Lukas Flippo, Photo Editor

This Saturday, the Yale football team 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 and face-off against Holy Cross, a familiar rival. 

Despite losing a number of key players at the end of the 2019 season, the Bulldogs (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) enter the year ranked second by the Ivy League preseason poll and will begin their 148th season with the same opening day matchup they had in their previous three campaigns: Holy Cross (1–1, 0–0 Patriot). A rather one-sided rivalry from a wins-losses perspective — Yale is 5–2 against the Crusaders dating back to 2003 — the Bulldogs hope to pick up where they left off two years ago when they handed Holy Cross a 23–10 defeat in the 2019 season opener. The Crusaders are already two games into this current season, beginning their campaign with an upset win over FBS program UConn before enduring a 14–point loss to Merrimack the following weekend.

The Crusaders are back-to-back defending champions of the Patriot League. Two years ago, Holy Cross went 5–1 in the Patriot League to advance to the FCS Playoffs. Their season ended unceremoniously with a 44–27 loss to the No. 14 Monmouth. Last year, in a COVID-abridged season, the Crusaders went 2–0 in Patriot regular season play and defeated Bucknell 33–10 to claim the official title of Patriot League champions once again. In this year’s league preseason poll, Holy Cross received 11 out of a possible 14 first place votes, becoming the overwhelming favorite to capture a third consecutive conference title. In July, seven Crusaders were also given preseason all-league honors, including linebacker Jacob Dobbs who currently leads his team with 11 tackles through the squad’s first two games.

“As we look at our opponent, this is the toughest opener we’ve ever had at Yale since I’ve been here,” head coach Tony Reno said. “[Holy Cross] has an FBS win, they’ve played six games in the last six months and they had a really successful spring schedule — securing their second consecutive Patriots League title. They return all the guys who played for them in the spring.”

In their season opener this year, the Crusaders delivered a deflating upset to the University of Connecticut. The Huskies had not lost to the FCS school since 2013 and were projected to win the game by 2.5 points. After a back and forth affair, the Crusaders finally pulled ahead 24–21 heading into halftime and never took their collective foot off the brakes, beating the Huskies 38–28. UConn head coach Randy Edsall resigned shortly after the loss.

Expectations were high for the Crusaders’ home opener against Merrimack a week later. Yet their strong statement win to start the season was overshadowed by a defensive meltdown against the Warriors, who had 459 yards of offense against Holy Cross en route to a 35–21 victory. The Crusaders subsequently dropped out of the FCS top 25.

Quarterback Matthew Sluka, the reigning Patriot League Rookie of the Year, leads the Holy Cross team. The dual-threat quarterback Sluka leads the team in rushing yards. Through two games, he has racked up 260 passing yards, 152 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. Behind Sluka, the Crusaders’ running back duo of Tyler Purdy and Peter Oliver will likely be a significant test for the Bulldogs. Purdy and Oliver both earned second team All-Patriot honors last year. This year, Purdy is 35th in the FCS with 218 all-purpose yards in two games.

“They’re very good up front on both sides of the ball,” Reno said. “They have a playmaker at the quarterback position who can really hurt you with both his arm and legs. They have a ton of skill on the perimeter on offense and defense. Their linebackers and running backs are all tough physical guys who have played a ton of football. As always we can only worry about putting our best foot forward and being the best version of ourselves on Saturday.”

Beginning the 2019 season two years ago as preseason Ivy League favorites, the Blue and White came into their season-opener against Holy Cross under intense pressure to avenge its 31–28 overtime loss to the Crusaders the year prior. Within the first few minutes of the game, it was apparent that Yale looked poised to avenge their 2018 season-opening defeat.

The very first drive of the game set the tone for the entire 2019 campaign. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, after meticulously driving his offense to the red zone, handed the football off to running back Zane Dudek ’22 on a fourth-and-goal, who rewarded Rawlings with a two-yard bulldozing run into the endzone that put a quick six points on the board. The Bulldogs were now immediately positioned in the driver’s seat, and they never looked back.

The Blue and White’s red zone defense stole the show from that point on, forcing a fumble on Holy Cross’ first possession of the day to cap off a first-quarter shut-out and holding the Crusader offense to a meager three points heading into halftime. Rawlings then compensated his team’s marvelous defense with a faultless drive of his own in the third quarter, culminating in a touchdown that gave Yale a 10-point lead heading into the final quarter. While Holy Cross fought back in the fourth quarter with a touchdown, an Eli drive that bled six minutes off the clock was the nail in the coffin for the Crusaders. The Blue and White successfully avenged their 2018 overtime loss with a 23–10 victory. 

The Bulldogs now enter the 2021 season with a number of fresh faces. Quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’23 has taken over for reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, Rawlings. In 2019, Rawlings threw 26 touchdown passes and added eight scores rushing the ball. O’Connor had a dazzling debut in 2018, filling in for the injured Rawlings. He threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, building anticipation for his first game as the full time starter this season. O’Connor earned the award for Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2018.

“Kurt has been such a good role model and great friend for me over the past several years,” O’Connor said. “Particularly during my sophomore year in 2019, I felt that the competition in that [quarterback] room served the team extremely well … With that in mind, as I look at the quarterback room now, we have some great players like Nolan Grooms who you’ll see on the field a lot this year. I think that it will prepare us to always have a guy ready. I think you saw that during my first year when I had to step up for Kurt after his injury, and I still have that same mindset and drive to compete this year.”

Team 148 also lost captain JP Shohfi ’20 and wide receiver Reed Klubnik ’20 after the duo graduated. The receiving duo electrified the Ivy League in 2019, combining for over 2,000 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. The Bulldogs will need to lean heavily on two returning offensive players to replace some of that production: Dudek and wide receiver Mason Tipton ’24. Dudek, despite his primary responsibility as a rusher, ended the 2019 season with the fourth most receiving yards on the team, just behind Tipton.

Coach Reno’s staff is also fortunate to have linebacker John Dean ’22 back for his senior season. Dean will serve as Team 148’s captain, after taking time off from Yale in 2020. Reno described Dean as a “classic old-school linebacker.”

“I think our whole entire team is super excited to go out there and compete and play our first game,” Dean said. “It has been a long time coming, but over the course of the past two years I think our team did a great job staying present, focusing on every single individual day and getting better every day, as opposed to thinking about a game that might be six, eight, 12 months away.”

Yale will face off against Holy Cross at 12 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18 at the Yale Bowl.

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.
Nader Granmayeh '23 is a former staff writer who covered football and softball for the Yale Daily News.