NEW HAVEN — The existential question was posed immediately after Yale’s football team took a 42-10 thwacking at Dartmouth last month. Is this who we really are?
“We recognized that what we put out there was not reflective of who we believe we are and what we believe we can do,” said Yale captain JP Shohfi. “After that game, it was, how do we do a better job? How do we make sure we do what we can to show that we’re better than that?”
The Bulldogs, the preseason media choice to win the Ivy League crown, were supposed to be the ones handing out lopsided beatings this autumn, which is what they’ve been doing recently, winning their last three outings by an average of 32 points, including last week’s 51-14 road evisceration of defending champion (and bitter adversary) Princeton, Yale’s biggest margin in the series since 1931.
Now comes the finale against archrival Harvard (4-5, 2-4 Ivy) in Yale Bowl Saturday, with a victory guaranteeing the hosts (8-1, 5-1) at least a share of the league crown for the second time in three years, which Yale hasn’t managed since 1981.
“We have an opportunity that’s really special,” said Shohfi, whose team can win the title outright if Dartmouth loses at Brown.
A victory also would be the third in four years over Harvard, which hasn’t happened since 2000. That would be a significant milestone for the Bulldogs, who prior to that lost an unprecedented nine in a row in the series and 14 of 15.
“We’ve been playing football for 147 years,” observed Yale coach Tony Reno, a former Harvard assistant. “We talk about legacy all the time. The legacy of a senior class is, do you leave Yale football, do you leave the shirt, better than you found it? Do you become a great ancestor? What these guys have done is, they’ve made Yale football better.”
Harvard this fall was hoping to extend its own impressive legacy, which includes eight Ivy titles in the 21st century and no losing seasons since 1998.
“I felt a couple of games ago that we had a chance to make a run at it, that we had a chance to compete with anybody in the league, and we did exactly that,” said coach Tim Murphy. “We just haven’t been able to finish.”
The Crimson seemingly had Dartmouth beaten at the Stadium — leading, 6-3, with six seconds remaining — and then gave up a Hail Mary touchdown. They had the ball and the lead with six minutes left against Columbia, whom they’d beaten 15 straight times, and lost, 17-10, in overtime. In last week’s 24-20 home loss to Penn, Harvard had first and goal with three minutes to go and couldn’t score.
The players’ response to these Saturday seize-ups has been to simply turn the page and keep going.
“Our approach hasn’t changed,” said captain Wes Ogsbury. “Every week we’re practicing the right way, doing everything we need to do to come out victorious. That’s one of our intangible qualities. No matter what happened the week before, we’re approaching every new week with a refreshed mind-set, ready to get to work.”
Beating Yale would be a lifetime consolation prize for the seniors, who’ll be the first of Murphy’s recruited classes to graduate without a title ring. Other unfavored Harvard elevens have done it, most recently the 2007 edition that hammered the unbeaten Bulldogs, 37-6, at the Bowl.
“We truly believe that we can beat anybody,” said Ogsbury. “Obviously, we’re coming into this game the underdog, but we never feel like that. We always feel like we’re the better team.”
This Yale squad, though, is particularly formidable. Its remarkable run was sparked by a stunning 28-27 comeback at Richmond, where the Bulldogs came from three touchdowns behind in the second half to score a pair in the final 83 seconds with senior quarterback Kurt Rawlings throwing the winning touchdown to Reed Klubnik with nine seconds to play.
“It was almost like a switch flipped for us,” said Shohfi. “Let’s let loose. Let’s just play the way we know we can play. That was a moment when we proved to ourselves what we were capable of.”
Rawlings, who missed last year’s game at Fenway Park with a leg injury, has been unstoppable since then, throwing for 1,476 yards and 15 touchdowns in the last four games, including five scoring tosses against Brown and six against Princeton.
“The numbers are showing just how amazing he is,” said Shohfi, who has combined with Klubnik for 98 catches, 1,770 yards, and 17 touchdowns. “You know you’re going to get a perfect ball every time. It’s ridiculous.”
To halt the blue buzzsaw, the visitors will have to do what nobody has done in weeks — get Yale’s offense off the field and keep theirs on.
“This is our season on Saturday — there’s no question about it,” mused Murphy, who is 18-7 against Yale and has won 10 times at the Bowl. “Is it the same as winning an Ivy League championship? No, but at the end of the day, it goes a long way towards vindicating the senior class.
“At the end of the day, that’s all they remember. It stays with you forever.”