Coming off of its first outright title in almost 40 years, the 2018 Yale football team was plagued by numerous key injuries. But the 2019 squad, which was picked first in the preseason poll, is ready to climb back atop the Ivy League.

The joy of finishing first in the conference and hoisting the Ivy trophy in 2017 was short-lived, as essential personnel like linebacker Foye Oluokun ’17 and tight end Jaeden Graham ’17 graduated the following spring. Yale’s defensive prowess plummeted, as the Elis ranked just sixth within the league. To make matters worse, several key Bulldogs, including quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 and running back Zane Dudek ’21, suffered injuries that limited their seasons and thus limited Team 146’s potential to defend its crown. Now the Elis are healthy and hungry, and ready for their 28 seniors to lead them to victory.

“We’re very fortunate to have an extraordinary senior class,” head coach Tony Reno said. “There’s guys who’ve played a lot for us, and guys who’ve had roles off the field. … They’ve really brought the other classes around … it’s truly a tight-knit team. Our practices have incredible energy, and they’re very competitive, but very competitive in a sense of guys trying to get better as a whole.”

The 2018 campaign began with an upset when the Bulldogs suffered a disheartening 31–28 overtime loss to a Holy Cross team that they demolished 32–0 in 2017. After accumulating wins against Cornell and Colonial Athletic Association champion Maine, the Bulldogs fell to Ivy runner-up Dartmouth and its wildcat offense helmed by Derek Kyler and Jared Gerbino.

Then, just weeks later, Rawlings scrambled to the sideline in a contest against Penn only to suffer a serious leg injury, which left an opening in the quarterback position. Eventually, rookie Griffin O’Connor ’22 stepped up to the task, breaking school records in passing yards and earning Ivy Rookie of the Year after playing only three games.

With Rawlings ready to return in 2019, the wideout duo of captain JP Shohfi ’20 and Reed Klubnik ’20, who combined for a total of 1,979 receiving yards last year, will look to terrorize secondaries all season. The Bulldog ground game looks promising too. The three-headed monster of ball carriers, which includes Dudek, Alan Lamar ’20 and Spencer Alston ’22, will beat down defenses while opening up the air even more. Team 147 could boast the scariest offense in the program’s history.

“Our goal this year is to play fast and play physical,” Rawlings said. “If we can do both well, then we should be in a good spot to win plays and drives. It is something we stress every day at practice, every drill and period have those two objectives at the forefront.”

This season’s out-of-conference slate features Holy Cross, Fordham and Richmond.

But all eyes will be on the Ancient Eight schedule, as the league’s parity promises numerous close games throughout the fall. Princeton, who remained undefeated, snatched away the crown in last year’s campaign after putting forth a monsterous offense that averaged 47 points per game. However, the Tigers graduated star signal-caller John Lovett, who commandeered the offense and ranked second in both passing yards and rushing yards. With both Dartmouth and Princeton possibly trending toward an offensive decline, any program can capture the league. With its talent, Yale has a good chance of doing just that.

Of course, the season will be capped off by The Game, which will take place at the Yale Bowl this year. Regardless of the standings, the Bulldogs will look to bite the Crimson back after a disheartening 45–27 loss in front of a sold-out Fenway Park crowd.

“The league is always very competitive,” Shohfi said. “We know every game is going to be a battle but we’ll be ready for it. It’s always important to try to stay as healthy as possible for these big games, having everyone good to go is obviously huge for us. Can’t say too much about how we match up to individual teams, there’s no telling yet. I do think there will be some very strong competition.”

The Bulldogs will kick off the 2019 season at home against Holy Cross on Sept. 21.

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu