FOOTBALL: Nolan Grooms leads Yale to a 42–28 win over Penn in first career start
Yale’s 14-point home win against the Quakers marked head coach Tony Reno’s 50th career win, a milestone only reached by five other coaches in Yale history.
Head coach Tony Reno recorded his 50th career win on Saturday, as the Yale football team defeated the visiting Penn Quakers 42–28.
Yale (3–3, 2–1 Ivy) posted a much stronger performance this week just seven days after handing in-state rival UConn its first win in two years. The Bulldogs entered the contest as 15-point favorites over Penn (2–4, 0–3 Ivy), who have yet to record a win in conference play. Quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24, who replaced Griffin O’Connor ’23 at halftime of last week’s loss to UConn, dazzled in his first career collegiate start, scoring four total touchdowns. For his performance, Grooms was awarded the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week accolade on Monday.
“We grew a lot in the last week since walking off that field in [Hartford] to today,” Reno said. “We grew a lot on Sunday. I’m so proud of these guys who put together an amazing week of practice. The whole team realized that we needed to be a little more intentional, we needed to execute a little better, we needed to give a little more, and put ourselves last and our teammates first. This team has done that day after day, week after week, and they did it today. It speaks volumes to the culture and the chemistry that they have created.”
Yale’s defense set the tone early for the match, forcing a three-and-out on Penn’s opening drive highlighted by a Reid Nickerson ’23 sack. After a weak punt set the Blue and White up with advantageous field position from the 50-yard line, Grooms immediately got to work in his first career collegiate start. Connecting with Melvin Rouse II ’22 on his first two pass attempts, Grooms quickly found himself in the Quaker red-zone. On a second-and-seven, 11 yards outside the goal line, Grooms threw a quick lateral to receiver Ryan Lindley ’24 on a designed screen pass. A textbook block from fellow wideout Darrion Carrington ’22 gave Lindley an open lane down the right sideline who dove to the pylon to make it 7–0 Yale.
On Penn’s responding drive, despite first-year quarterback Aidan Sayin’s just one completed pass attempt for seven yards, two pass interference penalties on the Blue and White secondary set the Quakers up at the Eli 19-yard line. From there, Penn was more than content to put the ball in the hands of its two running backs. On the team’s fifth-straight run design, Trey Flowers managed to punch it into the endzone from the two-yard line. It was a drive that bled nearly seven minutes off the clock, as the Quakers had answered right back and knotted the contest at seven.
It was now Team 148’s turn to see if it could build upon the offensive momentum from the opening drive. Pinned back at the Yale 14-yard line following a well-executed kickoff by Penn, Grooms had yet to take his foot off the gas — completing three straight passes for a combined 32 yards. As the final seconds of the first quarter ticked off the clock, the Bulldog offense was set up in Penn territory and again looked to be in business.
With the second quarter underway, three penalties on the Quaker defense had Yale set up eight yards away from Penn’s goal line. On third down, Grooms received the snap in the shotgun and looked to be passing. However, not a second later, both the right and left defensive ends broke through Yale’s offensive line and charged at Grooms in the pocket. Without hesitating, Grooms slipped right in between them and had an open hole in the defensive line to run through. With Grooms in a full out sprint for the right corner of the endzone, two Penn safeties were now in pursuit to try and meet him at the pylon. Grooms dove toward the end zone and managed to get an inch of the ball past the goal line for the touchdown. Yale had responded with a seven-minute scoring drive to make it 14–7.
On Penn’s ensuing possession, Team 148’s defense was up to the task of getting a stop to keep the seven point lead intact. After driving to the Eli 26-yard line, the Blue and White defense managed to get a stop on third down. With a few minutes remaining in the half, the Quakers got aggressive and decided to go for it on a fourth-and-seven. Sayin took a shot to the back of the endzone, but Bulldog cornerback Dathan Hickey ’23 came up with a huge pass-breakup that prevented the score and got the ball back into the hands of the offense.
Grooms picked up right where he left off, flashing the legs on two straight plays to set up the offense in Penn territory. A 33-yard pass attempt was hauled in by Mason Tipton at the Penn one-yard line, and a Spencer Alston ’23 rush one play later put another seven points on the board for Yale.
On the following kickoff, Owen Goldsberry deked past several Yale defenders en route to a 70-yard return, setting his team up at the Bulldog 27 yard line. Four plays and 45 seconds later, a well-designed running play by Penn found the endzone, making the score 21–14.
Yale quickly marched down the field to the opponent’s 26 yard-line. Grooms, surveying the turf on first down, saw Tipton get a step on his defender on a designed fly route. Grooms wasted no time in launching a perfectly placed ball that fell right into the breadbasket of Tipton in the back of the endzone. After a Penn three-and-out, the half came to a close with Yale now up 28–14.
On the first Bulldog possession out of the break, Grooms showed off his legs. On second and seven, Grooms faked a handoff to Alston, before taking the ball himself up the middle for a 23 yard gain. The drive stalled at the Quaker 42-yard line, when Grooms’ pass was broken up by Penn senior defensive back Mohammed Diakite.
“I’ve always prided myself on being able to tuck the ball and run,” Grooms said. “[We] came out and took what they gave us … running backs did a great job, offensive line did a great job of blocking all day, giving me time to get the ball out.”
The Bulldog defense forced a quick three-and-out on the ensuing Quaker possession, featuring Nickerson’s second sack of the afternoon. Yale took over from its own 34-yard line, with just over 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. On first down, Reno called a play-action pass, and after Grooms faked the handoff, he loaded up and looked for Chase Nenad ’24 who ran open across the middle of the field. Penn fifth-year linebacker Brian O’Neill read the pass perfectly and leaped up to grab the interception.
The Quakers capitalized on their next possession, driving 43 yards in just four plays, capped off by a 15-yard touchdown pass form Sayin to Goldsberry to cut the Yale lead to seven. Grooms and the Bulldogs offense responded, stifling the Quakers growing momentum. In just over four minutes of game time, Yale put together an eight play, 75-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead back to 14. The drive was highlighted by a 47 yard connection between Grooms and Tipton to set Yale up in the red zone. On first and twenty, Grooms stepped up in a crowded pocket and launched the ball nearly 50 yards in the air before being hit. Grooms nailed Tipton in stride, who had a step on both defenders in coverage. Grooms rushed for a touchdown himself, just three plays later.
Yale took advantage of the shift in momentum, forcing a three and out in just 35 seconds of game time. On the ensuing Bulldog possession, Grooms showed off his arm yet again. On first down from the Penn 35-yard line, Grooms faked a hand-off and delivered a ball down the far sideline intended for Nenad. The sophomore pass catcher lost the ball in the air after being tangled with his defender, but was able to work back and corral the pass for a 30 yard gain. Running back Elliott McElwain ’22 punched in the touchdown on the following play.
After a 20 yard return, the Penn offense took over at its own 45-yard line facing a three touchdown deficit. On second down, Sayin loaded up a deep shot, but slightly under threw his intended receiver. Hickey ran stride for stride with his man, and leaped up for the interception.
The Bulldogs were in complete control from that point on. It was not until the 4:45 mark of the fourth quarter that the Quakers found the end zone again. The Bulldogs experienced a slight scare when the Quakers recovered an onside kick down two touchdowns, but the Yale defense stood strong. Defensive end Clay Patterson ’24 recorded two sacks on two of the next three Penn players to force a fourth and 18. Sayin’s final prayer throw fell incomplete.
“Nolan really distanced himself this week in practice and I think in the second half of the game last week,” Reno said of his decision to start Grooms. “Griffin is an extraordinary player and he’s a huge part of this team, we just felt that Nolan gave us a better chance to do what we needed to do offensively.”
Grooms finished the game with 283 passing yards, two touchdowns, and just the one interception. He added a team high 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and also led the team with 16 carries.
“Nolan did a great job in his first full game,” Reno said. “But to say I didn’t expect it would be a lie.”
Team 148 will return to the Yale Bowl next Saturday to host Columbia.