Y-H Spissue: Bulldogs’ young talent proves a highlight in mixed season
Despite losing two conference games for just the second time since 2016, Yale’s young talent is a source of excitement for fans.
Team 148 entered the season with high expectations — a 16-person media panel projected the Elis would finish second in the Ivy League behind Princeton. The Elis received six first place votes, a sign of confidence in the relatively veteran squad led by linebacker and captain John Dean ’22, safety Rodney Thomas II ’22, wide receiver Melvin Rouse II ’22 and running back Zane Dudek ’22. Excitement for the season extended to quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’23, who had won the conference’s Rookie of the Year award in 2018 after three impressive starts in relief of the injured Kurt Rawlings ’20.
Patriot league champions Holy Cross spoil opener
After more than 600 days away from competition, the Bulldogs opened the season with an uneven performance against Holy Cross. The Crusaders were a tough opponent for Team 148 — Patriot league coaches and sports directors voted Holy Cross as the most likely to win the conference. Entering the final week of play, the Crusaders lived up to the hype, clinching at least a share of the Patriot title and holding sole possession of first place with a 5–0 conference and 8–2 overall record. The Bulldogs held a halftime lead at the Yale Bowl, but could not hold on — the Crusaders hit a game-winning field goal with less than a minute left to hand the Bulldogs a loss to start the season.
Big win against the Big Red
The following week, Team 148 responded in its Ivy League opener with a 23–17 win against Cornell. O’Connor led the way, throwing for 317 yards and two touchdowns. The Elis gained more than 400 yards of total offense and forced Big Red quarterback Richie Kenney into three interceptions, two of them picked off by Thomas.
Blowout in Bethlehem
Building on their first win of the season, the Bulldogs traveled to Lehigh the following week and routed the Mountain Hawks 34–0 — the Elis’ first shutout since a 2017 win against Holy Cross. The blowout allowed backup quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24, who had seen limited action as a gadget player in the first few weeks, to get extended run. Grooms capitalized on the opportunity, throwing for 122 yards and two touchdowns on only eight attempts, adding 30 yards rushing.
Big Green stand strong in overtime
A week later, the Bulldogs traveled to Hanover, where, two years ago, they suffered their only loss of the season. The game featured a defensive battle between the two Ancient Eight foes. With eight minutes left in the game, O’Connor and the Bulldogs trailed 14–10. Team 148 put together a 14-play drive that featured three fourth down conversions, including one fake field goal with Grooms on the field and the final play of the drive that resulted in a five-yard touchdown with just over two minutes left. A few plays later, the Yale sideline stormed the field, believing their defense had just won the game after forcing an incompletion on fourth and one. The officials quickly put an end to the jubilation, as a contentious targeting call extended the Big Green drive. Dartmouth would go on to tie the game, and ultimately prevailed in overtime, handing Yale its first conference loss of the season.
The Battle of Connecticut resumes
The Bulldogs’ third straight road game came against an old rival: the University of Connecticut. The conference independent Huskies entered the game as arguably the worst team in the FBS, the football subdivision that hosts the country’s most elite teams, like Clemson, Alabama and Wisconsin. UConn had not won a game in two years and was riding an 11-game losing streak. The Huskies fired their coach just a few games into the season, after a loss to fellow FCS foe, the aforementioned Crusaders. Yale had not played an FBS opponent since it beat Army in 2014, but entered the contest as slight favorites. Despite that, the game was one of O’Connor’s worst as a starter. The junior threw three interceptions in the first half and accumulated only 59 passing yards. The Bulldogs entered halftime down 14–0 and let up another touchdown to extend the deficit to 21–0 shortly after the break. Head coach Tony Reno made a quarterback change at halftime, turning to the sophomore Grooms. The South Carolina native led a comeback, bringing the Bulldogs within six with a chance to win the game at the end, but ultimately Team 148 fell short in the 50th rendition of the Battle of Connecticut.
Elis overwhelm UPenn
Yale returned home sitting at 2–3 after consecutive losses. Despite not committing to a starter midweek, Reno told the reporters after the game that Grooms separated himself from O’Connor during the team’s week of practice. A week after almost beating UConn, the sophomore led the offense onto the field for his first career start against Penn. Yale handled the Quakers, winning the contest by two touchdowns. Grooms was awarded Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week for his performance, which featured 283 passing yards, 113 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
Bulldogs chase away Lions
Yale, looking to claw its way back into the fight for the Ivy crown, hosted Columbia the following week. The Lions had just upset Dartmouth 19–0 and hoped to forge their own path to a conference title. Team 148, again led by Grooms, found itself in a hole yet again. Entering the second half, the Elis were behind 20–14 and had trailed by as many as 11 points. Grooms navigated an impressive comeback for the second time in three weeks, this time also leaning heavily on running back Spencer Alston ’23, who had been playing for the injured Dudek. Alston won Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week for his 116-yard, two touchdown effort. Wideout Mason Tipton ’24 led the Bulldogs in receiving yards with 112. Yale prevailed 37–30 through pouring rain at the Yale Bowl.
Yale bears down on Brown
With only three games left in the season, every game carried additional weight. The Elis were set to kick off a two-game road trip in Providence, facing FCS All-American quarterback EJ Perry. The Brown defense, which entered the contest dead last in the conference, did little to improve its poor metrics. Despite another strong effort from Perry, the Bulldogs ran away with the game 63–38. The win, coupled with Princeton’s first loss of the season, moved the Bulldogs into a three-way tie for first place in the Ivy League. Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth all entered the penultimate week with only one loss on their resumes.
Title hopes fall at Princeton
For the second consecutive season, the Bulldogs traveled to Princeton to take on the Tigers in a critical Ivy League matchup. In 2019, an impressive 37-point win kept Team 147’s title hopes alive. This time around, the Tigers got the better of the Bulldogs. Yale looked like it would enter halftime leading 17–14 after a late field goal from Jack Bosman ’24, but Princeton’s senior quarterback Cole Smith put together a touchdown drive in less than a minute to give Princeton the lead and the momentum. The Tigers never looked back, stifling the Elis and outsourcing Yale 14–3 in the third quarter. The Bulldogs ultimately fell 35–20 and saw their Ivy hopes all but disappear.
Despite the disappointment, the Bulldogs saw their young talent flash all season long. Defensive end Clay Patterson ’24 leads the conference in sacks and is on the watch list for the FCS Defensive Player of the Year award. Along the defensive line, the Bulldogs do not have a senior listed as a starter and Reid Nickerson ’23 had a great year in his own right, ranking top ten in the conference in sacks. In the secondary, three juniors will return to form a formidable unit next season: Dathan Hickey ’23, Miles Oldacre ’23, and Wande Owens ’23. Hickey enters the final week of the season as the conference leader in forced fumbles. On the offensive side, Alston stepped up in Dudek’s absence and solidified himself as a lead back. Tipton stepped up to fill the big shoes of Reed Klubik ’20 and David Pantelis ’25 won Ivy League Rookie and Special Teams Players of the Week awards, respectively after beating Brown. The penultimate contest against the Tigers also featured four first- or second-year starters along the offensive line.