FOOTBALL: Yale bests Cornell 23–17 behind two interceptions, kickoff return from Rodney Thomas II
Griffin O’Connor ’23 passed for 317 yards and tacked on two touchdowns, while Rodney Thomas II ’22 had two interceptions to go along with a returned onside kick for a score, as Yale outlasted Cornell 23–17 at Saturday’s Ivy League opener.
Lukas Flippo, Senior Photographer
In an afternoon that saw spurts of offensive mastery on some possessions, penalty-stalled drives on others and defensive dominance throughout, the Yale football team secured a critical 23–17 victory against Cornell in the Ivy League season opener on Saturday.
The Bulldogs (1–1, 1–0 Ivy) were at home for the second consecutive week to face off against Cornell (0–2, 0–1 Ivy) in Team 148’s opening Ivy League contest. The Blue and White defense held the Big Red scoreless through the first quarter, due in large part to a timely endzone interception from the Eli secondary. A brilliant 35-yard connection from quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’23 to receiver Darrion Carrington ’22 midway through the first quarter gave Yale an early six-point lead. After tacking on another three points in the second quarter, the Bulldog defense limited Cornell to a field goal for a 9–3 halftime lead. Yale’s offense wasted no time to open up third quarter action, as O’Connor notched his second touchdown of the game with a 25–yard fade to wideout Chase Nenad ’23.
The score remained 16–3 heading into the fourth, and a critical goal-line interception from Rodney Thomas II ’22 appeared to put the game out of reach for Cornell. However, with the Elis content to go into a prevent defense with just over a minute remaining, the Big Red got its first touchdown of the afternoon to make it a one-possession 16–10 game. Going for the onside kick, Thomas cleanly recovered the ball and had an open 48–yard lane to the endzone for a touchdown. Cornell rallied yet again for a 30-second touchdown drive, but its second attempt at an onside kick was recovered by Team 148 — securing the 23–17 win.
“That was a very typical Ivy League game,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We say all the time in Ivy League football, you have to be ready to win on the last play, no matter who you play or when you play them. Cornell was one heck of a team. They’re a tough, resilient, physical football team. That being said, I’m extremely proud of my team. Credit goes to the players and the assistant coaches who did an amazing job the last seven days of taking us from where we were from last week’s press conference to where we are now. It was a commitment made by all involved to get better, to be more intentional day-in and day-out and to have our best practices come during this week.”
Cornell’s offense looked to be firing on all cylinders to begin its first drive of the afternoon. When running back Delonte Harell wasn’t weaving his way through holes in Yale’s defensive front, screen action passes from quarterback Richie Kenney had the Big Red driving inside the Bulldog’s red zone. However, Kenney’s pass attempt on third-down to the left corner of the endzone was intercepted by leaping defensive back Wande Owens ’23, keeping the game scoreless.
The Blue and White offense didn’t give much time for its defense to catch its breath, going three and out and punting on the opening drive. Nevertheless, the Eli defense seemed to have settled into the game, forcing a three-and-out of its own.
O’Connor, itching to get the offense going, let loose a 20-yard dart to Carrington at the left sideline who just managed to get a foot in bounds. Now in Big Red territory, the O’Connor–Carrington connection was in full effect yet again. Despite Carrington facing tight double-coverage, O’Connor showed no hesitation to loft the ball 35-yards to the right corner of the endzone. Carrington managed to create just a few inches of space from his two defenders and was hit perfectly in stride for a touchdown. The score made it 6–0 Yale after kicker Jack Bosman ’24 missed the ensuing extra point.
On the Big Red’s responding possession, Keeney, scrambling in an effort to avoid a sack, slung an ill-advised prayer of a pass to the middle of the field. The ball met the outstretched hands of Thomas, who would have gone all the way for a pick-six had it not been for a holding call on a Bulldog defender during the return. While the interception still stood, O’Connor now had to drive his team from the opponent’s 43-yard line.
After a fumbled snap by O’Connor was miraculously recovered by offensive lineman Nick Gargiulo ’23, it set up a third-and-23 for the Bulldogs. In the first quarter’s final play, O’Connor managed to slip his way past several blitzing linemen, step up in the pocket and throw a 44-yard missile to receiver Melvin Rouse ’22 in tight coverage. Rouse came down with the ball in bounds to set up a first-and-goal.
After getting stuffed at the goal-line on three-straight plays to begin second quarter action, the Elis had to settle for a 20-yard field goal attempt. Bosman’s kick missed wide left, however, keeping the score at 6–0.
Team 148’s defense continued to exert its dominance on the Big Red, forcing yet another three-and-out. On the Elis’ ensuing drive, O’Connor read the zone defense to perfection, lobbing a sideline pass to wideout Mason Titpton ’24 for a 28-yard gain. After a pair of rushes set Yale up inside the red zone, Cornell’s defense put together another goal-line stand and forced the Elis into another field goal try. Unlike last time, Bosman sent the ball clean through the uprights to make it 9–0.
“We talk all the time about how there’s only two things you can control: your preparation and performance. That’s it,” Reno said. “Everything else can’t be controlled. Our guys did an amazing job of controlling their preparation today and it directly affects your performance. While it doesn’t guarantee you victory, it gives you the best opportunity. I think it speaks volumes to the culture these guys have created, they want to play for each other and want to do anything they can for each other. Not only that, they come on the field each and every day with a sense of camaraderie and a feeling of legacy of continuing to bring Yale football forward. They brought that onto the field Saturday.”
After a 50-yard pass from Kenney on the first play of Cornell’s responding drive, the Big Red looked to be in business. Yale’s defense would stand strong in the red zone, forcing Kenney into a key incompletion on third-and-goal. A 32–yard field goal later, and the score now read 9–3 Bulldogs.
The defenses of both teams dominated the last five minutes of the first half. Yale’s responding drive, while lasting nine plays and taking four minutes off the clock, was stalled at midfield after an incompletion from O’Connor on third down. Team 148’s defense answered by forcing a three-and-out to keep the score knotted at 9–3 as the final first-half seconds ticked off the clock.
A series of bulldozing runs from Zane Dudek ’22 got the Blue and White right back into enemy territory to begin third quarter play. O’Connor, after seeing Nenad get a step on his defender on a stop-and-go, threw a 25-yard fade over the beaten defender that hit the wideout perfectly at the back-left corner of the end zone. Yale’s offense started the second half just as it did the first, with a quick scoring drive that put six points on the board and Bosman’s extra point attempt that was good to make it 16–3 Yale.
“We talked as a team that we needed to stay united,” O’Connor said. “A lot of times throughout a game, you can focus on your own personal issues, such as the ups and downs of the game. You can get caught up in the moment of what you’re doing in your offense. And for a well oiled offense to work you need eleven guys with the same vision and alignment. We really talked about that all week and we had some really good practices. The coaches were talking about how we needed good Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday practices because those are practices that play over into Saturday. I think we came out and did that today.”
Now down by 13 points, the Big Red utilized some aggressive play calling on its responding drive by deciding to go for it on fourth down on two separate occasions in Yale territory. While the first try paid off with a first down, the second was completely blown up by a blitz from the Eli defense.
Yale’s offense failed to capitalize on the good field position after a deep O’Connor pass on third down barely whizzed past the outstretched hands of Tipton. After a series of overthrown pass attempts from Kenney stalled Cornell on its side of the field, a 20-yard completion between O’Connor and Dudek had Team 148 driving into Big Red territory as the third quarter wound to a close with the score still 16–3.
A holding penalty on the Bulldogs to open the fourth quarter sapped any offensive momentum that was building in the third, and it was now Cornell’s turn to see if it could conjure up a scoring drive. After a 28-yard rush began the possession, conservative screen action passes from Kenney had his offense set up inside the red zone. Cornell suddenly had life.
After two straight false-starts were committed by the offensive line, Cornell now needed twenty yards to keep the drive alive on third-down. Kenney, feeling the pressure of Yale’s defensive line, quickly zipped a pass to the middle of the endoze. Thomas, who was playing safety on the play, read Kenney’s pass beautifully and snatched the ball out of the air before it had a chance to land into the breadbasket of a Cornell receiver. Thomas secured his second interception of the day, marking the second time he had achieved this feat against the Big Red. This one kept the score at 16–3.
“I knew the game was going to come down to some crunch time plays,” Thomas said. “[Cornell] was of course making a drive down the field and we needed to step up to stop their momentum on the field. On my end personally I knew that they were trying to push the ball. The defense just had to reset for a bit and then go out and try to make a play and get the ball back into the offense’s hand so that they could then go down and do what they needed to do.”
With over nine minutes left in the game, Yale was more than content with having the offense go through Dudek and running back Spencer Alston ’23. The Elis rushed the ball on nine of their next 11 plays in a drive that took them from their own two yard line to midfield. After a Bosman punt pinned Cornell at its own 20-yard line, more than five minutes had bled off the clock following the Bulldog possession.
Yale was also content to go into a prevent defense. Cornell, just as they did in its last showdown against the Bulldogs two years ago, showed some late-game grit by marching down the field and scoring a touchdown to make it 16–10. It was now a one-possession game.
With just over a minute on the clock, the Big Red would have to attempt an onside kick. And just as Reed Klubnik ’22 did back in 2019 against Cornell, Thomas recovered the onside kick and took it 48 yards to the house to make it 23–10 Yale.
Cornell brought the fans back to their seats with a quick 30-second touchdown drive, making it 23–17. Yale would again have to recover another onside kick to ensure victory.
And recover they would. This time, it was receiver Jaylan Sandifer ’22 who managed to wrap both hands around the ball while being tackled by two Cornell players. With the game now iced, the Bulldogs took victory formation to run out the clock and wrap up a 23–17 Ivy League win.
“I said to the team last week that we didn’t play like a Yale football team,” Reno said. “That’s not our standard, and I didn’t even need to go on to explain it, they knew exactly what I was talking about. The credit goes to the players, because at the end of the day, we’re in this together. Our players are the ones who carry the stick forward. I’m just really proud of them for understanding that and being so intentional and so committed to each other to do that.”
Team 148 is set to play next weekend on the road against Lehigh at noon.