a standout-play driven possession, Mercer found the scoreboard in similar fashion. Propelled to Yale’s end of the field by a 54-yard run, the Bears ran a trick play in the red zone that resulted in Riley receiving the Bears’ first touchdown of the day to cap off a 96-yard drive and narrow Yale’s lead to two touchdowns.

For the rest of the contest, big plays continued to underlie scoring drives. Team 146 responded to the Bears’ first score with another critical possession led by Rawlings and Shohfi. The Elis moved the ball 95 yards in just four plays — the first two of which resulted in no gain in yardage. On the third play, Rawlings found Shohfi for a crucial 57-yard completion before capping off the drive with a 38-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Jaylan Sandifer ’22 in the end zone to extend the lead back to 21 points. Reliance on big plays to move long distances continued in the Bears’ next drive. In just three plays, they pulled off a 75-yard touchdown drive of their own to finish off the half trailing by two again.

The Bears made another shocking play to complete the second half’s first scoring drive. Riley found wide receiver Tony Jones II, who managed to momentarily thwart all of Yale’s defenders to run down the field before stepping out of bounds. A final pass into the end zone left Mercer trailing just 28–21.

“Our defense played hard,” Rawlings said. “They played great, but the longer the offense stays on the field, the [fewer] points the other team can put on the board. Having a great offensive line means I barely got touched. It is a testament to how good those guys are.”

With 2017 Phil Steele FCS Offensive Freshman of the Year running back Zane Dudek ’21 still on the bench due to injury, ball carriers Alan Lamar ’20, Spencer Alston ’22 and Trenton Charles ’22 split time running the ball on Saturday. To open the final frame, the trio teamed up to move the ball down the field before Rawlings threw a 16-yard pass to wideout Reed Klubnik ’20 in the end zone to extend the lead back to two touchdowns. But Mercer pulled off another pivotal play, this time finding the end zone on a 35-yard pass with less than five minutes on the clock to make it a one-score game again as Yale began the final possession.

Mercer tried to thwart a steady Yale drive with a pair of back-to-back timeouts, but the Elis stuck to the plan. Lamar closed out his 116-yard day with a critical 29-yard gain to put Yale at the Bears’ six-yard line. There, with 22 seconds left on the clock, Rawlings took a knee to confirm, at last, Team 146’s precarious 35–28 victory.

Rawlings added four touchdown passes against Mercer to bring his total to 33 and move into sixth on Yale’s career-high list.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Cris Zillo | cristopher.zillo@yale.edu .