After clinching its first outright championship in 37 years last fall, the Yale football team entered the 2018 campaign as the Ivy League favorite. But despite several highlight victories and breakout performances, Team 146 could not weather the tumult of the season, ultimately finishing in a three-way tie for fourth in the league.
The Bulldogs (5–5, 3–4 Ivy) began the year without a slew of key players from last year’s title-winning squad, especially on defense. Nonetheless, the preseason media poll tabbed the Elis to repeat atop the standings. But injury and inconsistency further derailed Team 146, an already young squad. The year saw several offensive returners register career seasons in addition to rookie breakouts — boding well for Team 147. Still, the campaign’s individual bright spots were not enough to overcome the collective challenges Team 146 faced. 2018 ultimately marked a frustrating season for the Elis, ending in a tough loss to archrival Harvard in the 135th edition of The Game.
“The consistency has to be there,” head coach Tony Reno said. “There’s no question about the culture or of how we play, it’s just the execution piece … it’s all different things. Sometimes it’s youth, sometimes it’s other things.”
After graduating numerous key starters on the defensive side of the ball, including current Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18, the Elis looked shaky in an inauspicious start to the season. After amassing a three-touchdown lead in the first quarter against Holy Cross, the Bulldogs fell in overtime to a Crusaders program that Team 145 crushed in a blowout win just a season before.
Led by signal caller Kurt Rawlings ’20 — who started every game for the Elis since the Columbia game of his rookie season and led Yale to two consecutive wins over Harvard — Team 146 bounced back against Maine and conference foe Cornell. Against a Maine squad seeded seventh overall in the FCS Playoffs, the Bulldogs played their most complete game of the season to emerge with a decisive 35–14 victory. The win seemed to signal smooth seas ahead especially given the electric connections between Rawlings and his favorite targets: receivers Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20.
But just a week later, the Eli defense looked hapless against No. 15 Dartmouth. Big Green wildcat quarterback Jared Gerbino’s prowess in the running game allowed the Rush, New York native to tally up 169 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to bolster Dartmouth’s 347-yard rushing effort.
In the contest against the Big Green, the Bulldogs failed to get into an offensive rhythm, perhaps due to a turf-toe injury to 2017 FCS Offensive Freshman of the Year and first team Freshman All-American running back Zane Dudek ’21. The then-first year carried the offensive load last season with 1,133 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
But as the 2018 campaign progressed, running back Alan Lamar ’20 settled into the role of primary tailback after coming off a season-ending injury in the 2017 preseason. Lamar quickly re-emerged as a reliably stellar piece for the promising offense — he finished this year with 685 yards and nine touchdowns to become one of Yale’s three members named to the All-Ivy First Team.
While its backfield rotation took time to steady, Yale continued to lean on its dependable passing attack. With Klubnik and Shohfi connecting with Rawlings on deep downfield passes, the trio seemed poised to pick apart opposing defenses.
But just as the offense approached its peak form, Rawlings went down with a season-ending injury during a scramble towards the sideline against Penn. Yale’s scoring prowess — which had shouldered the load while the defense adjusted to losing seven All-Ivy picks — was suddenly thrown into question.
“Obviously, it’s always going to be tough when a guy like Kurt goes down because of his ability as a player and a leader,” Shohfi said.
Rawlings’ unexpected absence proved costly to the Bulldog offense. Quarterback Jimmy Check ’21, originally a backup, steered the squad through the remainder of the Penn contest and looked calm as he escaped Franklin Field with a convincing victory. However, against Columbia a week later, the Fairfax, Virginia native tossed away two interceptions in a humiliating loss to a squad that tasted Ivy victory for the first time when downing the Elis.
At the next game, Reno started rookie signal-caller Griffin O’Connor ’22 against Brown. Reminiscent of Rawlings in his own debut two years prior, the pro-style pocket passer took his first collegiate snaps with poise and precision to throw for four touchdowns and 436 yards. O’Connor spearheaded a 43-point offensive output to quash the Bears, who sat dead-last in the league.
O’Connor proved that his Brown performance was no fluke in his next game against undefeated league-leader No. 8 Princeton. He started off the home match shaky, throwing two interceptions on the opening pair of Eli drives to allow the Tigers to pull ahead 21–0 less than five minutes into the first quarter. But he recovered to put 43 points on the board against a team that previously allowed an average of just 10 to its opponents.
“I am just blessed for the opportunity to come out and play,” O’Connor said. “We have a lot of great quarterbacks. We have a lot of great athletes across the field, so it’s just cool to go out there and play with all of these guys that I practice day in and day out with.”
Although the Tigers’ early advantage proved too much to overcome, Yale’s late rally and O’Connor’s Yale record-breaking performance in a single-game for passing yards demonstrated immense promise and potential. With help from the ever-reliable Shohfi and Klubnik, Yale’s offensive headache seemed to come to a halt.
With Princeton’s defeat of Yale, the Tigers clinched a share of the Ancient Eight crown to cement a dominant year. Meanwhile the Elis, whose repeat-title hopes essentially dissipated with the loss to the Lions, were formally eliminated from Ivy championship contention. Princeton concluded its perfect season with a win against Penn to clinch the 2018 outright Ivy title.
With nothing except bragging rights on the line for both teams, Yale and Harvard met at Fenway Park for the 135th iteration of The Game. The contest was agonizingly close through the end of the third quarter. Although Harvard appeared to be in control, neither team ever trailed by more than one score in the first three periods, with the score often tied. But in a fitting close to its frustrating season, Yale saw a close game turn into a three-score defeat in the final quarter. The Crimson –– even after the exit of its senior starting quarterback — piled on the points to defeat the Bulldogs 45–27 and end the White and Blue’s two-year winning streak.
Still, the Elis have ample reason for optimism heading into next season. The graduation of the Class of 2018 will not hit Yale as harshly as the loss of last year’s star-studded senior roster. The defense will return most of the 2018 starters with a year of experience under its belt. The offense, which starred in this year’s campaign, will return almost all of its current playmakers in Rawlings, Lamar, Dudek, Klubnik and Shohfi. That side of the ball is also stacked with the potential of O’Connor and the likes of running back Spencer Alston ’22 and receiver Jaylan Sandifer ’22, all of whom have already made contributions as rookies.
Rawlings earned an honorable mention selection in the League’s postseason awards despite his early sidelining. Lamar and Klubnik were both elected to the All-Ivy First Team — Klubnik by a unanimous vote — while Shohfi received a second-team nod. Despite playing just three games, O’Connor was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year, following in the footsteps of Dudek, who earned the honor last year. Under the leadership of Shohfi, who was elected captain of Team 147 earlier this month, the Elis will move forward with a battle-tested team.
“We were able to do some things positively,” Reno said. “We had a couple of nice wins. When we lost [Rawlings] in the Penn game, things kind of changed a bit for us. We knew we were really young on the defensive side of the ball. He kind of made things disappear in a way. I am very proud of the 23 seniors that are walking out. They did an incredible job of giving everything they had to the Yale football family. I am really looking forward to moving forward with Team 147.”
Nine members of Team 146 earned All-Ivy recognition.
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