NEW HAVEN, Conn. — They knew it wasn’t going to be easy defending the Ivy League title, especially after dropping two league games before Halloween. And Yale’s football team also knew that the Harvard game was going to come down to the final possession, as it has for the last several years.
“It wasn’t new to them to go into the last game of the year trying to win a championship,” said coach Tony Reno. “This was something that they’d been through. They knew that this game was going to be hard.”
But the experienced Bulldogs got it done just as they did in the Stadium last time. After rallying to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, they held off Harvard twice in the final few minutes to prevail, 23-18, before 51,127 at the Bowl and share the title with the Crimson and Dartmouth, which won at Brown.
“It was very similar to last year,” said Reno. “We had to make a drive in the fourth quarter to go ahead to win, and that’s what we did. We had to make a stop to close it out, and that’s what we did.”
It was Yale’s fourth title in the last six years, and the first back-to-back laurels since 1981. And it was a wrenching defeat for Harvard, which had clinched a piece of the crown with last weekend’s triple-overtime victory over Penn but craved its first outright championship since 2014.
“What I told the kids was that in any endeavor, if you give it absolutely everything you possibly can, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have heartache,” said coach Tim Murphy, whose varsity came agonizingly close to victory. “But we have no regrets. Our kids played as hard as they possibly could. It came down to one or two plays at the end.”
Yale had gone up 10-0 on a 33-yard field goal by Jack Bosman and a 5-yard touchdown pass from Nolan Grooms to Ryan Lindley after a blocked punt.
As it was, Harvard was fortunate to still be in the game at halftime — after another blocked punt gave Yale the ball on the Crimson’s 9-yard line, and a pick-6 by Bulldogs linebacker Joseph Vaughn was wiped out for a holding penalty.
But sophomore quarterback Jaden Craig (20 of 33 passing, 245 yards, 2 TDs) finally got his mates moving, tossing an 11-yard scoring pass to tight end Tyler Neville just 1:08 before halftime.
After Nate Denney’s 4-yard run put Yale up 17-6 late in the third quarter, Craig put Harvard back in the lead at 18-17 with two touchdowns in four minutes, running 7 yards for one and throwing a 7-yarder to Ledger Hatch for the other.
“We were in a rockfight, and the one way to win a rockfight is just to continue to fight,” said Reno. “We knew they were a good team and they were going to punch us back. We needed to deliver a blow and take a blow.”
When Grooms threw a reckless interception right into Damien Henderson’s arms, the Crimson had the lead and the ball on their 7-yard line with 7:42 to play.
But Vaughn forced Craig to fumble, and Grooms found David Pantelis for a 12-yard score on 3rd and 8 to put Yale up 23-18 with 5:47 remaining.
Yet the Crimson have a history of final-drive heroics in The Game, and had plenty of time to craft another.
“We knew we were going to throw a knockout punch at some point,” said Reno. “Our defense did a great job at the end of the game to throw one, and we were able to close them out.”
The Bulldogs stopped Harvard’s first bid on 4th and 2 on Yale’s 6 on an incomplete pass. Then, they thwarted the Crimson again in the final minute when Craig’s fourth-and-14 bid to Cooper Barkate from the 33 was broken up by Sean Guyton.
Two years ago that play went Harvard’s way, when Kym Wimberly caught a jump ball in the end zone with 22 seconds left for a 34-31 triumph. This time, the proceedings ended with Grooms taking a knee as the clock ran out and with his teammates hoisting the trophy on the field.
As dispiriting as the outcome was, at least Harvard ended the season as co-champions for the first time in eight years.
“It’s unfortunate the way things ended,” said captain Nate Leskovec. “But to have a piece of the Ivy League title and bring that back to Cambridge is something we’ll be thinking about forever.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.