Lukas Flippo

For a Yale football squad that began the season as preseason favorites to win the Ivy League crown, the team began its season in a somewhat sluggish manner, eventually finding its stride late en route to a 23–10 victory over Holy Cross.

The Bulldogs (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) entered Saturday’s season opener with a lot to prove. After a 2017 campaign that saw the Elis secure a 9–1 record and their first outright championship in almost 40 years, the following 2018 season was a step back, as the team finished in a fourth-place tie in the Ancient Eight. As league favorites this season, Yale came into Saturday’s game under a lot of pressure to avenge its 31–28 stunning overtime loss to Holy Cross (1–2, 0–0 Patriot) last season. This time around, however, the Elis were in no mood for another season-opener shocker; the team scored on its very first drive of the year and never looked back. While the Crusaders made things interesting early in the fourth scoring a touchdown to come within three points, Yale was able to close it out in commanding fashion.

“The thing you take home from any game is the ability to finish it,” head coach Tony Reno said when asked about what the team took away from last season’s loss to the Crusaders on Tuesday. “We didn’t finish that game, and our coaching mindset has been that on any play, and for any game, you have to be able to finish. We didn’t do it that day, and it has been something we’ve worked through all offseason. It’s not something that we see as independent to that game alone, but for us as a football family.”

On the very first drive of the season, running back Zane Dudek ’21 returned to form after being plagued with a lingering injury last season. On a fourth-and-goal, rather than take the easy three points, Reno made the gutsy call to go for it with a run. The call paid off, and Dudek would not be stopped as he bulldozed his way into the end zone, giving the Bulldogs a one-score lead. The two-yard run capped off an impressive nine-play drive that put the Elis in the driver’s seat early on in the contest.

Until the end of the half it was Yale’s red zone defense that stole the show. On Holy Cross’ first possession of the day, the Crusaders had the Eli defense backed up to its own one-yard line. However, Yale’s defensive line forced a fumble from Holy Cross quarterback Connor Degenhardt, and defensive lineman Reid Nickerson ’22 came away with an impressive recovery, preventing the Crusaders from putting any points on the board and capping a first-quarter shut-out.

While the defense for the Eli’s bent a bit midway through the second — conceding a 34-yard field goal that cut Yale’s lead in half — both defenses would hold strong to close out the second quarter and maintain a 6–3 score in the Bulldogs’ favor. Yale quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 entered halftime with 160 passing yards along with Dudek having amassed 36 yards rushing and a touchdown to boot.

“I have all the faith in the world in these guys. I don’t just have faith in [defensive linemen Kyle Ellis ’22 and Spencer Matthaei ’20] sitting next to me,” Rawlings said. “We have a ‘next-guy-up mentality,’ and we have confidence in whoever is on the field. Our guys are awesome. They make play after play.”

The third quarter saw both teams struggle to register points on the board, but Yale persevered. The Crusaders got the ball to start the second half and promptly went three and out after two incomplete passes from Degenhardt. Holy Cross punter Cody Wilkinson unleashed a 68-yard punt to pin the Elis deep. Although working with unfavorable field position, Rawlings was up to the challenge.

The senior led a masterful drive, slipping through the defense for a 19-yard run before lofting a perfect pass up to wide receiver Cade Herring ’20 in the end zone for a Bulldog touchdown. Following a few unsuccessful drives by both sides, the score read 13–3 in favor of Yale as the teams switched sides for the fourth quarter.

“We’re just closer as a team, and we play for each other. We put ourselves out on the line for each other,” Matthaei said. “I’m going to back my guys up, and they’ll back me up. [Saturday] was good: We were finally able to get out of camp and face another team. It feels good for the season to have started the way it has, and we’re not going to look back.”

The final quarter of play opened up with quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’22 under center and in good field position, following a shifty 36-yard punt return by receiver Melvin Rouse ’21. The sophomore was asked to take over the quarterback role for much of last season after Rawlings went down with a serious leg injury. He threw three passes, all falling incomplete, and handed the ball off to Dudek for an eight-yard gain. Holy Cross took over after an Eli punt and drove into Yale territory, with Degenhardt connecting with receiver Tenio Ayeni for a 27-yard strike into the end zone. Yale’s lead was cut down to just three.

However, Dudek and Rawlings refused to let the momentum turn in Holy Cross’s favor. After an efficient drive, Rawlings strode into the end zone on a second-and-goal to restore a comfortable lead for the Elis, as the scoreboard read 20–10. The Crusader offense sputtered once more, and Yale then embarked on a marathon drive totaling nearly six minutes of play. Kicker Sam Tuckerman ’20 put his laces through a 28-yard field goal to cap off the game, putting the Bulldogs up 23–10. After one final three-and-out by Holy Cross, Yale took home the win in its 2019 opener.

“I’m so very proud of this team, and I’m so proud of the effort we showed on the field,” Reno said. “It wasn’t pretty, but the effort was incredible. It was pure grit. Our guys had several opportunities throughout the game to put many points on the board and take it over, but we just couldn’t quite do it. However, in the fourth quarter, we did. We just kept focusing on making plays, not worrying about the play ahead, and just stayed true to our focus of playing good football.”

Yale looks to build off this win as the team begins Ivy League play against Cornell next Saturday.

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu

Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu