FOOTBALL: Yale stunned as last-second touchdown propels Harvard to 34–31 victory
The Bulldogs fall in the 137th playing of The Game, following a Harvard touchdown with 22 seconds left.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
Team 148 finished its season on a somber note, losing in the 137th rendition of The Game. Yale led by four points with under a minute left, but a last-second touchdown from Crimson quarterback Luke Emge gave Harvard the 34–31 win.
The Bulldogs (5–5, 4–3 Ivy) ended the season in fourth place in the Ancient Eight following the loss. The Crimson (8–2, 5–2 Ivy) finished third, one game behind Princeton (9–1, 6–1 Ivy) and Dartmouth (9–1, 6–1 Ivy). The Elis overcame three interceptions from quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24 and a blocked punt to keep the game close in the final minutes. Yale closed a ten-point second half deficit and took the lead with under eight minutes to go in the game, but the Crimson won the game at the buzzer, scoring with only 22 seconds left in the contest.
“We responded numerous times in the game,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said after the loss. “There were plenty of things that happened during the game today that didn’t quite go our way but we kept fighting and fighting and fighting and made some plays on both sides of the ball to get ourselves back into it and then take the lead. And as I said to them, too, sometimes you give all you have in life, and you don’t get the outcome you want.”
Despite the uneven season, the Bulldogs can look forward to their youth across the board. Saturday’s game also marked the final collegiate plays for a number of key contributors.
“It’s definitely an incredible opportunity to play in a game like this,” captain John Dean ’22 said following the loss. “Definitely a huge reason why I came here, playing big games that are competitive with talented football players on the field. You walk into that stadium you know you can win or lose and today it’s heartbreaking it didn’t go the way we want.”
Harvard’s opening possession got off to an inconsistent start — the Crimson committed three false starts to begin the afternoon. Despite this, the “Team from the North” moved the ball well, positioning themselves in Bulldog territory. On a third-and-one handoff to the running back, Elis linebacker Chris Sampleton ’22 broke through the defensive line and tackled the ball holder in the backfield to force a Crimson punt.
On the ensuing Eli possession, quarterback Grooms and the offense got off to a fast start. On the Bulldogs’ second play, Grooms scrambled down the sideline to pick up 17 yards and move the sticks. Team 148 picked up first downs on the next two plays on play-action passes to tight end JJ Howland ’22 and reciever Darrion Carrington ’22. After running back Spencer Aslton ’23 got the Bulldogs into Harvard territory, Grooms took over, finding a hole in the defensive line to pick up 12 more yards, much to the delight of the Bulldog crowd. On the following play, Grooms took his time in the pocket and appeared to be rushing. The Crimson secondary bit, leaving Carrington wide open in the corner of the end zone. Grooms read the play perfectly, untucked the ball and threw a dart to the Eli wideout by the left sideline, who leisurely jogged into the endzone. Yale had jumped out to a quick 7–0 lead.
Harvard looked to have an immediate answer on its responding drive. After quickly picking up 26 yards on the first play of the possession, the Eli defense did Yale no favors by adding on 15 yards on a roughing the passer penalty to set the Crimson up in Yale territory. A few plays later, a personal foul penalty extended Harvard’s drive yet again. On second and ten from the Yale 13-yard line, the Bulldogs struck back – standout defensive lineman Reid Nickerson ’23 broke through and sacked Crimson quarterback Luke Emge. The ball popped loose and Adam Raine ’23 recovered the ball to give the Bulldogs control.
On the very next play, Grooms, not liking what he saw from his read-options, looked to improvise — rolling out to his left in search of an open receiver. The Crimson defense had other ideas, intercepting the sophomore’s pass to give the ball right back to the Crimson offense in Bulldog territory.
After moving the chains on two straight rushes, the Crimson were sniffing the red zone at the 25-yard line. The Eli defense had a response — Wande Owens ’23 read the screen pass perfectly, forcing the Crimson into second and ten. On the next play, Nickerson made an offensive lineman look foolish en route to an Emge sack for a 10-yard loss. Harvard picked up some yardage on third down, giving kicker Jonah Lipel a shot at a 47-yard field goal, which he sent clean through the uprights to make the score 7–3.
On the ensuing Bulldog drive, Grooms’ inexperience showed, throwing an interception on his second consecutive pass attempt to grant the Crimson another opportunity in Yale territory. This time, Harvard took advantage. After an Aidan Bourget 28-yad rush set the offense up a yard away from the goal line, the running back finished what he started on the very next play — slipping his way into the endzone to give Harvard a 10–7 lead as the first quarter neared its close.
In between quarters, Yale and Harvard gave time to celebrate that, for the first time ever, the two schools were represented by female athletic directors for the playing of The Game.
Following two straight interceptions, the Blue and White offense was content to rush the ball down the throat of the best run-stopping defense in the FCS. With second quarter action underway, and on a third-down play, Spencer Alston ’23 tried to bulldoze his way through a pile of defenders at the line of scrimmage but appeared to be stopped short. However, he bounced out of the scrum seemingly untouched, sprinted past the defensive line and kept the drive alive.
Four plays later, the Eli offense was gifted 15 yards after a late hit by a Crimson defender and were now 11 yards away from the goal line. After going nowhere on the first two downs, Grooms faced a third and long. After taking the snap and rolling to his left, Grooms attempted a pass to Carrington towards the left corner of the endzone, who made a leaping catch but failed to get a foot in bounds. Jack Bosman ’24 was sent in to try a 32-yard field goal, which he converted to tie the contest at 10 apiece.
The big plays kept coming for Harvard and its offense, this time in the form of a blown defensive coverage that resulted in a 43–yard gain. The Eli defense, in true “bend but don’t break” fashion, stood strong for three downs and forced the Crimson into a 47-yard field goal try, which Lipel converted with ease.
Team 148, trailing 13–10, needed some momentum. The officials handed it to head coach Tony Reno and the Bulldogs in the form of a Harvard targeting penalty, setting the Yale offense up near midfield. Three plays later, the offense failed to capitalize. Grooms held onto the ball for an ill-advised amount of time in the pocket and was sacked to bring up fourth down. With Bosman lining up for the punt, the Crimson special teams unit bled past the Eli line and blocked the kick. Kobe Joseph recovered the ball off a bounce and took it 35 yards to the house, extending Harvard’s lead to 20–10.
With four minutes remaining in the half, the offense was in desperate need of points on the board. A 29-yard pass attempt down the middle of the field barely whizzed by the outstretched hands of a Harvard defender and into the chest of wideout David Pantelis ’25. Two pass completions later, Team 148’s offense looked to be in business. However, the offense failed to pick up any yardage on three consecutive plays.
Two minutes remained in the half. Yale was facing a fourth-and-four from the Harvard 30-yard line. Coach Reno decided to go for it.
After taking the snap in the shotgun, Grooms immediately tripped up over himself and nearly fell for a turnover on downs. In the time it took Grooms to find his footing, blitzing Crimson defenders had managed to break through the defensive line, leaving the gunslinger with no choice but to roll out to his left. With defenders closing in on Grooms from all directions, the play looked as dead as could be. The rookie was fast approaching the sideline and was running out of field. Knowing that four yards were needed to keep the drive alive, Grooms spotted Howland streaking down the field and didn’t hesitate to loft the ball in his direction. The pass hit him in stride, and Howland had an open lane that he took to the end zone. In what was arguably the best play of Grooms’ career, Team 148 had cut the lead to 20–17.
This lit a fire under Yale’s defense, who forced a three-and-out to close out the second half. As the two teams streamed into the locker room, Harvard had the 20–17 edge, but the Bulldogs had stolen momentum.
On the first Eli possession out of the break, the quarterback-keep offense stalled near mid-field and punted, pinning the Crimson at their own 22-yard line. The Yale defense, a unit that had been playing well all afternoon, continued to exert its dominance by forcing Harvard into a second-straight three-and-out.
After punting the ball right back to the Crimson, the defense appeared to bend after consecutive pass interference and roughing the passer penalties gave Harvard a boost that set the team up 10 yards from the goal line. On second-and-goal, the offensive line picked up the Eli blitz to perfection and gave receiver Ledger Hatch plenty of time to separate from his defender on a designed out-route. Emge stepped up in the pocket and hit the wideout in the endzone for the score.
On the ensuing drive, Reno was content on having the offense go through the arm of Grooms rather than his legs. On the third play of the possession, the gunslinger rewarded Reno by finding Mason Tipton ’24 streaking down the middle of the field for a 48-yard gain. Two plays later, Alston pinballed off multiple defenders and powered his way into the end zone, cutting the Crimson lead to 27–24.
After the two teams traded punts, Harvard was facing third down in their own half of the field. The Bulldogs sent the pressure, and defensive end Oso Ifesinachukwu ’23 came up with a sack on Emge, stripping the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. Patterson snatched the ball out of the air for an interception.
With Team 148 in possession, the Elis would fail to cash in on the excellent field positioning. For the second consecutive week, Grooms threw his third interception of the game. This time, an underthrown ball that fell into the lap of sophomore defensive back Alex Washington. Team 148’s defense held the Crimson at bay, forcing a three-and-out of their own and handing the ball back to Grooms and the offense at the Yale 39-yard line.
After Grooms stepped out of bounds on a scramble play on second down, the offense faced a third-and-18. Reno decided to play it safe and have Grooms hand the ball off to Alston. The back slipped through a hole in the defensive line and found himself in a sea of Crimson jerseys. Somehow, the junior stayed on his feet, evading Harvard defenders left and right en route to a 26-yard first down rush. A few plays later, Grooms emphatically signaled for another first down, as Alston pushed his way through a pile for his second first down of the drive.
Two plays later, Grooms rolled out to his right and surveyed the defense. Facing little pressure courtesy of textbook blocking from the Bulldog offensive line, the Eli signal caller was able to find Pantelis wide open near the end zone. The stand out first-year corralled the pass, juked a defender and leaped into the end zone. Team 148 had overcome a 10-point deficit to take a 31–27 advantage. It was Yale’s first time leading since the first quarter.
Harvard took over at their own 35-yard line. The Crimson offense failed to get any momentum facing a stingy Yale defense. Emge overthrew an open receiver on second down to keep Harvard behind the sticks. Ultimately, Team 148 forced a punt with 6 minutes remaining on the clock.
The Elis, looking to bleed time off the clock, ran the ball on three consecutive plays. After a nine-yard quarterback keep set up a third and short, Alston plowed his way through a pile of defenders for a first down. The Crimson defense forced another third and short on the next set of downs, with under three and a half minutes on the clock. Harvard’s defense came up with a crucial stop, forcing fourth-and-inches from the Yale 35-yard line. Reno and the Bulldogs faced a critical decision on whether to try and move the chains. After what seemed like a long deliberation on the sideline, Reno sent out the punting unit. Emge and the Crimson took over at their own 31-yard line, trailing by four with a chance to win the game.
Less than two and a half minutes remained. Harvard’s first play went a mere four yards. After an incompletion on second-down, The Bulldog student section brought the energy and engaged in a deafening roar. Facing a third-and-six, Eli linebacker Rodney Thomas II ’22 broke up Emge’s pass. With Harvard deciding to go for it on fourth down, the Yale Bowl erupted at the urging of the Bulldog sideline. Emge’s pass fell incomplete and Team 148 took over at the Harvard 36 with 2:01 on the clock, leading by four.
Yale employed the same strategy it did on its previous possession, running the ball three straight times to burn the Crimson’s two remaining timeouts. Facing a fourth-and-eight from the Crimson 34-yard line, Reno had a daunting decision to make.
“We’re aggressive,” Reno said as he explained his decision to keep the offense on the field. “We look at it as ‘okay, if we pin them in we might gain 15 yards’ … We like our quarterback, we think he’s good with his feet. We called the boot play and we wanted to get him on the move.”
Grooms failed to convert on fourth-down as the pass fell incomplete.
The clock read 59 seconds. Down four points, the Crimson certainly had their work cut out for them — needing to drive 66 yards down the field with no timeouts.
On the third play of the drive, Emge gave Harvard life in the form of a 42-yard missile down the field to Kym Wimberly. As a visible wave of distress washed over the Yale fans in attendance, Harvard was 12 yards away from taking the lead.
On first-down, Emge lobbed a pass intended for Adam West in the left corner of the endzone. Owens, who was playing tight man-coverage, got a finger on the ball and broke up the pass. On second-down, Emge went back to West in the right part of the endzone with Dathan Hickey in coverage. The ball hit West in the hands, but Hickey batted it down to force a third-and-10.
Before Harvard could snap the ball, the Blue and White burned their final two timeouts with 26 seconds remaining. The Crimson came out of the stoppage and had two receivers split out wide. Emge took the snap in the shotgun, and made his first read to Wimberly who was in tight double coverage. In spite of this, Emge showed no hesitation to take a shot towards the left corner of the endzone. Wimberly back stepped through a few feet of space between the two defenders, lept into the air, and corralled the ball. The Crimson student section let out a booming roar as their team took a 34–31 lead with 22 seconds left.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following the touchdown gave the Elis a slimmer of hope, as the Crimson had to kick off from their own 25-yard line. Pantelis’ return was quickly swallowed up and the Bulldogs faced a formidable task to try and get into field goal range without any timeouts. Team 148 gained only a few yards, and their lateral play at the end of the clock bounced unceremoniously to end the contest. Despite announcements that fans were barred from rushing the field after the final whistle for COVID safety reasons, Harvard’s student section quickly began pouring in as the “Team from the North” celebrated on Yale’s home turf.
“Well, it’s like anything else, even if the ship’s going down, you stay positive,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said post-game. “Our kids absorbed that and just, we made the big plays when we absolutely had to.” Murphy went on to reference the resilience the Yale side showed during the 2019 contest between these two teams, that saw Team 147 overcome a 14-point deficit in the game’s final 90 seconds to force overtime.
49,500 fans attended the 137th playing of The Game.