The Game: Back at It Again
As Team 148 seniors graduate, a look back at their historic run. Read about football over the past four years at Yale and the Yale-Harvard game.
Yale Daily News
Over the last four seasons, Yale football has enjoyed some of its most successful campaigns in team history. Due to disruptions and gap years caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduating seniors who first competed at Yale in 2017 are some of the few in program history to record multiple Ivy League championships. Indeed, prior to this most recent run, the Bulldogs had not won multiple Ancient Eight titles in a four year stretch since they were led by College Football Hall of Fame coach Carmen Cozza in 1981.
Current head coach Tony Reno took over the Yale job in 2012 and got off to a slow start. Under Reno, the Elis finished in the top three just once in five seasons. In 2017, the team’s fortunes changed, thanks in part to the contributions of star quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’19, and Yale boasted a 9–1 overall record (6–1 Ivy) en route to its first sole Ivy title since 1980. Two years later, Reno navigated his team to an identical record and his second championship. This past year, Reno became the sixth coach in Yale history to record 50 total wins at the helm.
“I’ve been fortunate to have some great players and some great assistant coaches,” Reno reflected after his 50th milestone win. “The success we’ve had, they’ve been a huge part of it and like I say all the time, I’m just a small piece in a great organization here. I’m very proud of what we’ve built and even more excited [about] where we’re going to take it.”
Reno also told the News that he hopes to carry on Cozza’s legacy, who won 10 Ivy League championships and 179 wins over his 32-year career as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
“Looking back at the history of Yale football and what Coach Cozza was able to do, it’s a goal of mine to be able to honor that and build on it, and just keep chasing greatness week in, week out, year in and year out,” Reno said.
The Blue and White have also enjoyed success in their most popular game of the season: Yale-Harvard. After a tough nine-year losing streak dating back to 2007, Yale has won three of the last five runnings of The Game and came within two minutes of going back to back last year.
“It’s one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said at a press conference before The Game. “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.”
The Elis have also shown off NFL talent in the last few years. Linebacker Foye Oluokun ’18 was a sixth round pick in 2018 and has enjoyed an impressive professional career since then. In 2021, Oluokun led the league with 192 tackles, the seventh most in a single season in NFL history. His strong play was rewarded this past offseason when the Jacksonville Jaguars signed the former Yalie to a three-year, $45 million contract.
While Oluokun has undoubtedly had the most professional success in recent years, a few other Yalies have also made their mark at the NFL level. Tight end Jaeden Graham ’18, who was first-team All-Ivy in 2017, spent time with the Atlanta Falcons. More recently, defensive back Rodney Thomas II ’22 was drafted in the seventh round by the Indianapolis Colts. Thomas enjoyed a breakout game this past season when he recorded two interceptions and a kickoff return for a touchdown against Cornell.
“I knew the game was going to come down to some crunch time plays,” Thomas said postgame. “[Cornell] was of course making a drive down the field and we needed to step up to stop their momentum on the field. On my end personally I knew that they were trying to push the ball. The defense just had to reset for a bit and then go out and try to make a play and get the ball back into the offense’s hand so that they could then go down and do what they needed to do.”
Two other graduating seniors also joined Thomas in the pro ranks recently. Tight end JJ Howland ’22 received a rookie mini-camp invitation by the Seattle Seahawks, and wide receiver Melvin Rouse II ’22 got the same offer by the Philadelphia Eagles. A few weeks later, Howland signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is currently on their 90-man roster. Offensive lineman Dieter Eiselen ’20 rounds out the professional Bulldogs as a practice squad player for the Chicago Bears.
Despite a relatively down year in 2021, Yale’s youth has given fans something to look forward to in 2022. The Elis were in the title race until the penultimate week but finished barely over .500 in conference play. For the second consecutive year, Yale traveled to Princeton with only one Ancient Eight loss on its resume and a chance to take pole position in the Ivy League. However, this time, the team’s relative inexperience caught up to the players and title hopes vanished in a 15-point loss.
A few weeks earlier, the Bulldogs renewed an old intrastate rivalry when they visited an FBS school for the first time since 2014: UConn. Quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’23 had been struggling and was replaced by sophomore Nolan Grooms ’24. Grooms led a comeback, but the Bulldogs lost to the Huskies nonetheless, handing UConn their first win of the season. Grooms was named the starting quarterback later that week, having wrestled the job from O’Connor, and never looked back. The young signal-caller took Yale on a three-game win streak over Penn, Columbia and Brown before the tough end of season stretch against Princeton and the infamous collapse against “The Team From the North.”
As for the biggest rivalry in college football in 2022, Yale will travel to Cambridge next season for the first time since 2018 for the 138th meeting of The Game.