When quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 went down with a season-ending injury against Penn earlier this season, the Yale football team’s chances at repeating as Ivy champions all but dissipated.

But the emergence of rookie signal caller Griffin O’Connor ’22 has given the Elis hope heading into The Game after the 6-foot-3-inch pocket passer recorded two record-breaking performances in consecutive weeks.

Rawlings more than proved his worth to the program in six games this season. Before suffering a lower leg injury, he totaled 1,562 yard and nine touchdown passes. Just a week after Rawlings went down, the Bulldogs suffered an embarrassing 17–10 loss to a Columbia team, which secured its first Ivy League victory. The defeat came with signal caller Jimmy Check ’21 at the helm as he completed 18 of his 35 pass attempts and threw two interceptions. Adjustments were expected to be made when the Elis returned home to New Haven to take on Brown, but no one predicted that a first year would get the start. Even fewer would have predicted the prolific passing performance that followed.

“Coach Reno told me a couple of days before the Brown game that I would get the start, and I was very thankful and blessed for the opportunity,” O’Connor said. “I have played quarterback for most of my life, so I wasn’t very nervous coming into the game, rather excited and eager to play with my brothers.”

Looking exceptionally confident and poised in the pocket against the league’s worst defense, O’Connor completed roughly 80 percent of his passes and notched four touchdowns en route to 436 passing yards on the day, which put him all-time third in school history for single-game passing yards. However, many were left wondering if he could perform against upper-level Ancient Eight competition. Last Saturday against league-leading, undefeated No. 9 Princeton, he had the opportunity to prove himself.

The Huntington Beach, California, native took a while to build up confidence in frigid conditions against a ferocious Tiger defense that allowed an average of nine points per game coming into the matchup. On the very first Eli drive, O’Connor tossed up the first of his four interceptions in the contest, allowing the Princeton offense to set up deep in Bulldog territory and take a two-touchdown lead less than a minute into the game.

But Yale, led by O’Connor, refused to go down without a fight. Mixing in rushing plays with deep, downfield strikes, the Elis found success through the air against the Tigers, as they outscored them 29–17 in the final two frames to rally from a 42–7 second-quarter deficit.

After throwing three touchdown passes and tallying 465 yards passing — breaking Yale’s all-time, single-game yardage mark — O’Connor was given the ball with the task of putting up 16 points in the final four minutes to tie the game. On the game’s most important drive, the first year notched his final interception of the game after overthrowing a receiver in the flat. Princeton, lining up in the victory formation, escaped New Haven with its ninth win of the season and at least a share of the Ancient Eight crown.

“He is a very intentional guy,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Griff is up in the office studying tape early in the morning; he is one of those guys that has the ability to learn from his own film and not allowing that to affect his next play, which is very rare for a young player. There were a few opportunities on Saturday that I’m sure he wished he had back, but he also made a lot of plays on Saturday as well. The pose, the character he has, the way he’s been able to run the offense, the way he’s been able to deal with adversity are all things that young players struggle with.”

Despite proving to be the catalyst for Yale’s 43-point performance against the Ivy’s leading defense, O’Connor remained humble and credited his teammates for his success, especially the offensive linemen, running backs and wide receivers. Individual records, in his experience, congratulate a single player rather than the collective effort of the team according to O’Connor.

“Griff is absolutely a great guy and amazing player,” wideout JP Shohfi ’20 said. “He’s very humble but also carries a confidence with him on the field that helps lead our offense. He is passionate about this team. Ultimately we all just love playing and fighting together, and we’re all ready to do that one more time this season.”

O’Connor and the Elis will take on rival Harvard, which allows 190 passing yards per game, at Fenway Park on Saturday in the 135th installment of The Game.

Cris Zilllo | cris.zillo@yale.edu