Three Touchdown Runs for Thomas
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – In a season full of comebacks and thrilling last-minute wins, the Yale football team came up just short in its bid for another one Saturday afternoon at Harvard in the 127th edition of The Game. After the Crimson used a kickoff return for a touchdown and a pair of short touchdown drives in the second half to go up 28-14, the Bulldogs closed the gap with junior tailback Alex Thomas' third touchdown run of the day. But Yale's final drive ended up nine yards short of a first down with 42 seconds to play, enabling Harvard to run out the clock on a 28-21 win in front of a sellout crowd of 31,398.
On a sunny but cold and windy day, kicks wound up playing a big role in The Game. In addition to the 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by wide receiver Marco Iannuzzi at the start of the second half, the Crimson also had second-half touchdown drives that required just 23 and 36 yards because of special teams plays. One came after a blocked punt and another came after a short punt.
A handful of big plays by the Crimson obscured the efforts of the Yale offense, which totaled 337 yards, and the Yale defense, which allowed only 54 rushing yards on 32 carries.
"The stats are misleading," said Tom Williams, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "We dominated in every area except the scoreboard, but we did things that lose football games."
For Yale (7-3, 5-2 Ivy League), the seven-point loss provides a bitter end to a season where the Bulldogs made close wins their trademark, winning six games by five or fewer points. They finished in a tie for second in the league with Harvard (7-3, 5-2 Ivy League) and Brown (6-4, 5-2 Ivy League). Penn clinched sole possession of the Ivy championship with a win at Cornell.
"I'm proud of the effort of our guys," said Williams. "They always believed we would win. We've won a lot of these. We just ran out of time today."
The Bulldogs were particularly dominant in the first half, outgaining Harvard 211-71, but only had a 14-7 lead to show for it.
Senior cornerback Chris Stanley helped stop Harvard's first drive deep in Crimson territory, tackling tailback Gino Gordon after just a one-yard gain on third and eight from the Harvard 25. The punt and a 13-yard return by senior wide receiver Gio Christodoulou set the Yale offense up at the Bulldog 48.
The Bulldogs got a pair of key conversions to keep the drive alive. Facing third-and-eight from the Harvard 37, junior quarterback Patrick Witt hit Christodoulou for more than enough yardage for a first down. Christodoulou fumbled, but sophomore wide receiver Allen Harris recovered at the Harvard 14. Four plays later, Witt converted a fourth-and-inches from the Harvard five with a quarterback keeper up the middle behind senior center Jake Koury. Thomas then scored from two yards out, and sophomore placekicker Philippe Panico's extra point made it 7-0 Yale at 5:57.
The Crimson utilized a trick play to get deep into Yale territory on the next drive, as quarterback Collier Winters' screen pass was actually a lateral and wound up as a flea-flicker back to Winters. He tossed it to Iannuzzi for a 46-yard gain to the Yale five. Gordon capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run on fourth down off an option pitch from Winters that tied the game 7-7 at 2:24 of the first quarter.
Harvard tried more trickery with a surprise onside kick after the touchdown. But Yale junior linebacker Nick Schneider fielded the ball cleanly and set the Eli offense up at the Harvard 48. Witt got another key completion to Christodoulou to convert a third-and-five from the Harvard 31. But with the ball on the Harvard 12, a 15-yard personal foul call and a sack pushed Yale back to the Harvard 29, and a field goal attempt from there came up short.
A tackle for loss on first down by junior outside linebacker Matt Battaglia knocked Harvard's next drive off schedule, and two plays later junior linebacker Jordan Haynes and senior strong safety Adam Money finished the three-and-out with a tackle that forced a punt from the Harvard 26.
Witt scrambled to convert a third down on the next Yale drive, finding sophomore tailback Mordecai Cargill for a 26-yard gain. But the Crimson defense denied a fourth-and-one Yale run from the Harvard 10.
The Harvard offense got just its third first down of the game with slightly more than four minutes to play in the second half. But the Bulldog defense stopped the Crimson at the Harvard 24, with sophomore linebacker Will McHale and junior defensive lineman Jake Stoller combining on a sack.
Yale got the ball at midfield after the punt, and Witt ate up much of that yardage with a 30-yard toss that sophomore wide receiver Chris Smith wrestled away from a Harvard defender. Witt then converted a third-and-one from the Harvard 11 with a keeper up the middle. On third-and-goal from the six, a pass interference call on Harvard in the end zone gave Thomas the chance to punch the ball in from two yards out just 13 seconds before halftime. Yale took a 14-7 lead into the break, and Thomas had 42 of his 71 rushing yards for The Game in the first half.
"Our goal this week was to pound the ball," Thomas said. "We were successful with that at the beginning of the game … our goal was to just wear them down."
But the Crimson got a much-needed spark when Iannuzzi returned the opening kickoff of the second half 84 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 14-14. By that same time Penn had taken a 24-0 lead at Cornell, leaving the Bulldog fans following both games aware that an Ivy title was slipping further from Yale's grasp. The Bulldogs entered the day needing a win at Harvard and a Penn loss to claim a share of the championship.
Harvard also got a pair of first downs on its next drive, but a sack by Haynes and senior defensive end Tom McCarthy cost the Crimson six yards, and senior defensive lineman Joe Young batted away a third-down pass at the line.
Another big special teams play gave Harvard the ball deep in Yale territory, as defensive tackle Josue Ortiz blocked an Eli punt to set the Crimson up at Yale's 23. That enabled Gordon to finish off another touchdown drive by diving into the end zone from two yards out. With three minutes left in the third quarter, Harvard had its first lead of The Game, 21-14.
The Game had already seen one particularly hard hit that sent Harvard free safety Collin Zych to the sideline after he collided with senior tight end Chris Blohm, but things came to a halt with 9:53 left in the fourth quarter when a hit by senior outside linebacker Jesse Reising on Gordon left both men down on the field. Gordon came off the field on his own power, but Reising had to be taken off on a stretcher.
With a heavy dose of perspective, the Bulldogs gathered together at their own 35 to re-focus.
"It's always a terrible thing, seeing two guys down on the ground," said Haynes. "Jesse is one of my closest friends. We just tried to rally around that, rally for Jesse."
After The Game, Williams was able to provide a brief update about Reising's condition.
"My understanding is that he's fine," Williams said. "It was a precautionary measure to take him off the field on a stretcher."
Five plays after The Game resumed, Winters scrambled to buy enough time for wide receiver Alex Sarkisian to come open for a 12-yard touchdown pass that made it 28-14 Harvard with 7:37 to play.
Senior quarterback Brook Hart came in for one play on Yale's next drive, and he scrambled for 15 yards after getting a toss back from freshman running back Deon Randall. But that drive stalled when the Crimson tackled Smith two yards short of a first-down after a fourth-down reception. The Yale defense got the turnover it needed on the very next play, though, as the McCarthy forced and recovered a Harvard fumble at the Crimson 19.
"I knew they were going to run to me," McCarthy said. "[Harvard running back] Treavor [Scales] ran into me and I just tried to rip the ball loose. I was successful, and then I just fell on it and was able to hold on to it in the pile."
The Bulldogs got to the one for a third-and-goal. Harvard stopped a Witt keeper from there, but on fourth down, Thomas took the ball in to bring Yale within 28-21 with 3:15 to play.
The Yale defense got the stop it needed on Harvard's next drive, tackling Iannuzzi on a reverse attempt on third down to force a Crimson punt. But the Yale offense was hurt by an offensive pass interference call on third-and-two that cost the Bulldogs 15 yards. After an incompletion, Witt dumped off a pass to Christodoulou on fourth down that got just eight yards, and the Harvard offense came on the field to run out the clock.
"We came into this game really wanting to send our seniors out with a win," Witt said. "It's frustrating. We felt like we played a very good game, and won in pretty much every area except the scoreboard."
One of those seniors, McCarthy, summed up the emotions of the team as the Bulldogs dealt with a loss while also marking their progress from a year ago, when they finished 4-6 in Wiliams' first year as head coach. Yale reached the seven-win plateau for the first time since 2007.
"We left it all out there," Yale's captain said. "We have no regrets. Definitely no regrets. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way."
Report by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity
Video Highlights (play-by-play Ron Vaccaro '04, 960 WELI AM, edited by Joel Oblizalo '12):