In both 2016 and 2017, the Yale football team’s last contests of the season — against archrival Harvard — were championship determiners with lopsided odds. This Saturday, with no crown on the line for either team, the Elis will solely look to reclaim bragging rights by conquering the Crimson in The Game for the third consecutive year — for the first time ever at Fenway Park.
At this time last year, the Bulldogs (5–4, 3–3 Ivy) headed into the annual Game weekend with a stake of the Ivy League title already secured and ultimately emerged victorious to earn their first solo crown in almost four decades. While Yale began the 2018 season with high hopes, the departure of 13 All-Ivy picks from last year’s squad coupled with injuries to playmakers this season dashed any chances for a repeat run. With both the Bulldogs and Crimson (5–4, 3–3) formally out of contention for this year’s title, the rivals will clash at a neutral sight for the first time since since 1894 — when the Blue emerged victorious in a battle of two then-undefeated teams. The Elis, who have been grappled with inconsistency throughout the season, will look to string together their longest win streak in the series since 1998–2000.
“No matter what the scoreboard says, we don’t stop,” captain and defensive lineman Nicholas Crowle ’19 said. “There’s no quitting. There’s no stopping. There’s no giving less than everything you can on every play. We really just cut all of the noise out. That’s the mentality we are taking into this week. The outside noise doesn’t matter. It is just us and fighting … that’s how we’re going to be successful.”
For the past two years, the second oldest rivalry in college football has factored into the Ivy League’s championship determination. In 2016, Yale entered The Game with a dismal 2–7 record, while Harvard, the favorite, boasted the opposite: a 7–2 campaign, in addition to a nine-year winning streak against the Bulldogs. The Elis, while far from title contention themselves, played spoiler and defeated the championship-seeking Crimson by just one score.
Last year, Team 145 emerged as the league’s dominant squad, buoyed by consistency at quarterback, a breakout rookie star at running back and a slew of All-Ivy defenders. The Elis won handily to notch their first outright title since 1980 — following a Harvard field goal to open the scoring, the Eli defense suffocated the Crimson’s offense entirely.
Expectations are less clear heading into Boston this weekend. Although the squads have identical records, in and out of conference, neither team has settled into predictable patterns. The Crimson lost to Cornell, a team tied for the league’s second-worst record that Yale defeated 30–24. But Harvard has also come closer than any other Ivy team has in 2018 to beating No. 9 Princeton and No. 20 Dartmouth.
The Tigers and the Big Green — both undefeated until they faced each other in Week Eight, when Princeton won by five — have distinguished themselves as far and away the league’s top two teams. Harvard fell 29–21 to Princeton and 24–17 to Dartmouth in consecutive weeks. In both games since, the Crimson dominated its opponents on both sides of the ball, defeating Columbia and Penn by a combined margin of 81–25.
“[Harvard is] a very good team,” head coach Tony Reno said. “I don’t think their record is anywhere near how they are. I believe they are the second best defense in the league. They’re in an elite category with Dartmouth. They’ve played their best football in the last four weeks of the season … they start 15 seniors, so they’re a veteran operation. We’ve got to focus on ourselves and playing to our standards.”
Meanwhile, Yale has been forced to dig deep into its depth chart as injury vastly impacted its season outlook. Running back Zane Dudek ’21, then a first year, led the Elis’ run game in 2017 with 7.1 yards per carry en route to being named the 2017 FCS Offensive Freshman of the Year. But this year Dudek has been sidelined for the bulk of the season with a nagging foot injury. Still, Yale’s ability to sign top-five recruiting classes in each of the last three years has softened the impact of injuries such as Dudek’s.
When league-leading quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 was ruled out for the season following a lower leg injury at Penn, the Bulldogs took some time to regain their footing. Flirting with disaster, a 17–10 loss to Columbia forced Yale to recalibrate. In the match against cellar-dweller Brown the next week, rookie quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’22 torched the Bears with 436 passing yards in his first career start. O’Connor played with considerable poise to lead Yale to a 49–16 blowout win, climbing Yale’s single-game yards list to earn another start for the Elis against Princeton.
The first year took time to settle into the pocket against the undefeated Tigers — two of his four interceptions came on consecutive drives in the opening quarter. But he then spearheaded an impressive rally, breaking Yale’s single-game passing record with 465 yards in the process. O’Connor was helped by the offense’s most dependable and consistent pieces — wideouts Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20 — in a season that has been the opposite.
Yale-Harvard holds special meaning for Klubnik especially. Two years ago, as a rookie, he caught two touchdown passes to help the Bulldogs triumph over the Crimson 21–14.
“I am truly honored to take the field with my teammates for this historical game, but at the end of the day, it is just another chance to play football,” O’Connor, who earned Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors for both weeks he has played, told the News. “I am excited for this opportunity to compete and will be thanking God every second I’m out there.”
The undetermined status of Harvard’s offense lineup could give the Elis a slight, unexpected advantage. Last week, senior starting quarterback Tom Stewart exited Harvard’s contest against Penn in the second quarter with an injury. Whether Stewart or sophomore Jake Smith will lead the offense at Fenway remains unclear.
Smith has college minutes under his belt — he threw nine passes against Yale last year to go along with two fumbles — but quarterbacking will likely factor significantly into a game that is up for grabs. Fortunately, whoever starts under center for the Crimson will have the benefit of handing off to 1,000-yard rusher Aaron Shampklin. Despite the high-profile venue, history is on the Elis’ side, as Yale is 7–1–0 against Harvard in neutral site games.
“We’re excited to be able to play at such a historic venue as Fenway Park,” Reno said. “[But] playing the team from the north on asphalt in the middle of 95 is fine with us. Wherever The Game is … we will play it.”
The 135th Game kicks off 12 p.m. on Saturday and will be broadcasted on ESPN2. Harvard is favored by 4.5 points.
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