FOOTBALL: Yale hands UConn first win of season in 50th rendition of the historic rivalry
The Bulldogs fell to intrastate rival Huskies 21–15 at Rentschler Field, giving UConn its first win in two years.
Yale, fresh off a gut-wrenching overtime defeat against Ancient Eight rival Dartmouth last weekend, lost its second straight game on Saturday at the hands of the University of Connecticut. The Huskies picked up their first win since an Oct. 26, 2019 contest against UMass, snapping an 11 game losing streak.
The Bulldogs (2–3, 1–1 Ivy) entered the contest as three and a half point favorites in their first game against a Division 1-A Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent since 2014. The conference independent Huskies (1–7) had not won a game since the 2019 season.
“I think it’s great for the state of Connecticut,” Yale Deputy Director of Athletics Ann-Marie Guglieri said leading up to the game. “I hear stories and I know Tony [Reno] hears tons more than I do about the UConn-Yale rivalry from years and years ago, so I think it was a great opportunity for the state. … Long term, I think it would be a great series to continue. There’s a lot that goes into football scheduling, you know, 10 to 15 years in advance so a lot of things will have to line up. I have a lot of respect for their athletic director, and so hopefully the conservations will continue.”
In September, Sports Illustrated asked if UConn was “the worst FBS college football team of all-time.” Earlier this year, fellow FCS team Holy Cross defeated the Huskies 38–28, just days before head coach Randy Edsall stepped down. Edsall had been with the Huskies since 2017 and was replaced by defensive coordinator Lou Spanos.
Yale head coach Tony Reno downplayed the public’s negative perception of UConn prior to the game, calling them “arguably, the best team on our schedule” and the “biggest challenge [the Bulldogs] will have this year” because of their “big, strong, fast, physical play” along with their ability to offer full scholarships to athletes, which helps attract particularly skilled players.
Reno did not comment after the game on whether Griffin O’Connor ’23, who was replaced at halftime by Nolan Grooms ’24, would start next week’s game against Penn. O’Connor entered the year with high expectations, after setting a Yale record for single-game passing yards en route to his rookie of the year award in 2018. The junior signal caller had arguably the toughest start of his career, throwing for only 59 yards on 23 attempts and three interceptions. His replacement spurred a second half comeback and pushed the game to the final play. A controversial holding call on the Bulldogs’ last drive helped thwart any hope of a miraculous finish.
“I think we’re gonna look at everything,” Reno said, when asked whether the coaching staff would consider Grooms as an option to start next week’s contest. “You look at the offense as a whole and look at what we’re doing and making sure that we’re executing [at] the level we need to execute, and [playing] the guys that give us the best chance to put points on the board.”
Grooms ended the game with 132 passing yards, completing only eight passes on 31 attempts, but added 67 yards on the ground and led the Bulldogs in rushing. The two teams ultimately combined for 21 punts, 15 three-and-outs and only 31 first downs. UConn forced four turnovers — the major difference in the game — as the Bulldogs’ defense was unable to register a single one.
Yale set an early defensive tone, forcing a quick three-and-out on UConn’s opening drive. Starting from its 23-yard line, the Blue and White offense converted on three third-downs in a row and looked to be driving inside enemy territory. On a first-and-10 from the UConn 41, quarterback O’Connor fired a strike to the right sideline on a designed out-route. Unfortunately for O’Connor, Huskie corner Durante Jones read the play all the way and made a leaping interception — the first of his collegiate career.
On the ensuing possession from the Huskies 38-yard line, the Yale defense again stepped up to the challenge, forcing a second consecutive three-and-out highlighted by a sack from defensive lineman Clay Patterson ’24. Yale’s offense gave the ball back quickly, however, after picking up one just one first down. Taking over from its own 20-yard line, UConn strung together some positive yardage, but the drive ultimately stalled out at Yale’s 48-yard line when quarterback Steven Krajewski overthrew his receiver on an intended swing pass. UConn punted on a fourth-and-two, much to the disappointment of the Huskie fans among the 18,596 in attendance that afternoon.
With the opening quarter winding down, defense continued to be the defining story. O’Connor, facing a third-down in his own territory, was hurried by a Huskie blitz into a quick, inaccurate pass that missed his intended man by several feet. The two teams exchanged punts yet again, and the quarter came to a close with neither team able to put points on the board.
Receiver Melvin Rouse II ’22 set his Bulldogs up well with a 21-yard punt return to the UConn 34-yard line to begin second quarter action. The offense failed to capitalize, picking up just seven yards before sending kicker Jack Bosman ’24 out to attempt a long field goal. For the second consecutive week, Reno had a trick up his sleeve. Instead of going for the kick, the Bulldogs instead changed formations, with backup quarterback Grooms taking the snap. Rather than run with the ball, which worked for a six-yard gain and first down against Dartmouth last weekend, Grooms instead tried for a short lob up the middle to tight end Major Roman ’22. The ball was overthrown by a few inches and resulted in a turnover on downs — keeping the game scoreless.
The Huskies put together an impressive drive in response, with some help from a 15-yard facemask penalty on the Bulldogs. On third-and-seven from the Elis’ 31-yard line, UConn called a running play that was blown up by linebacker and captain John Dean ’22 for a mere two yard gain. The ensuing 48-yard field goal attempt was then blocked by Tate Goodyear ’23 to keep the Huskies off the board and set up the offense with advantageous field position. As had been the story of a sloppy first half by both teams, the offense again failed to capitalize. On third and 19, after the Bulldogs took a delay of game penalty, O’Connor’s pass landed incomplete nearly 10 yards behind his intended receiver.
After Krajewski overthrew first-year wideout Keelan Marion in single coverage on back-to-back plays, the Huskies were again forced to punt from their own territory. Reno, looking for a spark, put Grooms in at quarterback on Yale’s responding drive. The South Carolina native had a similarly tough time moving the ball, and the Elis went three and out for the second consecutive drive and third time in the half.
The Huskies got the ball back on their own 27-yard line and were finally able to take advantage of the Yale defense. After a third down conversion, UConn faced a first-and-10 from its own 37-yard line. Krajewski rolled to his right and launched a deep bomb down the middle of the field that hit a wide open Marion perfectly in stride. The wideout had an unobstructed lane down the middle of the field and waltzed his way into the endzone to complete the 63-yard scoring play. After the extra point, the score read 7–0 in UConn’s favor.
Looking to respond to the Huskies scoring drive, Reno brought O’Connor back into the game. On second-and-four from the Yale 31, O’Connor saw tight end JJ Howland ’22 streaking down the middle of the field. The ball was slightly underthrown and allowed UConn corner Tre Wortham Jr. to make a highlight play — stealing the ball right out of Howland’s hands and recording his first interception of the season.
After several three-and-outs from both teams, O’Connor had the ball with under two minutes to go in the half. Looking for wideout Mason Tipton ’24 in single coverage, O’Connor instead threw his third interception of the game. With just over a minute remaining, the Huskies promptly marched down the field, with some help from a defensive pass interference penalty, to extend their lead to 14–0.
At halftime, the Bulldogs had mustered 70 yards of total offense, with over half of those yards coming on Team 148’s opening drive. That drive also featured Yale’s only third-down conversions of the half. The Blue and White defense had held up relatively well, holding the Huskies to a measly 20 percent conversion rate on third-down and forcing seven punts in the process. Yet, the two touchdowns loomed large as the Elis found themselves facing a 14-point deficit heading into the locker room.
With the third quarter underway, Grooms trotted out of the locker to officially replace O’Connor at the quarterback position. A scramble on second-down set up a third-and-short for the Bulldogs, but the Huskie defensive line hurried Grooms into a rushed pass that was thrown well over his intended receiver. It was Yale’s fifth three-and-out of the afternoon.
After a 25-yard pass began its offensive drive, UConn again looked to be rolling for the second consecutive drive. Krajewski, after rolling out on play-action, saw the entire Eli defensive line bite on his fake handoff. Rather than look to pass, he instead continued rolling to his left and sprinted his way down the sideline for an 20-yard run into the endzone.
The Bulldogs, still in search of a spark, were suddenly gifted one from UConn kicker Joe McFadden, who sent the ball out of bounds on a kickoff to set the Yale offense up with good field position. A Grooms scramble on second-down moved the chains for the Bulldogs for the first time since the second drive of the game. Still, the Elis stalled at the UConn 28-yard line, setting up Bosman for a 45-yard attempt. His kick split the uprights for Yale’s first points of the afternoon, making the score 21–3.
Team 148’s defense forced a three-and-out on the next Huskie drive, injecting some life into the Elis with just over eight minutes to play in the penultimate quarter. Two incompletions from Grooms and a stuffed run resulted in the Bulldogs’ sixth three-and-out.
After a Huskie punt, Grooms took over at the Yale 35. On third-and-14, defensive end Eric Watts leaked into the Bulldog backfield and had an easy sack, but bailed Yale out with a poor facemask penalty. On the next play, Grooms showed off his athleticism on a designed run, forcing a few missed tackles en route to a 25-yard gain. Grooms flashed his legs again just two plays later, hurdling a UConn defender for eight yards to set up the offense at the 8-yard line. After two consecutive shovel passes got Yale to the three, Grooms handed the ball off to Zane Dudek ’22, who scampered untouched into the end zone for Yale’s first touchdown of the day. Following a failed two-point conversion, Yale trailed 21–9 as the third quarter came to a close.
Yale’s defense showed no signs of fatigue, forcing UConn into its third consecutive punt. Despite an impressive improvisonal play from Grooms on the responding drive, the Bulldogs offense stalled again and punted after a sack from UConn defensive end Kevon Jones Jr., who had been pressuring the Bulldogs’ signal callers all game.
The Huskies were now looking to try and run as much time off the clock from their ground game. Deciding to go for it on a designed quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-short from Yale’s 44-yard line, Dean again made his presence felt with an athletic tackle behind the line of scrimmage — forcing a turnover on downs. On the ensuing Bulldog possession, Team 148 was unable to gain any yardage through the air with five of Grooms’ pass attempts falling incomplete. With seven minutes left on the clock, and trailing by 12 points, Reno opted to have his team punt the ball on a fourth-down from UConn’s 45-yard line.
“Without much time left in the game, our defense was playing great ball,” Reno said about his decision. “I felt I had a lot of confidence in our defense to make a stop, and they did. And, I felt like if we could do that, we could gain some decent field position and be able to put points on the board.”
The Huskies offense continued their strategy of trying to run time off the clock. The Yale defense did its job and forced a three-and-out, leaving the offense with just over five minutes on the clock but still in need of two touchdowns. After going nowhere on its first two plays, the Yale offense desperately needed to convert on a third down. UConn’s defense lined up with two deep safeties, leaving receiver Chase Nenad ’24 in single coverage with Wortham, who had two picks in the afternoon. After the snap, Nenad ran a fly route down the left sideline with Wrotham in tow. As Grooms lofted up a pass for Nenad, Wortham tripped over himself, allowing the receiver to make a leaping catch in bounds. With the safeties trailing the play, Nenad had 30 yards of open field in front of him and jogged his way into the endzone for a 60-yard touchdown to make it 21–15. Despite the missed extra point, Yale pulled within six points of UConn.
Yale’s defense took the field with just over four minutes left and two timeouts in their pocket. In need of a stop to give the Bulldogs one last chance to win the game, corner Wande Owens ’23 brought Marion down short of the line to gain on third down, and the Bulldogs burned one of their timeouts to stop the clock with three minutes remaining. After the punt, Grooms and the offense took over from their own 32-yard line with two minutes and 52 seconds left to try and steal a win on the road.
The Huskies stood strong for three downs, forcing the Bulldogs into a fourth-and-11 from their own 44-yard line. Trailing by six with under two minutes remaining, Team 148 had no choice but to go for it. With the ball snapped, the Eli offensive line picked up the UConn pass-rush beautifully, giving Grooms plenty of time to make a play. Not liking what he saw from his receivers, Grooms rolled to his left — it appeared that the quarterback would try to run for the first down. However, Grooms pulled up just behind the line of scrimmage and threw a dart to a leaping Rouse in double coverage, who came down with the ball for a 21-yard completion and kept Yale’s hopes for a win alive.
On second-and-10, Grooms picked up 12 yards running down the sideline all the way to the 23-yard line, but running back Spencer Alston ’23 was called for a holding penalty that brought the ball back to the UConn 45, a more than 20 yard swing. Reno immediately went to seek an explanation from the referee, as it did not appear that Alston held the defender.
“I just wanted to see what he saw,” Reno said. “Obviously, I saw something different, but, again, they’re the referees and they make the calls and that crew did a great job, and they have the expertise to make those calls and I just wanted to know why he called it and what he saw … At the end of the day, as a football team, you can’t rely on calls, you have to make plays and we said ‘good,’ next play, and we went out and executed.”
With time winding down, Yale could run one last play from the 35-yard line to try and find the endzone. Grooms’ hail mary attempt fell short, but a flag on the field tempered the Huskie celebration. UConn was called for an illegal substitution. Yale was given one final untimed down from the 30-yard line. Grooms delivered a good ball into a sea of white receivers and blue defenders at the left side of the endzone. When the smoke cleared, it was UConn linebacker Tui Faumuina-Brown that had the football heroically in his grasp.
For the first time in 722 days, UConn had gotten itself back into the win column with a victory over the Bulldogs.
“It was emotional,” UConn football coach Lou Spanos said in the postgame press conference. “The players fought so long and hard since we started this journey this year and they found a way to finish today. It was enjoyable and the kids are happy.”
Yale returns to New Haven this Saturday for a 12 p.m. matchup against the University of Pennsylvania.