NEW HAVEN — And so we come around to where this “annus horribilis” started for Yale’s football team a year ago with what was the worst loss to Harvard in New Haven since these ancient rivals first had at each other in 1875.
Since then, coach Tom Williams resigned under pressure after falsely claiming that he’d been a Rhodes Scholar candidate. Will McHale had his captaincy revoked after a May altercation with a fellow student in a campus bar. Chris Smith and Deon Randall, the two best receivers, were unavailable. Three quarterbacks were hurt against Penn in the program’s most Pyrrhic victory in memory. Tyler Varga, a Canadian transfer who’d essentially become a one-man offense, had to sit out the Dartmouth game while his eligibility was being confirmed, and he missed last week’s Princeton game with a bruised knee.
“We’ve definitely had some unique scenarios, but our mentality is, hey, you play whatever cards you’re dealt,” observed first-year coach Tony Reno, who was a Harvard assistant last year. “You don’t complain about the weather, the call, or the situation. You just keep playing.”
Now comes Saturday’s finale as the beleaguered Bulldogs (2-7), who are coming off a three-touchdown home loss and are down to their fifth-string signal-caller, arrive at the Stadium for a date with a Harvard varsity (7-2) that needs a victory to have a chance at retaining a piece of the Ivy League title.
“It would be a phenomenal way to go out, to get a win against Harvard,” said McHale, whose teammates have beaten everyone else in the league except their archrivals during their time here.
If the Bulldogs were to prevail (which they haven’t since 2006, and have done only once since 2000), they would end the longest losing streak in series history and give a parting gift to their seniors, who were recruited by one coach (Jack Siedlecki), began playing under another (Williams), and will finish under a third. No class since 1965 has had to do that.
That is historic instability for a program that had only two coaches in the previous 44 years. By bringing in Reno, who’d spent six years as an assistant in New Haven before departing for Harvard once Siedlecki was dismissed after the 2008 season, Yale opted for a familiar face who didn’t need a GPS to find Yale Bowl.
“There’s a lot of clothing I had to throw away twice,” said Reno, an Oxford, Mass., native who played at Worcester State and is the first Crimson assistant to become Yale’s head man. “My wife said, ‘You know we have a bucket of blue Yale clothes in the attic.’ I said, ‘No, we don’t.’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah, I kept them.’ ”
Recruiting season was well under way when Reno took over in mid-January. After a 5-5 campaign that ended with a 45-7 trampling from Harvard, expectations were realistic for a young team that would take time to find its way. Losing McHale as captain (he still started at linebacker) didn’t help. Nor did backup quarterback John Whitelaw quitting a week before the opener at Georgetown.
Yale ended up beating the Hoyas, helped by a last-minute end zone interception, but was dismantled, 45-6, a week later at Cornell, its worst loss in the series. The season promptly went into a tailspin with losses to Colgate, Dartmouth (34-14 — the biggest margin in 16 years), and Lafayette.
So when the Bulldogs chewed up Penn by a 27-13 count, their largest gap since 1991, it seemed that they might make a fight of it. Problem was, the top three quarterbacks went down in that game: Eric Williams, the first freshman to start since 1997, Newton South product Derek Russell, and Logan Scott.
“We have a next-man-in philosophy,” said Reno. “One guy goes down, the next guy jumps in. It’s your turn to perform for the team.”
By now, the next man was Varga, a universal adapter who led the Canadian Intercollegiate League in scoring as a freshman last year at Western Ontario.
“I had some experience at quarterback, so it wasn’t too much of a jump,” said Varga.
Reno plugged him in at quarterback in a Wildcat scheme against Columbia and Varga ran for 220 yards and three touchdowns but Yale still lost to the Lions, who were disemboweled, 69-0, at Harvard a week later.
Since then, the Bulldogs have been on starvation rations. Brown shut them out (20-0) for the first time since 1949 and last week Princeton handed them their worst beating in the series (29-7) in two decades, helped by a 100-yard interception return on a trick play, a cross-field pass from running back Mordecai Cargill to quarterback Henry Furman, the former JV starter who’d switched to receiver and then moved back.
Through it all, the players have remained dogged.
“The thing I’m most proud about this football team is how they’ve handled everything,” said Reno. “They’ve shown they can deal with anything and it’s going to help them in life. They’re super-resilient.”
Bouncing back from beatings may be admirable, but the Bulldogs would rather be known for turning around a lopsided rivalry.
“People definitely understand that in the way that this team is remembered, obviously a win against Harvard changes the lens that people view the season,” acknowledged McHale. “But at the same time, we want to win them all. It’s not like beating Harvard counts as two.”
After Yale beat Penn, it figured to have a legitimate chance to win the rest, but that was before the quarterback had to wear a “Hello, My Name Is” sticker on his jersey.
So far, there have been 67 passes attempted by players not listed as a QB on the roster. The backup is Williams’s older brother Scott, a linebacker who hasn’t played a down and had to change his number from 43 to 10.
Maybe Furman will start against the Crimson, maybe not. Reno figures he may not know until 10 minutes before kickoff. On Tuesday, he didn’t know which of his weekly “team leaders” would be walking out to midfield to shake hands with Harvard captain Bobby Schneider for the coin toss.
The Crimson can empathize. In 1957, when Yale dealt them their worst defeat in history (54-0), first-year coach John Yovicsin walked along the bench asking if anyone had played quarterback in high school.
“Be innovative,” Reno and his assistants keep telling each other every Monday. If they run out of candidates who can figure out a snap count, they may have to go back to the registrar and check the records. Maybe Brian Dowling has a game’s worth of eligibility left.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.