Kristina Kim

This summer, the Yale football team was expected to finish first in the annual Ivy League preseason poll. With a win in the penultimate game of the season, that prediction looks prescient, as the squad now prepares to enter the final week of the season with one goal in mind — beat Harvard and claim the Ancient Eight crown.

It has been quite the phenomenal season for the Bulldogs (8–1, 5–1 Ivy), a campaign teeming with one captivating storyline after another. For the opening two contests, it was the defense that got off to as roaring a start as one could have hoped — allowing an average of just 13 points per game. The offense finally found its mojo in Week Three, scoring a season-high 45 points in the first half alone. The euphoria would be short-lived, however, as a Dartmouth matchup the following week was disastrous from opening kickoff to the final minute. In what came to be the low point of the season, the Big Green handed Team 147 a 42–10 loss and a potentially lethal blow to the Eli’s chances of securing the Ivy League Crown.

Or so it would seem.

Facing a 13-point deficit in the final two minutes against a gritty Richmond team the ensuing week, the Blue and White fought back with everything it had in true Bulldog fashion, producing one of the more unlikely comebacks in recent memory to earn a much needed 28–27 victory. In the four games since, there have not been enough superlatives to describe the dominance displayed by the Bulldog offense. Averaging more than 50 points in that stretch, quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 routinely hung over 500 total yards of offense on opposing defenses — rewriting the Yale record book in the process. In the waning seconds of the half against Penn, the Bel Air, Maryland native, keeping the play alive with his feet as he so often does, aired out a pass to open receiver Reed Klubnik ’20 to break the Eli touchdown and passing record in one flick of the wrist.

Rawlings knocked out the best three-game stretch of his career in the games to follow, throwing for a career-high 390 yards against Columbia and setting a Yale single-game record with six touchdowns in the penultimate game of the season against a ranked Princeton program. No gunslinger can achieve success without a talented corps of receivers, and Rawlings is no exception — relying heavily on the offensive brilliance of captain and wideout JP Shohfi ’20 and Klubnik. This electrifying tandem has averaged a combined 208 yards per game this season — a mark higher than the yardage generated from the entire passing offenses of Columbia and Dartmouth. In last weekend’s matchup against the Tigers, Klubnik and Shohfi became first and second, respectively, in all-time receiving yards for Yale with a game to spare.

“We’ve experienced every type of season in our four years here,” Rawlings said. “We’ve been average last season, we’ve won before, and we were bad our first year. Some players in grades above were happy with winning the Harvard game three years ago, but we wanted more. We just wanted to enjoy ourselves — we’ve put in all this time, so we might as well go the extra mile and put in even more so we [can] have even more fun.”

Rawlings and company, along with a defensive line that has wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines, ran the table in the games following the Dartmouth fiasco. What’s more, a Dartmouth loss to Cornell just last weekend placed the Bulldogs in a tie for first in the Ancient Eight. There now is just one team standing between Yale and Ivy League preeminence — rival Harvard (4–5, 2–4).

Harvard’s 2019 season looked to be one of great promise, but quickly went south towards the end of this campaign. The Crimson lost a tight season opener to San Diego, but quarterback Jake Smith had a monster outing with 325 yards passing and three touchdowns. Harvard used this loss as motivation and went on a dominant four-game winning streak. The Brown game was a spectacular exhibition of Harvard’s potential, as the Crimson annihilated the Bears 42–7. Running back Devin Darrington ran rings around the Brown secondary as he amassed 91 yards catching and a touchdown. Cornell was also no match, falling to Harvard 35–22, and that win was followed by a relatively narrow 31–21 victory over Holy Cross.

“Harvard is the most talented team I’ve seen on film all year — on both sides of the ball,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They are one of the top teams in the country on defense, especially with their very impressive defensive line and linebacking core. They are extremely athletic at the secondary position, which makes it very difficult to move the ball. Offensively, they’ve got weapons everywhere … We’ve just got to go do our thing by preparing for the opponent and making sure to execute our stuff. I’m sure they are saying the same thing to their guys right now.”

The Crimson’s year, following that match against the Crusaders, has followed the saying: “What goes up must come down.” The Crimson have yet to post a win in four games leading up to this all-important tie against Yale. But the Elis cannot let this dismal stretch for Harvard fool them — the four games have all been decided by seven or less points, highlighted by the devastating last-second defeat to then-undefeated Dartmouth. After taking a 6–3 lead deep into the fourth quarter, the Crimson seemed primed to pull off what would have been a historic upset. A Hail Mary by Dartmouth, however, dashed the Harvard hopes and added another loss to its record. The following game against Columbia was a 17–10 loss in overtime and the defeat to Penn came down to the wire. The Harvard team will have a chip on its shoulder come Saturday with the amount of close calls that have gone against the Crimson this season.

Harvard can seek solace in the statistics, which paint a more accurate picture of the talent on this roster. The Crimson boasts the top-ranked rush defense in the Ancient Eight, allowing just 86 yards on the ground per contest. The unit also has recorded the most sacks in the conference by a wide margin, with 38 on the year. Defensive linemen Brogan McPartland and Truman Jones have been nightmares in the backfield, with a combined total of 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Smith and Darrington anchor the offensive side of the ball for the Crimson. Smith has passed for 2,007 yards and 17 scores, while Darrington has rushed for 745 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Something that I see ingrained into the culture of this team is giving everything,” Shohfi said. “A big part of that is effort, which means that when you’re at practice, it’s putting everything into your next rep. Yet, I think it goes beyond that — it’s putting time into film, making sure you know your opponents, making sure you’re perfecting your own craft. It’s in the training room and recovery, it’s in eating right and getting to know your teammates off the field. It’s a culmination of all those things and it comes down to each of us desiring to give everything to this team and to this family. When you give your all in every aspect, it’s at that moment when we can be successful.”

The two archrivals will battle at the Yale Bowl on Saturday at noon.

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu
Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu