The Game 2015:
Yale aims to spoil, snap streak
Fifty-five seconds. Last year, that was all that separated the Yale football team from its first win over Harvard since 2006.
A bit more seems to stand in the way this year for the Bulldogs (6–3, 3–3 Ivy), who, in breaking an eight-year losing streak, could spoil the Crimson’s chances of a third-consecutive Ivy League title. A team that entered The Game 8–1 last year now sits at 6–3, with so many players sidelined that legendary former Yale head coach Carm Cozza said he never saw as many injuries in his 31 seasons leading Yale’s program.
Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 led the Elis to two wins in their most recent contests. (Robbie Short, Contributing Photographer)
This is not the same team that led the Football Championship Subdivision in total offensive yards last year. Gone are the offensive shootouts, games in which the Bulldogs could secure a win even if their defense gave up more than 500 yards and 35 points. Team 143 wins its games, instead, with balanced performances from both a makeshift offense and a young but experienced defense. Those pieces have come together in the past two weeks to build up crucial momentum toward this historic rivalry matchup. This weekend, they will need to come together one last time to take down a Harvard squad (8–1, 5–1) that rose to as high as No. 12 in the FCS rankings this year but displayed vulnerability during its first loss in 23 games a week ago.
“What’s satisfying for me as a coach is that this team deals with adversity better than any team we’ve coached here,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They’ve had a lot of it this season, whether it be injuries or our schedule, which was really tough at the beginning of the year with five of the first six games on the road, but they really made the decision they’d control what they can and play incredibly hard and finish games.”
Although this year’s contest lacks the hype that defined last season’s marquee matchup — a game in which ESPN’s College GameDay covered the clash between the FCS’ best offense and best defense — it represents yet another chapter in the country’s longest college football rivalry.
Though out of title contention, Yale enters the game with the momentum of back-to-back conference wins, while Harvard is coming off its first loss since October of 2013. The Crimson’s 35–25 defeat at the hands of Penn, which broke the longest active win streak in Division I football, forced the Ivy League into a three-way tie, as Harvard, Penn and Dartmouth all have 5–1 records in league play.
Penn and Dartmouth play at home on Saturday, and any of the three teams that wins guarantees itself a share of the title.
An X-factor on offense
Running back Dale Harris ’17 has helped revitalize Yale's offense since switching from cornerback two weeks ago. (Robbie Short, Contributing Photographer)
“We know what’s on the line here,” Crimson captain and linebacker Matt Koran said. “We have a chance to make history for the Harvard football program and be the first team to ever three-peat … We just want to go out there and give everything we have, lay it on the line and play the best football we can.”
Harvard’s best football, until Saturday, was significantly better than anything its opponents could muster. The Crimson boast the best offense and second-best defense in the league, both of which contribute to the team’s 23.9-point average margin of victory.
Yale’s offense, meanwhile, hit a rough patch in October and the Bulldogs dropped three games in four weeks, including a 10-point loss against Columbia — which had not won a league game since 2012. Reno said that after the game, he addressed his reeling team and said there were two options: to mope about the amount of injuries or push through.
“From that moment on, this team has changed,” Reno said. “We have this slogan that says ‘Not Dead, Can’t Quit,’ and that’s something we really embrace.”
Down to its sixth-string running back before the Week 8 Brown game, the Bulldogs made an about-face in both its mentality and personnel, moving starting cornerback Dale Harris ’17 to the backfield.
Since then, Yale’s newest running back has exploded, tallying two touchdowns and 248 yards in Yale’s victories over Brown and Princeton. The revitalization of the run game has opened up the pass game as well, and an offense that put up just 120 yards against Columbia has more than doubled that in each of the two subsequent games.
“[W]e lost any running game in the second drive of the Penn game. Our offense completely changed when [running back] Deshawn Salter ’18 went out,” Reno said. “For two weeks, we were really in a limbo, asking where are we offensively and how we move the ball down the field … We’re back to running our offense again. I think that’s been the biggest difference in what we’ve done.”
Harris’ introduction to the backfield significantly increased the balance of Yale’s offense, and with Salter possibly returning against Harvard, the Elis may be able to front their most balanced attack under the guidance of quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, the program’s leader in total offense, for the first time since Yale’s 3–0 start to the season.
“We’re back to running our offense again. I think that’s been the biggest difference in what we’ve done.”
—Tony Reno, Yale head coach
Roberts is one of few constants on a team that has had only one other skill player, wide receiver Ross Drwal ’18, see time in all nine games. Injuries have decimated the passing game, but like the Eli running back situation, Yale’s receiving corps has rallied back, with wide receivers Robert Clemons III ’17 and Chris Williams-Lopez ’18 both returning to play significant roles in the latter half of the season. Williams-Lopez, who last year was on the junior-varsity team, has 23 catches for 223 yards in the past two games.
“I think this offense is really, really confident in the way we’ve played the last two weeks,” Roberts said. “Coaches have done a great job of really letting us know what our job is and what our identity is as an offense. We’re able to execute that game plan, and that’s what leads to points — knowing situational football, knowing who we are as an offense, then executing that job.”
The offense matches up against a Harvard defense that produced two shutouts and cedes an average of 90.0 yards on the ground. Reno called the Crimson linebacking corps “the best [Yale] has seen all year” and noted that the defense starts a number of seniors.
The Harvard offense is equally veteran, with threats in both the running and passing game. Running back Paul Stanton, Jr., a three-year starter, currently leads the league with 89.9 rushing yards per game, which represents a dip from his 110.0 yards per game clip last year. Yale’s closest running back — Salter — averages 68.4 yards per game.
“Paul’s obviously been a fixture in our offense a long time,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said. “He’s been a three-year starter and has started almost 30 games. Clearly he’s one of those guys who can do well and has been an impact player in our league, very consistent. We’ve got other good backs, but he’s certainly one of the top running backs in the league.”
A stalwart in Stanton
Harvard running back Paul Stanton leads the Ivy League with 89.9 rushing yards per game. (Courtesy of Y. Kit Wu, The Harvard Crimson)
Harvard’s passing game has more than made up for Stanton’s decrease in productivity. Quarterback Scott Hosch, a player that Reno recruited to Harvard when he served as the Crimson secondary coach and special teams coordinator, is averaging 278.6 passing yards per game, thanks in part to a host of weapons: The Crimson have four receivers with at least 20 receptions on the season — tight ends Ben Braunecker and Anthony Firkser, as well as wide receivers Justice Shelton-Mosley and Andrew Fischer, who scored the game-winning touchdown against Yale in 2014.
“Offensively, they pose some issues,” Reno said. “They have an exceptional offensive line, and they have a very good running back, Paul Stanton. Scotty Hosch has been very good at taking care of the football at quarterback and distributing the ball well. His first loss as a starter was last week. And then they’ve got some guys on the outside, Ben Braunecker and Andrew Fischer, and they’ve got a young guy, Justice Shelton-Mosley, who’s a very good playmaker along with Seitu Smith.”
Harvard’s offensive line was exceptional when it was together. However, when three-time All-Ivy center Anthony Fabiano missed a game, Hosch was sacked five times — the same amount of times he had been sacked in the prior eight games combined. Fabiano is most likely not going to play against Yale, according to Murphy.
The Eli defense, a young unit that nevertheless has made significant strides this season, believes it is up to the challenge. Should the unit shut down the league’s leading offense, the Bulldogs have a chance to knock off their mosthated rivals for the first time in eight years.
“This week brings with it, inherently, a lot of excitement and a lot of motivation,” captain and safety Cole Champion ’16 said. “But the thing our team has done a really good job of is that it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing. We’re going to come out with a lot of energy and try to start as fast as we can and finish towards the end of the game.”
The 132nd playing of The Game kicks off in the Yale Bowl at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.