Yale Athletics

On Sept. 18, Yale football is set to defend their share of the Ivy League crown when they return to the Yale Bowl for the first time in 665 days. Despite losing a number of key players at the end of the 2019 season, the Bulldogs enter the year ranked second in the annual Ivy League preseason poll.

With a host of new faces eager to make their Ivy League debut in a few weeks, exhilaration and excitement has swept across every locker room in the Ancient Eight. Meanwhile, newsrooms emanate with uncertainty as they try to predict how teams will perform heading into this new year. 

This uncertainty has revealed itself in this year’s Ivy League preseason poll, voted on by a panel of 16 media members from across the league. Yale earned second place honors — receiving six first place votes and trailing only Princeton with eight. Dartmouth, who won a share of the Ivy title in 2019, was voted third with just one vote. Columbia was picked to finish seventh, yet received the remaining first-place vote.

Quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’23 will lead Yale this year as he prepares to take over the starting role after Kurt Rawlings ’20, the reigning Bushnell Cup recipient for offensive Ivy League Player of the Year, graduated last year. The Bulldogs will also return linebacker John Dean ’22, who will serve as Team 148’s captain, and running back Zane Dudek ’22. 

“Every single day is extremely important to our success,” Dean said during Ivy League football media day on Aug. 16. “We take every day in front of us as the most important day that we can possibly have going forward. And we’re going to train during [preseason camp] in the same exact way as we’ve been training in the past.”

The graduating class of 2020 featured a number of pivotal Bulldogs. Captain JP Shohfi ’20 led the team in receiving yards, and trailing right behind him was receiving-mate Reed Klubnik ’20. The electrifying duo combined for 2,014 receiving yards, 18 touchdowns and over half of Team 147’s completions in 2019, each averaging over 100 receiving yards a game in the process. O’Connor will therefore have to lean heavily on wideout Mason Tipton ’24 and the pass-catching ability of Dudek, who were third and fourth on the team in receiving yards, respectively.

In addition, 24 new Bulldogs will be joining Team 148. Highlighting that group are several 3-star-rated players: tight end Luke Foster ’25, offensive tackle Andrew Weisz ’25 and defensive tackle Ikenna Ugbaja ’25. Ugbaja was a top-30 ranked defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school. Wide receiver Jay Brunelle ’24, another 3-star recruit, transferred from Notre Dame this past year and is set to make his Yale debut.

“We’ve had to make a lot of replacements between the end of the 2019 season and now. Many of the guys that made a lot of great plays for us over the years have graduated,” head coach Tony Reno said. “With that said, I feel like we have a great core. Offensively, we’ve got a core of players who have been on the field for us before, who have developed physically, mentally and emotionally in the last year and a half. I’m excited to see them compete.

“And then defensively, we’ve got a great group of guys who, in a very similar fashion, have continued to grow and develop. We’ve got some players that span all four classes, outside of the incoming first years, that have helped us win games. So we’re all excited to see the progress they’ve made and how well they play together as a collective unit.”

The Blue and White will play almost the same conglomerate of teams as they did during the 2019 season. But two notable out-of-conference changes were made: Yale will first travel to Lehigh on Oct. 2 to take on the Mountain Hawks before making the short trip two weeks later to the University of Connecticut to battle the Huskies for the first time since 1998. Yale will not face Fordham or Richmond this year.

Back in 2019, the Bulldogs had one loss to its record: a 42–10 collapse at the hands of the Dartmouth Big Green, which was the lowest point total of the Bulldogs’ season in what looked to be a lethal blow to Yale’s chances of securing an Ivy League championship. A week later, a much-needed comeback victory against Richmond lit a spark under the Elis that burned even brighter as the second half of the season progressed. With Rawlings and the receiving tag-team of Shohfi and Klubnik at the helm, the trio of players wreaked havoc on defensive secondaries and broke every school passing and receiving record in the process. 

Yale scored a game average of more than 50 points in the four games after Richmond — offensive mastery put on full display during the penultimate week of the season in a 51–14 victory over Princeton, handing the Tigers only their second loss of the season.

Needing a win against their Cambridge rival to close out the season as Ivy League co-champions, the Bulldogs found themselves facing a daunting 17-point fourth-quarter deficit at The Game. In what was a double-overtime, four-and-a-half-hour instant-classic 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 title alongside Dartmouth.

That Ivy League title was the Big Green’s 19th Ancient Eight crown, the most by any team in the Ivy League. The championship run was accomplished in large part due to having the league’s top rated defense that allowed fewer than 13 points a game. However, of the defensive players taking the gridiron for Dartmouth in 2021, only fifth-year safety Niko Mermigas and nickelback John Pupel took snaps in the starting lineup two years ago. The Blue and White are set to take the field against the Big Green and try to avenge their 32-point loss on Oct. 9, the fourth week of the season.

Princeton, meanwhile, returns eight players who earned All-Ivy League honors in 2019. Among those top performers coming back for the Tigers include All-Ivy League defensive back Delan Stallworth and linebacker Jeremiah Tyler who spearheaded one of the Ancient Eight’s most productive defenses two years ago. Yale and the Tigers will face off in the penultimate week of the season — Nov. 13 — just as they did two years ago.

“We have a group of guys that have worked really hard over these last 18 months,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace said on media day. “Defensively, [Jeremiah Tyler] has been with us since 2016 and has been one of the better players in this league. We have a lot of guys who love football that took this year off because they want to be with their teammates, they want closure and they want to see how good our team can be. We know the challenges that our opponents present to us so we’re excited to get to camp.”

The Bulldogs’ 2021 season will be capped off by The Game, which will take place at the Yale Bowl on Nov. 20. Harvard returns eight of its starters from 2019, consisting of three offensive players and five defenders, as the Crimson looks to bounce back from a disappointing 4–6 campaign.

Yale will kick off the 2021 season at home against Holy Cross on Sept. 18.

JARED FEL
Jared Fel currently serves as a sports staff reporter covering football, baseball, and hockey for the Yale Daily News. Originally from Ossining, New York, he is a rising junior in Saybrook College majoring in Cognitive Science.
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