Yale Daily News

Yale and Harvard will continue their historic rivalry on Saturday in the 137th edition of The Game. Yale leads the series 68–60–8 all-time. The last time these two teams met, the Bulldogs forged an unforgettable 17-point fourth quarter comeback and ultimately won the contest 50–43 in double overtime to secure a share of the Ivy League title.

The Bulldogs (5–4, 4–2 Ivy) and Crimson (7–2, 4–2 Ivy) enter the final game of the season tied for third place in the Ivy League and one game behind Princeton and Dartmouth. These latter two programs have handed Yale and Harvard their only conference losses this season. The winner of The Game will have an outside shot at sharing the Ivy title — the Tigers and Big Green would both need to suffer losses to Penn and Brown, respectively. The Quakers and Bears have combined for only two conference wins all year.

“It’s one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said on Tuesday at a press conference. “To be a part of it, to be a small piece of it has been really amazing … you got a great crowd, a great atmosphere, you got an FBS atmosphere at your game which is a really, really great thing. From a selfish point of view, I would venture to say there’s very few schools in the FCS that get this kind of venue to play in once a year.”

Harvard had a strong start to the season, winning their first five games to set up an undefeated first place showdown with Princeton in week six. Included in that stretch was a Crimson blowout 38–13 victory against the Patriot League champion Holy Cross Crusaders, who defeated Yale in the Bulldogs’ season opener. 

Finding themselves in a competitive overtime battle against Princeton a few weeks later, the Crimson on two separate occasions believed they had won their sixth consecutive game. The celebration for each was short lived, however, as both game-winning scores were subsequently wiped off the board by officials after review. The Tigers eventually went on to score the winning points in the game’s fifth overtime period. The following day, the Ivy League released a statement admitting an officiating error on one of the scores and acknowledging that Harvard should have walked away victorious.

“[We] had it won once … had it won twice … still, the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said after the game.

The game result stood nevertheless, and the Crimson returned home to host Dartmouth with one loss on their resume. Harvard played in its second consecutive nailbiter, ultimately losing again on a last minute Big Green field goal.

“The team from the North, they’re an experienced team,” Reno said. The Yale coach, who recently became the sixth Bulldog coach to cross the 50-win threshold, also called the Crimson “the most talented team in the Ivy League from top to bottom.”

The Crimson enter The Game as the second best scoring offense in the Ancient Eight. Over nine games, Harvard is averaging over 32 points per contest, just a point behind the league leading Princeton Tigers. The offense is anchored by junior running back Aaron Shampklin, who ranks second in the conference in total rushing yards. Shampklin averages 5.7 yards a carry and has 11 touchdowns in only eight games. The Crimson have also seen three different quarterbacks attempt a pass for them this season — rookie gunslinger Charlie Dean started the season but suffered a season-ending injury. Senior Jake Smith got the first shot at replacing Dean, but was ultimately benched and replaced by junior Luke Emge in the fourth quarter of the Crimson’s battle against Dartmouth. Emge emerged victorious in his first career start against Columbia two weeks ago.

The Crimson enter the contest yielding the second best defensive unit in the conference. Harvard has only conceded 13.1 points per game — good for fourth best in the FCS — and is coming off a game against Penn where they allowed only seven points. The unit is buoyed by the best rush defense in the league — the Crimson give up fewer than two yards per carry. Leading the way is junior safety James Herring, who ranks fourth in the conference with 63 total tackles. Along the defensive line, junior Jacob Sykes adds seven sacks, the best total on the team.

In the secondary, the Crimson have two play-makers at the cornerback position in sophomore Alex Washington and senior Khalid Thomas, who are both tied for the conference lead in interceptions with three each. The Crimson pass defense has accumulated more than twice the interceptions of any other team in the Ancient Eight and has conceded the fewest passing touchdowns.

The Crimson will have a tough time slowing down a Yale offense that enters the contest averaging nearly 30 points a game. The Bulldogs started the season with quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’23 as the primary signal-caller. O’Connor won the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award in 2018 after starting three games in relief of the injured Kurt Rawlings ’20. With Team 148, O’Connor navigated the Elis to a 2–2 record and was replaced at halftime of Yale’s loss to UConn by Nolan Grooms ’24. Reno later said that Grooms set himself apart in the following week of practice and earned the starting job. 

During his first collegiate start, Grooms led Yale in a game against Penn to a 3–1 record. The sophomore from South Carolina has won two Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week awards during the late-season stretch. 

Grooms will have the benefit of taking the field alongside running backs Spencer Alston ’23 and Zane Dudek ’22. The latter, who started all 10 games a season ago en route to second-team All-Ivy honors, has missed some time in the middle of this season but is expected to play on Saturday. Alston has performed admirably in relief and ranks ninth in the conference in yards per carry. Alston won Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week for his breakout 116-yard, two touchdown performance against Columbia.

“I think the biggest thing when you look at it, and how we look at it week in and week out, is us being able to control the areas that are important to us,” Reno said. “A few of them are our ability to play a physical game, and another one is our ability to respond when adversity hits and in our ability to focus on process, not outcome.”

Out wide, Grooms has had the luxury to lean on some excellent weapons over the course of his four starts. Receiver Mason Tipton ’24, while ranking just 17th in the league with 24 receptions, has amassed 509 receiving yards — good for eighth among all receivers in the Ancient Eight. Tipton has been on the receiving end of many explosive plays since Grooms took over the reins on offense. In fact, Tipton’s average mark of 21.2 yards per reception is second only to teammate and co-star Chase Nenad ’24 in the whole league. Tipton arguably had his best performance during a come-from-behind victory against Columbia. On the drive that marked the beginning of the comeback, Grooms went deep on back-to-back plays to Tipton for 30-plus yard gains.

While Team 148’s defense ranks towards the bottom of the league in points per game allowed, the unit features a number of standout performers. In the middle of the field, the Elis have been able to rely on the presence of captain and linebacker John Dean ’22 game-in and game-out. Dean leads the team in tackles and ranks third in the conference in this category.

“All the focus is on this week,” Dean said. “I’ll leave the nostalgia to postgame. I think there’s too much preparation to be had right now to let thoughts about the last four or five years get in the way. This is a game that we really want to win … We still got unfinished business and we’re ready to do whatever it takes to play a great game.”

On the line, Clay Patterson ’24 has put together one of the most dominant seasons of any defender in the FCS this year. The sophomore has registered a total of 11.5 sacks in the nine games he has started — three more than the next closest player in the Ivy League. He leads all other Ancient Eight players with 13 tackles for loss and is second in the FCS with 1.28 sacks per game. 

Patterson was recently added to the watch-list for FCS Defensive Player of the Year. 

“My goal personally is just to play hard every play,” Patterson said following his four-sack performance against Lehigh. “When you play hard, good things will happen … it just goes to show how we have a lot of trust in each other, since we expect the person who’s open on the play to execute.” 

The Eli pass defense has been strong all season long — linebacker Rodney Thomas II ’22 is third in the Ancient Eight in pass breakups, defensive back Wande Owens ’23 is fifth in the same metric and defensive back Dathan Hickey ’23 leads the conference with four forced fumbles.

Saturday’s game will mark the 137th running of The Game. Two years ago, Yale and Harvard delivered an unforgettable performance, which included a half-time protest and two overtimes. After the Elis and Crimson traded scores in the first overtime, the two teams marched down the field to continue play on opposite end of the Yale Bowl.

“The other reason we flipped the field was because of the students’ section,” Reno told reporters in the Tuesday press conference. “And our students’ section was just off the charts, they were amazing … When you’re an opposing offense and you got to deal with a students’ section that’s pretty loud, pretty crazy, it makes your ability to handle calls and deal with things tough. So I give a lot of credit to those students who helped us out with that win.”

The Bulldogs will see a number of starters play their final collegiate snaps on Saturday, including Dean and wideout Melvin Rouse II ’22, who spoke with the media on Tuesday.

“This week, I’m just really trying to finish out strong, teammate wise, [for] the younger guys and everyone under me,” Rouse said. “When my name comes up, it’s not about how great of a player or the NFL, it’s just how good of a teammate I was while I was here.”

The 137th rendition of the game will kickoff at 12 p.m. on Saturday from the Yale Bowl. ESPN-U will broadcast the game live. 

Jared Fel currently serves as a sports staff reporter covering football, baseball, and hockey for the Yale Daily News. Originally from Ossining, New York, he is a rising junior in Saybrook College majoring in Cognitive Science.
Nader Granmayeh '23 is a former staff writer who covered football and softball for the Yale Daily News.