The Yale football team mounted a spirited, late comeback attempt in its penultimate game of the 2018 season after falling behind 42–7 in the second quarter. But their opponent, No. 11 Princeton, ultimately proved too much to overcome as the Tigers clinched the 2018 Ancient Eight title on the home field of the defending Ivy champs.
The Bulldogs (5–4, 3–3 Ivy) hosted league-leading Princeton (9–0, 6–0) on Saturday following a morning celebration of late former head coach Carm Cozza. A dismal start for the Elis saw the Tigers jump out to a 14–0 edge less than a minute into the game and dominate the contest’s first half to build a five-touchdown advantage. But Team 146 settled into its gameplan in the third and fourth quarters. While the Elis cut into Princeton’s substantial lead by producing their second highest offensive output of the season, their rally proved too little, too late, and they fell 59–43 to the Tigers.
“I’m obviously very upset for our kids,” head coach Tony Reno said. “But [the Tigers] deserve it — they have been the best team in the league all year. We really dug ourselves into a hole. Coming into the game, we knew there’s not a lot of room for error against Princeton … We really never got on track defensively, until the fourth quarter. It just seemed like we would plug up one hole and another one would open.”
With the win, Princeton has earned at least a share of the 2018 Ivy League championship and is in the driver’s seat to become this year’s outright victor in the conference, barring a loss in its final game against Penn. The Bulldogs, who began this season atop the preseason media poll but battled injury and changes up and down the roster, will look to finish with a winning conference record instead.
The Bulldogs got off to a disastrous start on Saturday, allowing the Tigers to open up scoring with a 75-yard touchdown run on the first offensive snap. On Yale’s first drive, rookie signal caller Griffin O’Connor ’22 then proceeded to throw his first of four interceptions on the day, which set up a 17-yard rushing touchdown for Princeton on the very next play. On the Bulldogs’ ensuing series, O’Connor tossed another pick to set up the Tigers’ third touchdown in the opening five minutes, extending the lead to 21–0.
The rookie quarterback eventually settled in after costly turnovers at the beginning of the game. Once he did, it amounted to the most prolific passing performance in program history. Outscoring the high-powered Princeton offense — which averages almost 50 points a contest — in the final two quarters, Team 146 found itself down just 16 points with roughly nine minutes left in the contest after trailing by as much as 21 late in the third quarter.
“At halftime, I told them, ‘fellas, you really couldn’t have played worse in the first half,’” Reno said. “But you look at the resolve of this team. We dig back.”
After forcing Princeton to punt in the game’s waning moments, Yale regained possession, down by two scores with four minutes to play. On the very first play of the series, O’Connor overthrew his intended receiver in the flat and notched his fourth interception of the day, which sealed the victory for the Tigers as John Lovett took a knee to lock up a share of the Ivy League crown.
Despite a glaring quartet of interceptions appearing on the statsheet, O’Connor showed immense potential in just his second game starting for the Blue and White. Last weekend against Brown’s defense — which remains the conference’s worst through nine games— the Huntington Beach, Calif., native threw for 436 yards to place him third on Yale’s all-time single-game passing list. This time, the rookie threw for 465 yards against the league’s best defense to break the school record.
The offense’s performance, which fell just three points short of last week’s season-high output against Brown, was fueled by productive gains both in the air and on the ground. Connections between O’Connor and wideouts JP Shohfi ’20 and Reed Klubnik ’20 led to 312 combined receiving yards including 234 by Klubnik. Running backs Alan Lamar ’20 and Spencer Alston ’22 also rushed for 131 yards especially early in the game while O’Connor was finding his stride through the air.
In an injury-heavy year for the Bulldogs, Shohfi and Klubnik have emerged as models of consistency through an otherwise up-and-down campaign — they were quarterback Kurt Rawlings’ ’20 favorite targets prior to his season-ending injury and have carried over the chemistry to the rookie O’Connor. Without 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year Zane Dudek ’21 in the backfield for most of the season, Lamar has emerged as a revitalizing force on the ground while being complemented by shifty runs from Alston.
As the afternoon progressed, it became clear that a scoring shootout would be Team 146’s best opportunity to compete with the Tigers — a stark contrast to the low-scoring defensive contest in which the Tigers won 14–9 against the then-undefeated Big Green last week.
“Our guys did a terrific job causing turnovers,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace said. “We didn’t turn the ball over ourselves, and that was a huge part of the game … [Yale has] a terrific offense. We saw last week, for a freshman [quarterback], it’s not just arm strength and accuracy, it’s poise and maturity… it made for a long day.”
The Bulldogs will take on Harvard at Fenway Park in the 135th iteration of The Game next Saturday at 12 p.m. to close out the 2018 season.
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