Yale Athletics

Bringing back nearly all of its offensive and defensive starters from 2018, the Yale football team — picked to finish first in the Ivy League preseason poll — will look to return to the top of the Ancient Eight once again versus a familiar foe.

The Bulldogs (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) return to the gridiron for the first time in 44 weeks when they host Holy Cross (1–1, 0–0 Patriot) to open the season for Team 147. The Crusaders, who already have two games of experience under their belt, have traditionally been weak opponents for the Elis. Last season, however, Holy Cross shocked Yale — coming off an Ivy championship for the first time in more than three decades — with a come-from-behind 31–28 overtime win in Worcester. As the Elis look to improve on last season’s 5–5 mark which came in an injury-ridden rebuilding effort, Yale appears poised and hungry to begin its hunt for a second Ivy crown under head coach Tony Reno and backed by a stacked senior class.

“I said to the team after our third preseason game: ‘I haven’t had this much fun coaching’,” Reno said. “We have a very special group of kids, and it starts and ends with our seniors, and they’ve done a great job of bringing people along. I’m so excited to get this thing going.”

Last year, the Elis travelled to Fitton Football Stadium to take on the Crusaders with memories of a dominant 32–0 victory at the Yale Bowl in 2017. Team 146 looked to be on track to repeat that performance as it built up a 21–0 advantage early in the first quarter. But Yale allowed Holy Cross to creep back into the contest. Against a weakened Bulldog defense that graduated several All-Ivy players the previous spring, former Holy Cross quarterback Geoff Wade connected with Spencer Gilliam on a 30-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 28 apiece late in the fourth.

After Yale failed to score on its overtime possession, Holy Cross marched onward and eventually banged a 45-yard field goal through the uprights to send the Bulldogs home with an early-season loss that marked the beginning of an up-and-down campaign. Last season, Yale was often forced to scramble and replace key pieces, particularly after their three-year starting quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 was injured mid-season.

The Crusaders ride into the Yale Bowl having already kicked off their 2019 slate. Holy Cross, expected to be a Patriot League contender, endured its toughest test of the season in its first game against FBS opponent Navy. In their season opener, the Crusaders fell in a 45–7 loss that nevertheless demonstrated some of Holy Cross’s strengths: experienced offensive weapons and a promising crop of rookie talent. While the Crusaders started upperclassmen at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions, on the defensive end, rookie linebacker Jacob Dobbs led the team in tackles against the Midshipmen.

Holy Cross bounced back from the Navy loss with a tight 13–10 win against New Hampshire, tallying its game-winning touchdown by way of a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.

With last year’s loss likely on their minds, the Elis will undoubtedly look for vengeance by putting up as many points on the board as possible, as they boast one of their most powerful and experienced offensive lineups to date. Rawlings, who led the league in multiple categories when his 2018 campaign was prematurely ended by a leg injury, will regrip the reins with weapons such as the All-Ivy receiving tandem of Reed Klubnik ’20 and captain JP Shohfi ’20.

Rawlings will also benefit from a depth chart full of healthy, able running backs like Alan Lamar ’20, Zane Dudek ’21 and Spencer Alston ’22. The Elis’ air game is particularly time-tested and well-oiled, as Rawlings, Klubnik and Shohfi have been connecting on the field since their rookie seasons and were critical components of the championship-winning 2017 squad.

“I’m looking forward to getting the red [jersey] off,” Rawlings said. “I think part of my game isn’t necessarily getting hit, but having to put the defense in conflict of having to choose to come after me or stay on their man… looking forward to Saturday, [but] Sunday maybe not.”

The Elis, whose defense struggled early in the 2018 season, now have one more year of experience under their belts. And although Holy Cross has started mostly juniors and seniors in its offensive roles, the Crusader offense is still comparatively inexperienced and a potential target for the Bulldogs’ defense to pick apart — starting quarterback Connor Degenhardt, a junior, played in just two games last season and did not see any minutes as a rookie.

Team 147’s season will kickoff on Saturday at 1 p.m. against Holy Cross at the Yale Bowl.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu