It’s easy to measure the 2018 Yale football team by what it is missing. Its star quarterback suffered a season-ending injury in mid-October, its top running back has battled turf toe all season and its captain withdrew from the University this past summer.
After sustaining these losses, the Bulldogs look nothing like the team that was picked to repeat as Ivy League champions in the preseason media poll. Team 146 heads to Fenway Park with a meager 5–4 record and can finish no better than third in the Ancient Eight standings.
Still, despite the up and downs that Yale has endured this season, the Elis will beat Harvard. Although the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group’s model pits the Crimson as just under a three-point favorite, this Bulldog team is built to win on Saturday. Rather than looking at what Team 146 is missing, look at what it still has.
In many ways, Team 146 mirrors the 2016 squad that broke a nine-year losing streak to Harvard. Like that team, which entered The Game with a 2–7 record, these Bulldogs have underperformed after a series of injuries. The similarities between the 2016 and 2018 Yale teams point to a Team 146 victory on Saturday.
Going into The Game two seasons ago, head coach Tony Reno turned to a third-string rookie quarterback named Kurt Rawlings ’20 and, with just two starts under his belt, the first year threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions to beat the Crimson. This year’s starter, Griffin O’Connor ’22, is also a rookie and also started just two contests prior to The Game. Having thrown for 901 yards across those two games, O’Connor heads into The Game with better numbers than Rawlings did two seasons ago.
The similarity between the 2016 and 2018 teams also extends to the running back position. Tailback Alan Lamar ’20 scored Yale’s lone rushing touchdown against Harvard in 2016 after starting the season at the bottom of the depth chart. Not only has Lamar been steadily improving this season as he battles back from a knee injury sustained last year, but he is also sharing caries with Spencer Allston ’22. Allston is poised to play the role of the new Lamar on Saturday, having begun his rookie campaign low on the depth chart.
Although both Team 144 and 146 struggled defensively — the 2018 team ranks third-to-last in the Ivy League in points surrendered and has a penchant for giving up big plays — the 2016 defense held Harvard to 14 points in the upset two years ago. And statistically, that defense was far more porous than this year’s squad. The last two Yale-Harvard games have been low-scoring affairs, and if Saturday’s contest heads in that direction, there’s no reason this Yale team could not hold its own.
Moreover, Team 146 has actually played its best football in recent weeks. Reno said on Tuesday at his weekly press conference that “it took us a week to get ourselves figured out” after Rawlings went down at Penn. Once Reno sorted out the post-Rawlings quarterback situation by starting O’Connor, the Bulldogs crushed Brown 46–16. Although they still fell short against Princeton, the Elis cut a 42–7 second-quarter deficit to just 16 points when the clock hit zero. Captain and defensive lineman Nick Crowle ’19 said on Tuesday that he will emphasize the way the team nearly pulled off a comeback against the Tigers in his messages to his team this week.
Even with my partisan bias, I acknowledge that Harvard has good reason to be favored heading into the 135th playing of The Game. The Crimson boasts one of the league’s top defenses and an elite rushing attack. There is no doubt that Harvard would have an advantage in a defensive showdown, and with neither team scoring more than 25 points in either of the last two Yale–Harvard meetings, it is reasonable to expect a low-scoring affair.
To make things more foreboding for the Elis, Harvard starts 15 seniors. Reno, on the other hand, has started just one or two in most games this season. In a rivalry such as The Game, poise and experience are crucial and are two things that Yale has lacked this year. Last time a middling Bulldog squad travelled to Boston and stole a win, seniors like linebackers Darius Manora ’17 and Victor Egu ’17 carried the day with career-defining games. After getting written off all year as a weak class, this year’s seniors have the opportunity to do on Saturday what Manora and Egu did in 2016.
I know that picking Harvard’s veteran defense is the safe bet, but in a game that has seen some wild finishes over the past few years — and on the 50th anniversary of the famed 29–29 tie — I’m picking the underdog. Give me the rookie quarterback and the senior class with something to prove.
Matthew Mister | firstname.lastname@example.org