Lukas Flippo

After a not-so-convincing start to the season this fall, the Yale football team nabbed a critical 27–16 victory in the Ivy League opener against Cornell on Saturday, despite small setbacks due to the Bulldog’s somewhat sluggish offense.

The Elis (2–0, 1–0 Ivy) were at home again to face off against Cornell (1–1, 0–1 Ivy) in Team 147’s Ivy League kickoff. Even before the game, it was clear that Saturday’s opponent would be much stronger than Holy Cross, whom the Bulldogs defeated 23–10. Equipped with an elite rushing attack, an exceptional offensive line and a prodigious coaching staff, the Big Red looked like a better football team for the first two and a half quarters. The team kept Yale’s high-powered offense to just three points through one half. With the game tied halfway through the third quarter, the Big Red delivered an 89-yard gut punch of a touchdown which earned the team seven points. But from that point on, the Bulldog offense and defense completely took over. Defensive backs Rodney Thomas II ’21 and Dathan Hickey ’22 tallied two interceptions each, with Thomas’ first being a pick six to tie the game. From the offensive front, quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 scored a clutch fourth quarter touchdown that put the Elis ahead on the road to a 27–16 victory.

“The poise these guys showed, that’s what I’m most proud of with this team,” head coach Tony Reno said. “There’s so much incredible poise and experience on this team stemming from the guys next to me like Kurt and Rodney. In the Ivy League, you have to be able to win these games, you have to be able to win conference games in the fourth quarter. When things aren’t quite perfect, which happens more often than not, our guys find a way to win. I’m heading into this week very optimistic about where we are at with our defense, but I’ll say this again — we have a lot to work on on both sides of the ball heading into next week’s game.”

On Yale’s first drive of the day, the offense found its stride early. Running back Zane Dudek ’21 accumulated 50 yards of rushing, and before the Big Red defense could even catch its breath, Yale was setting up in the red zone with a first-and-goal. However, like how the team began last week’s game, the Big Red put together a fourth-down goal line stand to deny the Bulldogs any points.

On Cornell’s very first drive, an excellent defensive sequence from Yale forced a quick three-and-out, and the Elis were back in business on their second drive. A 36-yard connection from Rawlings to wideout Reed Klubnik ’20 had Yale again knocking on the end zone. However, Cornell’s defense didn’t break and the Bulldogs opted for a 21-yard field goal to put them up 3–0. Strong defensive play was then the story for the remainder of the half, as both teams exchanged punts until late in the second quarter. With the Big Red driving to the Yale goal line with under a minute remaining, the Eli defense held strong — the Bulldogs conceded a chip-shot field goal that put both teams in a 3–3 deadlock entering halftime.

The game hung in the balance as the second half kicked off, with both teams struggling to gain some momentum and turn the contest in its favor. Cornell looked promising on its first drive, marching into Eli territory, but a crucial sack by defensive end Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu ’22 on third forced the Big Red to unsuccessfully try for a long 48-yard field goal. Yet, after a quick Yale three-and-out, Cornell came roaring back when quarterback Richie Kenney hit receiver Delonte Harrell streaking on a slant for an 89-yard touchdown.

When things looked most dire for the Bulldogs, the turning point came after a second three-and-out in the quarter. Cornell looked ready to extend the lead, but the Yale defense stepped up again. Kenney tried to set up a screen but pressure from the Yale defensive line forced him to overthrow his running back, and the ball fell perfectly into the arms of Thomas. The speedy defensive back made no mistakes as he took off for the goal line and knotted the game at 10–10.

“I saw the running back leak out a bit,” said Thomas. “Cornell’s quarterback looked to him, and we had one of our linemen come in. The QB was inside of him and our lineman made a really good read on it. He was able to force the QB to throw it over the top and then it just fell right into my hands. So, really, a shoutout to the defensive linemen who made that play on the QB, he made it easy for me.”

After the momentous interception, Yale took control in the fourth quarter. The Big Red offense failed to make any progress, and the Bulldogs pounced. After a lengthy drive, Rawlings kept the play alive in the backfield by shedding a tackle and lofting a perfect pass up to receiver Mason Tipton ’23 for the lead and the rookie’s first collegiate touchdown.

Soon after, Thomas picked up his second interception of the day, setting up the Elis in great field position. However, Rawlings was intercepted at the goal line to give the ball back to Cornell. Refusing to let the momentum slip, Hickey made an incredible defensive play and picked off Kenney for the third interception of the game.

“I probably should have thrown it to Reed to begin with,” Rawlings said of the go-ahead touchdown. “I always like to see how a play is going to develop, and then from that point my mind shuts off and I figure it out. Mason did a great job understanding the spacing on the field. He’s a good player and he’s worked hard all throughout camp. For weeks, I’ve been telling him, ‘just wait, just wait, it’ll come.’ It finally came to him and he made an outstanding play on the ball.”

The Bulldogs closed out the game for good in the last part of the fourth quarter. Rawlings and the Eli offense marched on a lengthy drive, eating up clock, before kicker Sam Tuckerman ’20 booted in a 33-yard field goal to make it 20–10. The Big Red stormed down the field and cut the lead to 20–16 with under two minutes left, but receiver and captain JP Shohfi ’20 returned the ensuing onside kick for a touchdown to lock up the gritty win. The Bulldogs walked away as victors 27–16.

The Elis play next weekend at home against Fordham at 1 p.m. for its Family Weekend game.

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu

Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu