Daniel Zhao

In a dark cauldron of noise at the Yale Bowl, students and alumni stormed the field as the Crimson failed to convert on a fourth and long. The comeback was complete, and one of the greatest games in the already storied rivalry between Harvard and Yale had come to an epic finish.

The Bulldogs, under the guidance of quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, came back from a 36–19 fourth quarter deficit. In an extraordinary reversal of the 1968 contest, where Harvard famously “beat Yale 29–29,” the Elis wrote their own fortunes after the writing was seemingly on the wall. Not only does this clash go down in the annals of history, it also gives Yale a piece of the Ivy League title. The Bulldogs finish the season tied with Dartmouth in first place, an opportunity only handed to them after the Big Green slipped up against Cornell on the road last week.

“People ask me questions about this rivalry all the time,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They ask, ‘What makes it so unique?’ and ‘What makes it the greatest rivalry in all of sports?’ It was on full display today. You had two incredible football teams that battled play in and play out. In the end, there was going to be one team that won. When you look at our team and our campaign, we started the season with the goal of being an elite football team. That doesn’t mean just winning. It goes along with how you conduct yourself in your day to day life. Do you really play for each other? Are you someone who does things because you want to and not because you have to? Do you put yourself last everyday and your teammates first? This team is celebrating an Ivy League championship because of the guys next to me and the players downstairs that did all those things all season long. I can say that we are an elite football team.”

Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 was gunslinging early, finding receiver Jauylan Sanidfer ’22 on the first play of the opening drive for a 50-yard gain. In the Red Zone, however, Rawlings held onto the ball for an ill-advised amount of time, leading to a sack and loss of 16 yards. The Bulldogs would be content with a field goal attempt, which kicker Sam Tuckerman ’20 resoundingly put through the uprights to make it 3–0. However, the Crimson would immediately respond with a 60-yard play on its first drive to set up the offense in Yale territory. The Eli defense would nevertheless hold steady and only conceded a field goal to tie the game at three.

Rawlings, on a combination of swift lateral passes and run-pass option plays to counter Harvard’s intense pass rush had the offense driving on Team 147’s ensuing drive. Yet, the team sputtered in the Red Zone and were forced to go for the field goal again. Tuckerman would not be as successful on his second field goal attempt, coming up 10 yards short of the upright to close out the first quarter.

Harvard opened up second quarter action with a series of long explosive runs to set up in Bulldog territory for the second straight time. Yet, disaster would strike on a second-and-short for the Crimson, with the snap flying well over the outstretched arms of quarterback Jake Smith, resulting in a Crimson punt.

The defensive lines came out hungry on the next two drives of the game, with both Rawlings and Smith facing intense pressure and making unwanted mistakes — stalling drives in their own territory. After a Crimson punt pinned Yale behind its own 20-yard line, Rawlings threw an untimely interception to set the Harvard offense up with excellent field position. Ten seconds later, Smith would fully capitalize with a 30-yard run — filled with blocks that would make any offensive coordinator proud — into the end zone for six. The score would hold at 9–3, however, as the Blue and White got a hand on the extra-point attempt to block it. 

After an Eli punt, Smith commanded his offense into Yale territory yet again. However, it would be Team 147’s secondary that would get in on the turnover action, with defensive back Melvin Rouse ’21 intercepting Smith’s pass at the goal line to get the pigskin back into the hands of Rawlings. It appeared that the park had been lit under the offense, with Rawlings beginning to expose gaps in the Crimson defend with his own two legs. However, deep into Crimson territory, the best pass rush in the Ivy League struck again, as Rawlings was sacked for the 3rd time on the day, this time fumbling the ball into the extending grasp of Crimson defender.

Harvard would be the team to capitalize on the turnover, putting together a 72-yard drive that finished with receiver Aidan Borguet running 47 yards down the field and past the pylon for a touchdown — putting the visiting Crimson up 15-3 over Yale. The Bulldogs would be content with running out the clock to close out the quarter and headed to the locker room with their first halftime deficit since a matchup against Richmond more than a month ago. 

The Crimson did not let the long-delayed halftime due to climate change protests extinguish any of its offensive momentum, putting together a touchdown drive in the opening minutes of the quarter resulted in an unnerving 22–3 lead. Yale would finally answer back on its next drive in quite the unorthodox way. After a three-and-out, the Crimson bobbled what should have been a routine fair-catch, which the Elis subsequently recovered to set Rawlings up with excellent field positioning of his own. The Blue and White would fully capitalize with a 4-yard run from running back Zane Dudek ’21, making it a 10–22 game in the third. 

After stifling Harvard on their ensuing drive, Rawlings would subsequently lead his team on another drive into Crimson territory, culminating in a Tuckerman field goal and a score of 13–22 halfway through the third quarter. Yet, Borguet would again expose the Bulldog secondary on Harvard’s next drive in the form of a 60-yard run along the sideline into the end zone — extending the Crimson’s lead to 29–13. Team 147 would not go quietly, as Rawlings would conduct a 9 play, 72-yard drive that he would finish himself with a 5-yard run past the pylon. After a botched two-point attempt, the score would be 19–29 in the Crimson’s favor. Alas, not a minute later, and Borguet, on a called run up the gut of the Yale defensive line, weaved his way past defender after defender as he had been doing all game long, finding the end zone on a 67 yard run. The Crimson now laid claim to a commanding 17 point lead with 13 minutes left in the game.

The Bulldogs, in a display of true grit and fortitude, chipped into this lead in the fourth quarter, on a drive that ate up four minutes of game time and finished with Sam Tuckerman’s third made field goal of the afternoon. With a score of 22–36 and nine minutes remaining, the idea of a comeback was still within the realm of possibility. 

And just like that, the Crimson defense buckled.

“I wasn’t really focused on what the scoreboard said,” Rawlings said. “I was telling the guys that, the mindset we should have going forward in this game is to just have fun — to do our jobs and to have fun. I love playing this game with these guys, I have been so blessed to have even been given the opportunity to play for this University in the first place. This game is a testament to the team’s ability to believe in itself no matter what the circumstances are.”

On Yale’s ensuing drive in which he and the offense were pinned to their own four yard line, Rawlings — who had now completely taken control of the game — led a surgically precise drive down the field, needing a touchdown to keep the Bulldog’s hope of an Ivy League Crown alive. At the Crimson 38 yard line, Rawlings, instead of looking to throw to his trusty weapons in the form of wideouts JP Shohfi ’20 and Reed Klubnik ’20, took advantage of Harvard’s single coverage on first year receiver Mason Tipton ’23 and hit him in the breadbasket for a 28 yard gain. On the following play, Rawlings lobbed the ball to Tipton at the back corner of the end zone, a fade that Tipton miraculously wrapped his right hand around with a defender right at his chest. The score was now 36–29, yet just a minute and a half on the clock remained.

At that very moment, every single person in the Bowl knew what this game was going to come down to: a do-or-die onside kick. For one team, a successful onside kick meant keeping its season alive — at least for one more minute. For the other, successfully defending against a play that was a long shot at best and could deliver a crushing blow to a historic arch-rival. As if this game needed any more drama.

It was at that moment that time itself began to reveal its physical presence: the sun started to set over a floodlight-less stadium. As darkness descended into the air, Tuckerman awaited the whistle to initiate kickoff. When that whistle finally blew, Tuckerman delivered a beauty of an onside kick, with the pigskin tumbling its way into an ocean of Blue and Crimson. When the sea of players had finally parted, it revealed a singular Blue and White rising up above his teammates with the ball heroically in his grasp — Klubnik. The game was then figuratively, and literally, in the hands of Rawlings, who was a touchdown away from rewriting Ivy League destiny, as well as Crimson news articles in the process of being typed.

And rewrite he most certainly would. At the Elis 47-yard line, Rawlings concocted a season-defining drive consisting of quick, faultless throws and elusive, ineffable runs down the sideline that are synonymous with the name, “Rawlings.” Now at the Crimson seven-yard line, Rawlings hit Shohfi with a dart of a pass at the goal line with 18 seconds remaining. And in a game that saw an early 22–3 deficit and a 19–29 fourth quarter hole, fate left the sides knotted up at 36–36. In a story that had everything, Yale just added a final chapter — overtime.

“Coming into overtime, we were so confident in ourselves,” Shohfi said. “We had confidence all throughout the game, but especially in that moment. We were ready to go, it didn’t matter whether there were lights or not, it didn’t matter what time of day it was. We were ready to go again and again and again. It also didn’t matter what the score read, we were just going to keep going until the clock read zero. That was one of the most special experiences that I have ever been a part of.” 

It was Harvard that would begin with the ball first, and with the Bowl crowd transfixed by the realization of what was unfolding before them, Smith delivered the first play of overtime — a silencer for the remaining Yale fans in the form of a 25-yard touchdown pass to an unguarded Crimson receiver. With Rawlings needing a touchdown to force another overtime, wideout Caden Herring, after getting a step on his defender, zipped his way into the end zone to make a diving catch and knot the contest up at 43–43. 

Team 147 got the ball back at the 25-yard line to begin double overtime. The Rawlings-Shohfi connection was in full force once more, as a 19-yard connection set the Elis up four yards away from the end zone. Dudek, fittingly against the best run-stopping team in the Ancient Eight, would not be denied a touchdown on his ensuing four yard run — giving the Bulldogs a 50–43 advantage and their first lead since midway through the first quarter. With the score, Yale’s defense was tasked with closing out the game by preventing a Harvard touchdown. On the Crimson’s first play, the secondary held strong and forced an incompletion. Three downs remained. Borguet bullied his way through the Blue and White line for a gain of five. Two downs left. A Smith lateral to a stationary Crimson on the ensuing play was completely blown up by linebacker Ryan Burke ’20 for a gain of zero yardage. 

One down remained. 

Smith, after wisely taking a timeout, set up in the shotgun and called for the snap. Smartly reading the Bulldog pass-rush, Smith lateralled the ball to the stationed receiver BJ Watson 11 yards from where he needed to be. The block was on, as three Harvard receivers stuffed the Yale secondary from behind the line of scrimmage long enough for Watson to make a charging attempt through a tight window for the first down. A charging Burke, however, met him with a charge of his own at the 16 yard line. 

Watson came up one yard short. 

The four-and-a-half hour game was over. The Yale Bulldogs, down by as much as 19 points at one point during the game, had won. The Ivy League crown was theirs for the second time in three years.

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu

Nov. 23, 9:16 p.m.: This article has been updated from its original version to provide a comprehensive recap of The Game.

  • jcvp

    What a great commentary on a historic game. Thank you!
    The Climate Change action merely added to the significance, and both the game and the action made history in their own ways. Both required great courage and flawless performance from their respective teams.
    Not to be a spoil sport, but do concussions and long-term mental damage with huge medical settlements push us in the direction of some kind of flag football? I’d really like to know.

  • Scott Jones

    So much fun to watch this comeback! Boola!

  • jim sleeper

    Jared Fel is the Kurt Rawlings of sports writing. This is a terrific account of the game, as spectacular in its way as the team’s performance was on the field. One needn’t know football as well as Fel does (I don’t) to appreciate the precision, concision, and graceful speed of his prose. So, congratulations to Yale on both fronts.

  • http://www.wyofile.com/ Angus M Thuermer Jr

    Headline revenge: “Yale 50, Police 49, Harvard 43”