FOOTBALL: Team 148’s title hopes vanish at Princeton
The Bulldogs lost their second conference game of the season Saturday, all but assuring they will not share a portion of the Ivy crown.
PRINCETON, NJ — The Bulldogs saw their Ivy title hopes all but vanish on Saturday as they lost to the Tigers 35–20. Team 148 now sits a game behind both Princeton and Dartmouth entering the final week of the season.
Princeton (8–1, 5–1 Ivy) entered the contest coming off its first loss of the season, a 31–7 road collapse at the hands of Dartmouth. Yale (5–4, 4–2 Ivy), meanwhile, was riding a three game win streak under new starting quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24. Prior to kickoff, the two teams sat in a three way tie alongside the Big Green for first place in the Ivy League. The winner of the contest was assured a chance to play for at least a share of the Ivy title in the season’s final game. Last season, in a similar situation, Yale delivered a 51–14 shellacking in what was the squad’s best performance of the year — handing the Tigers their second loss of the season and keeping their own hopes for a title alive.
Princeton rode a strong performance from their offense en route to victory. The turning point came when senior quarterback Cole Smith engineered a touchdown drive with under a minute left in the first half to retake the lead entering the break. The Tigers never looked back, outsourcing the Elis 14–3 in the third quarter and holding them scoreless in the fourth.
Team 148 never really found its footing, mustering only 12 first downs and 222 yards of total offense all game. Grooms showed some of his inexperience, completing just 14 of his 36 attempts for 102 yards and three interceptions.
“We’re a young team,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said postgame. “I think, obviously, they’ve played really well over the last few weeks and I think today we saw a lot of [our] youth come out tonight.”
After an hour and a half lightning delay, the Bulldogs and Tigers finally kicked off from Powers Field. Princeton, on its opening possession, led a 15-play drive down the field that saw a mix of rushes, play-action passes and a fourth-down conversion at midfield. However, in true “bend but don’t break” fashion, Team 148 stood strong for three downs at the goal line and forced the Tigers into a 20-yard field goal try. Yale’s special teams unit made their presence felt early, blocking the chip shot attempt to keep the game scoreless. The Eli offense failed to capitalize, however, going three-and-out on their first possession.
After Princeton’s ensuing drive went nowhere, a well-executed punt from the special teams unit pinned Grooms and the offense at their own three-yard line. The Bulldogs failed to pick up any yards, going three-and-out for the second straight drive.
The Tigers offense finally broke through on the following drive. After quarterback Cole Smith showed off his wheels for a big gain down the middle of the field, his 12-yard pass attempt on third-and-goal hit receiver Dylan Classi towards the back left corner of the endzone — capping off a 35-yard touchdown drive that made it 7–0 Princeton.
With the first quarter winding down, Grooms appeared to get the offense going with a 23-yard completion to his tight end, JJ Howland ’22. An illegal forward pass penalty two plays later stopped the offense in its tracks, and another punt ensued.
With the second quarter underway, the Eli defense responded again. On second down, Dathan Hickey ’23 expertly poked the ball loose on a sack, but the ball unceremoniously bounced back to the Orange and Black. A few plays later, Team 148’s special teams came up big once again — the Bulldogs blocked the Tiger punt, setting the offense up in the Princeton red zone.
Yale moved the ball well, but was met with some resistance inside the 10-yard line. After two non-threatening plays, the offense faced a third-and-goal. Set up in the shotgun, Grooms took the snap and immediately rolled out to his right. Not liking what he saw from the defensive coverage, the South Carolina native showed no hesitation in tucking the ball away and rushing it in for the 6-yard score, equalizing the game at seven.
On the Tiger’s responding drive, pinned back on their own 6-yard line, Smith completed a pass on second-down to his slanting receiver with safety Rodney Thomas II ’22 in tight coverage. Thomas immediately tackled the receiver to the ground. The receiver’s arm collided into the turf, popping the ball up where it was subsequently snatched out of the air by linebacker John Dean ’22 for an interception.
Yale now had possession in the red-zone, and it was time for running back Spencer Alston ’23 to make his presence felt. On second-down from the five-yard line, the Virginia native was handed the ball and leapt up into the air, somersaulting over several Tigers and falling gracefully into the endzone. Yale had now jumped to a 14–7 lead.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the lead would be short lived. Smith, on a second-and-11, found first-year running back John Volker wide open down the middle of the field after a blown Eli coverage. Volker was hit in stride and had an open runway to the back of the end zone to cap off the 64-yard scoring play.
The Tigers defense capitalized on the momentum and stopped the Bulldogs on third and one on the following drive to force a punt. Fortunately for Team 148, punter Jack Bosman ’24 pinned the Tigers back at their own 2-yard line. Princeton went three-and-out and handed the ball back to Grooms with just over two minutes remaining in the half.
With the team in hurry-up mode, Grooms quickly pushed the offense into enemy territory. A sack on first-down sapped the momentum out from under the drive, and the Elis were forced to settle for their first field goal attempt of the afternoon. Bosman’s 43-yard attempt was sent clean through the uprights and handed Yale a 17–14 edge.
“Right at the end of the first half, we had a chance to score [a touchdown] and we didn’t,” Reno said. “I think those [moments] are kind of a microcosm of the game.”
The Tigers now had the ball with under a minute left in the half. Smith rattled off three consecutive explosive plays, gaining 78 yards of offense and setting the offense up at the Bulldog 7-yard line. With just eight seconds on the clock, Smith took the snap and threaded the needle to senior receiver Jacob Birmelin in the endzone. Instead of trailing by three, the Tigers instead led 21–17 entering halftime.
Yale’s offense struggled coming into the second half, quickly going three-and-out. Princeton’s offense, meanwhile, picked up right where it left off. After two straight completions to Birmelin, running back Trey Gray was handed the ball on first down. Patiently waiting behind his offensive-live for something to develop, a hole suddenly formed towards the left side of the field. After slipping his way through, Gray had an open lane down the sideline that he took for a 27-yard touchdown.
Yale, now facing an 11-point deficit, turned to Grooms to manufacture another comeback. Yet just two plays into the drive, Grooms’ intended pass for Alston was underthrown and intercepted by senior defensive back Christian Brown. The turnover set the Tigers up in the Yale red zone and Princeton capitalized, converting on a fourth-and-goal to extend the lead to 18 points.
The Elis showed some fight on their ensuing drive, mainly coming from big gains on the ground picked up by Alston and a fourth-and-4 scramble conversion from the sophomore quarterback. After a late hit from a Tiger defender gave the offense a 15-yard boost, the Bulldogs scored their first points since late in the first half — a 27-yard field goal from Bosman that cut the lead to 35–20. It was now a two-possession deficit with four minutes remaining in the third.
The Yale defense gave the Bulldog fans some hope when it forced a three-and-out on the next Princeton possession. Grooms took over near midfield. The Tiger defense held firm for three downs, and the Bulldogs now faced a fourth-and-5 from the Princeton 37-yard line. Grooms’ pass hit the fingertips of Howland, but the tight end was unable to corral it.
“They did a good job,” Reno said. “Nolan had some good runs, a lot of our [run-pass option] situations, the passes were open, we just didn’t hit them.”
Following the turnover on downs, Princeton led an impressive drive down the field into Yale territory. On third-and-10 from the 23-yard line, an illegal Tiger block penalized the offense 15 yards and turned what would have been a chip shot field goal try into a 43-yard attempt. Jeffrey Sexton’s kick missed wide right, and with the fourth quarter underway the Blue and White were still alive in this contest down 15 points.
While Yale’s defense showed tremendous resiliency, continuously stepping up and holding Princeton’s offense scoreless throughout the entire final quarter, the comeback was not to be. The Tigers’ defensive unit notched two late-game interceptions to seal the game at 35–20.
Despite the loss, the Bulldogs’ title hopes are not mathematically dead. The Elis would need losses by both Princeton and Dartmouth as well as their own victory over Harvard to share the title. The Tigers and Big Green face Penn and Brown, respectively — two programs that have combined for just two conference wins all year. The Ivy League has not seen a conference champion with two losses since 1982.
“I just said to the guys ‘We didn’t play well enough to win’ … you gotta play well to win,’” Reno told the News. “We didn’t and they know that. There’s a lot of guys on this team that have won two championships so they know what it takes to be in a game like this and win these games.”
Yale returns home this weekend to commence battle with the Crimson at 12 p.m. on Saturday.