The Yale football team fittingly closed out an already memorable season with a sensational victory against Harvard on Nov. 23. The win delivered the Bulldogs their second Ivy League championship in three years.
Team 147 (9–1, 6–1 Ivy), a squad that was picked to finish first in the annual Ancient Eight preseason poll this past summer, did not get off to a roaring start predicted by the many college football pundits. The Elis found themselves struggling to pull out victories against far less-talented teams. The Elis’ unconvincing style of football finally caught up with them in their first road contest of the season, as the Blue and White suffered a 42–10 loss at the hands of Dartmouth and its seemingly impenetrable defense. This low point of the season saw what could have been a potentially lethal blow to Yale’s chances of securing an Ivy League championship.
Aspirations for a bounce-back win looked to be in serious jeopardy just one week later, with the Elis facing a 13-point deficit in the final two minutes against a gritty Richmond team. Yet, as things looked bleaker with each passing moment, a spark was lit under the entire team, fueling a highly improbable comeback in the waning seconds of the game. Richmond handed the Blue and White a much needed victory as they entered the second half of the season.
And that spark from the Richmond game stayed lit. Before Ivy League defensive coordinators knew what had hit them, Team 147’s offense soared to a level of production unlike anything the team had seen in its previous 146 years. In the four-game stretch leading up to the ultimate week of the season, Yale scored a game average of more than 50 points and routinely hung over 500 yards of total offense on opposing defenses.
At the helm of the eighth ranked offense in the entire Football Championship Subdivision were three of the greatest players to ever don the Blue and White: Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 and the receiving duo of captain JP Shohfi ’20 and Reed Klubnik ’20. Down the stretch of the season, the trio wreaked havoc on every defensive secondary and broke every Eli passing and receiving record in the process.
But on Nov. 23, the Bulldogs — who needed a win against Harvard to close out the season as Ivy League champions — found themselves facing a daunting fourth-quarter deficit. In a four-and-a-half hour footballing tour de force that saw everything from half-time protests to dramatic onside kick recoveries, the Elis snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and secured a share of the Ivy League crown alongside Dartmouth.
“We really changed our recruiting structure when it came to Rawlings, Shohfi, Klubnik and the rest of the Class of 2020,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We were trying to find guys who really loved playing the game and who were driven to be great. Not just necessarily guys who were stars who could run fast and jump high, but guys who had something to prove. We had some good teams before those guys got here, but when they got here, they changed the culture of the program because they want to be successful together. They bought into the idea of putting themselves last and the team first. We really handed them the ball in week seven of their freshman years and said, ‘We’re gonna roll with you guys,’ and that’s what we’ve done for the past four years.”
Despite beginning the season with three straight victories, Team 147 looked shaky in an inauspicious start to the campaign. Scoring an average of less than five points in the first-halves against Holy Cross and Cornell, Rawlings and company relied heavily on the defense to carry them to victory, holding a Crusaders team to just 237 yards of total offense and coming away with a pick-six against the Big Red midway through the third quarter to help turn the tide of that contest in favor of the Bulldogs.
Just a week later, however, and the Blue and White offense finally found it mojo against a porous Fordham defense — exploding for 45 first-half points. Putting points on the board on the first six consecutive drives of the day, Rawlings finished the afternoon tallying over 300 yards passing and four total touchdowns. Shohfi and Klubnik, meanwhile, combined for a total of 235 yards, as the offensive talent was too much for the Rams to try to contain. On the other side of the ball, Yale’s defensive talent limited Fordham to 120 yards below its rushing average as the Elis coasted to a 48–24 victory and 3–0 record.
“I’ve been so blessed to be around players that are so much fun to watch,” running back Zane Dudek ’21 said. “Between the likes of JP [Shohfi], Reed [Klubnik] and Kurt [Rawlings] and our offensive line, it’s just so much fun to watch them play every single practice and during every single game — they just make plays that I’ve never seen before. Shohfi has how many one-handed catches now? If you throw it to either him or Klubnik, I expect them to catch every ball that comes within their vicinity. They’re just that good and that much fun to watch.”
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs had yet to be tested and the upcoming Dartmouth game was an indicator of whether Team 147 was destined for greatness. The Big Green came in confident and took control of the game early with a 21-point first quarter. Rawlings looked shaken up after a scary hit and left the game in the second half. Cornerback Melvin Rouse II ’21 lined up at receiver and caught six passes, but that remained one of the few highlights on the day. The Elis managed only 384 yards of offense. The game ended 42–10 in favor of the Big Green.
The game against Richmond was the turning point of the season, a vital victory that nearly wasn’t. Following the Dartmouth loss, Yale was looking to come out strong against the Spiders. The opposite happened and Richmond dominated the game for three quarters. Down 27–7 with little time left in the third, Rawlings and the Elis mounted their comeback. He found Shohfi for a touchdown with just a minute and a half left in the game, his third touchdown of the game. Shohfi then heroically recovered the ensuing onside kick. The drama did not end there, as Rawlings marched Yale down the field and lobbed the ball up to Klubnik with nine seconds to play, a fitting ending to a crucially important game. Yale were winners 28–27 as time expired.
“We believe in fighting until the very end no matter what the scoreboard says or circumstances are,” Shohfi said. “We did an incredible job of pushing through it all, not worrying about the score. If we had an opportunity to step out onto the field, we were going to make the most of it. Of course, it wasn’t clicking every single time, but in the end when we needed to, we finished.”
Penn, Columbia and Brown stood between Yale and the two crucial matchups against Harvard and Princeton. The Penn game was a shoot-out, with no field goals attempted in the entire game. Rawlings broke the Yale record for career touchdown passes and total offense against the Quakers, posting a monster 388 yard day in the 46–41 win. Columbia was no match for the Blue and White as the Bulldogs bullied the Lions in a 45–10 win. The defense showed up also showed up and held Columbia to 28 yards on the ground and recorded four sacks. It was the Shohfi show against Brown, as the senior captain caught four touchdown passes in 59–35 Eli victory. Running back Zane Dudek ’21 had a monster 216-yard game.
With the Ivy title so tantalizingly close following Dartmouth’s loss to Cornell, Yale had to take care of business against Princeton and Harvard. Both the offense and defense were dominant against Princeton, as the Elis dominated in a 51–14 drubbing of the Tigers. Rawlings threw for six touchdowns and on the other side of the ball, linebacker Ryan Burke ’20 had eight tackles and defensive back Kyle Ellis ’22 dove for an athletic interception.
The stage was set: Yale versus Harvard for the Bulldogs to take home a share of the Ivy title. With the Bulldogs trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter, the Crimson appeared set to play spoiler. But Rawlings embodied the never-say-die spirit of this tremendous team and gave the Bulldogs everything he had. He passed for a career-high of 417 yards and threw two touchdown passes in the final 88 seconds of regulation to force overtime. On top of a 141 yard receiving day, Klubnik also recovered the onside kick to set up the drive to send the game into overtime. It was the defense, though, who put the nail in the coffin and handed Team 147 that label of champions. With Harvard needing just five yards for the first down, Burke shed a block and threw himself at the legs of the Crimson receiver, stopping him short of the down marker. In what might have been the most dramatic iteration of this rivalry to date, the Yale Bulldogs were victorious 50–43 and co-champions of the Ivy League.
Linebacker John Dean ’21 was named the captain for the 2020 Yale Football team.
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