FOOTBALL: Holy Cross plays spoiler in season opener, defeating Yale 20–17
In a season-opening thriller that came down to the game’s final minute, it was Holy Cross that escaped New Haven with a 20–17 victory over the defending Ivy League Champions.
Playing in its first regular season game since 2019, the Yale football team gave fans glimpses of what a squad picked to finish second in the Ivy League looks like. Yet, the team also showed fans what it looks like to not have played a full 60-minute game of football in over 665 days.
In Saturday’s season opener, Yale (0–1, 0–0 Ivy) played host to Holy Cross (2–1, 0–0 Patriot) in a battle of two Northeastern schools. After a first quarter of play defined by defensive dominance from both squads, two straight touchdown drives led by quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’22 opened up second quarter action as Team 148 jumped out to a 14-point lead.
The Eli defense would bend as time wore on, however, conceding a Crusader touchdown in the waning seconds of the first half and another midway through the third quarter. As time continued to bleed off the clock in the fourth quarter with both teams tied at 17, Yale head coach Tony Reno had a sinking feeling of the direction this game was headed.
“This game reminded me of a heavyweight fight,” Reno said Saturday afternoon at the postgame press conference. “You trade punches and trade punches some more and then, as a coach, you fear that whoever has the ball at the end may just have one more punch in them.”
That team, unfortunately for the Elis, happened to be Holy Cross. On the Crusaders’ final drive of the afternoon, quarterback Matthew Sluka led a methodical, faultless drive into Eli territory to set up his kicker, Derek Ng, 47 yards from the uprights. Ng’s kick attempt sailed clean through, securing the victory for Holy Cross.
The field goal with 48 seconds left to play capped a 14-point comeback for Holy Cross. The Crusaders scored a touchdown midway through the third quarter to put them up 17–14, and the Elis found themselves trailing for the first time in the afternoon. The Blue and White would not go down without a fight, giving quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24 an opportunity to take the reins of the offense on Yale’s responding drive. Grooms, making plays with both his arm and legs, drove his team into enemy territory to set up a game-tying field goal to open up the final quarter of play. The defenses of both teams would then buckle down in a quarter filled with leaping deflections and momentum-shifting third-down stops.
“You have to give credit to [Holy Cross],” Reno said. “They’re a great team, the coaching staff did a great job and they threw and landed one more punch than we did at the end of the game. That was ultimately the difference in the game. For us, while we had a great camp, we came into the game with some concerns just because of the obvious — we haven’t played football in a really long time.”
In a first quarter of play defined by penalties, defensive brilliance and some early-season rust, neither team could successfully put points on the board. On several of Team 148’s opening drives, if they were not stalled by holding penalties, they were instead ending on O’Connor overthrows as the California native was struggling to settle into the game.
Holy Cross, meanwhile, appeared to have its offense more in rhythm, driving into Blue and White territory on their first two possessions of the game. The first of these drives ended with a deflected pass on third down, and the second ended when Crusader kicker Derek Ng missed his 37–yard try wide right. The first quarter ended with the score tied at zero.
On the Bulldogs’ opening drive of the second quarter, back-to-back face mask and pass interference penalties on the Holy Cross secondary set up the Blue and White with excellent field positioning. This appeared to settle O’Connor down, as he ripped a perfectly timed lob to the left corner of the endzone that fell right into the breadbasket of wide open tight end Jackson Hawes ’24 for a 19-yard touchdown. The scoring drought had ended. 7–0 Bulldogs.
“I know for myself I was grateful to be out there to actually be playing football again,” O’Connor said. “It was awesome to be playing another team with my teammates, but at the end of the day we want to win with our teammates. So while I’m grateful for the opportunity, now we’re going to have to win.”
After a quick Holy Cross three-and-out that saw linebacker and captain John Dean ’22 make an athletic charging stop on a third-and-inches, O’Connor seemed to have settled into the game on Yale’s next possession. Stepping up in the pocket on the first play of the drive, O’Connor deked a Holy Cross safety with a pump fake before throwing a dart to tight end JJ Howland ’22, hitting him perfectly in stride. With the coverage blown, Howland sprinted 74 yards to the end zone, making it 14–0 Yale.
The Eli defense bent a bit following Yale’s touchdown drive, but stood firm in the red zone to hold the Crusader offense to a 44-yard field goal. After penalties stalled Yale’s next offensive possession, Holy Cross meticulously marched down the field with play action passes from Sluka, culminating in Sluka keeping the ball himself in the red zone and bulldozing his way in for a touchdown. As the second quarter came to a close, the score now read 14–10 — Sluka had gotten his team right back into the contest.
“A lot of offense comes down to timing,” Reno said. “There were a lot of plays that were really close to being made, big plays that unfortunately just weren’t made. It’s very cut and dry. A play is either made or it isn’t. It’s not like you can say, ‘We were close.’ We have to get back to work and make sure we can convert in those situations. It’s not any one person, it’s the collective group.”
Yale’s defense resorted to the blitz much more to open the third quarter of action, applying pressure on Sluka to force third-down stops on the Crusaders’ first two drives. A wide 45–yard field goal attempt by Yale on its ensuing drive, however, set up Holy Cross with excellent field positioning for its third drive. Sluka took full advantage, lobbing a pass to an open receiver for a 63-yard play to put his Crusaders inches away from the goal line. The Eli defense held strong on the Crusaders’ first two rush attempts before Sluka decided to take matters into his own legs, charging into the heart of the Bulldog defensive line and falling into the endzone.
In Yale’s responding drive, Reno decided to give backup quarterback Grooms a chance to lead the offense himself. Grooms took full advantage of the opportunity, marching his team deep into Crusader territory. After getting stopped at the 30-yard line, the Elis were forced to settle for a field goal attempt, which kicker Jack Bosman ’24 converted. With the fourth and final quarter now officially underway, the game was knotted at 17 apiece.
“In the offseason we obviously had a lot of free time, and so we studied the Saints offense with Drew Brees and Taysom Hill,” Reno said. “We felt that Nolan is more of a Taysom Hill, and Griffin is more of a Drew Brees. Griffin is the starter, and Nolan comes into certain situations and does certain things really well. We thought the Saints gave a lot of other teams issues doing that and so we modeled ourselves that way.”
On Holy Cross’ responding drive, a 30-yard run up the middle of the gridiron appeared to tilt the momentum of the contest in its favor. However, deciding to go for it on fourth down in Bulldog territory, Sluka’s pass was broken up by diving defensive back Deonte Henson ’22.
Team 148 failed to capitalize on the good field position, as O’Connor was unable to drive his offense out of its own side of the field. With time now winding down and Holy Cross in possession of the football, the Crusaders were more than content with running the ball — a play they ran seven straight times to set up a 47-yard field goal attempt for Ng with 48 seconds remaining. His kick was perfect. Holy Cross had broken the tie, and Yale now desperately needed to respond with less than a minute on the clock.
Unfortunately for Yale, the comeback was not to be. O’Connor’s first pass attempt was intercepted by defensive back Walter Reynolds. Holy Cross had spoiled Team 148’s anticipated return, outlasting the Bulldogs 20–17.
“For the team we did everything we could over the offseason in order to prepare ourselves for this moment,” Yale captain Dean said. “I don’t think it was a shock to the system to play today — I think a lot of guys were prepared for the moment. [Holy Cross] is just a great team. They executed a little bit better than us today and that’s how the result came to be.”
The Crusaders beat UConn earlier this month 38–28. Yale visits the Huskies on Oct. 16.
Attendance on Saturday was listed as 3,987 for Yale’s first event at the Bowl since the start of the pandemic. Yale returns to the Bowl next Saturday for its Ivy League opener against Cornell, which starts at noon.