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Elis Stay in Contention for Title with 44-30 Win vs. Princeton

Deon Randall. (photo by Ron Waite and Jahkima Cuencas/Photosportacular)
Deon Randall. (photo by Ron Waite and Jahkima Cuencas/Photosportacular)

Three Touchdowns for Varga as Bulldogs Celebrate Senior Class and "Legends of the Bowl"

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Two long-time rivals met for what amounted to an elimination game in the race for the Ivy League football title Saturday afternoon at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field. Princeton and Yale each entered the game with one loss in the league -- one game behind first-place Harvard with two games to go. So both teams knew that loss would essentially end any title hopes. Princeton, the defending co-champions, took an early lead -- but as they have done so many times before this season, the Bulldogs came storming back. Led by three touchdowns from senior tailback Tyler Varga, Yale kept its hopes of an Ivy League title alive with a 44-30 win.

This was the fifth time this season Yale has trailed in a game and come back to win.

"This was a great team effort," said Tony Reno, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "Offensively, I thought our guys really controlled the game on the ground, especially in the second half. I'm very proud of our defensive effort. Princeton presents you with a lot of different formations, and I thought our guys did a really good job of containing them."

Princeton (5-4, 4-2 Ivy League) drove 70 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, with quarterback Connor Michelsen firing one to receiver James Frusciante in the end zone from 16 yards out.

Yale (8-1, 5-1 Ivy League) had honored its senior class before the game, as this was the final home game for them. One of those seniors in particular -- Varga -- featured heavily in the first drive of the day. He who had five carries for 25 yards (plus two runs more that were negated by penalties) as Yale drove to the Princeton seven. From there, junior quarterback Morgan Roberts found sophomore wide receiver Robert Clemons III in the end zone to tie the score at 8:38 of the first. Varga would finish the day with 137 yards on 26 carries.

An interception on Yale's next drive set the Tiger offense up at the Yale 29, and four plays later quarterback Quinn Epperly scored on a seven-yard keeper to give the Tigers the lead again, 14-7.

A 21-yard field goal by senior placekicker Kyle Cazzetta pulled Yale closer late in the first, and the Elis finally took the lead early in the second. On a Princeton fourth-and-seven from the Tiger 19, sophomore defensive end Marty Moesta stormed up the middle and blocked the punt attempt. Freshman linebacker Jaeden Graham recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown at 13:54 of the second.

"That was something we saw on film earlier in the week," Moesta said. "It was something we thought we could take advantage of. Jaeden was on my right, and [senior tailback] Everett Johnson was on my left. It was basically all [because of] those guys."

After a sack by freshman defensive end John Herubin on first down derailed the next Princeton drive, the Bulldogs got the ball back at the Princeton 38. They drove 26 yards for another field goal by Cazzetta, this one a 29-yarder that made the score 20-14 Yale.

Yale's next drive ended with another Varga highlight. Facing a third-and-two from the Princeton 30, the Bulldogs handed the ball to him looking for the first down -- and they got much more. He burst through the middle and then took off untouched for his 19th rushing touchdown run of the year. Yale took a 27-14 lead with 4:48 left in the half.

Princeton put together another scoring drive just before halftime, driving 63 yards and getting a one-yard run from Epperly to pull within 27-21.

The Yale offense had less than a minute to operate with after that, but that wound up being enough. Roberts completed five of seven passes, and Princeton committed a pair of penalties, as Yale drove to the Princeton two with five seconds left. Cazzetta's third field goal made it 30-21 Yale at halftime.

At halftime Yale continued the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Yale Bowl by honoring the "Legends of the Bowl", the members of the five All-Era teams that were announced earlier in the year. Forty-four of the 67 selections were on hand to be honored on the field.

Princeton's first drive of the second half was stymied deep in Yale territory thanks in part to a tackle for loss by senior linebacker Charles Cook. Forced to try a field goal from 29 yards out, kicker Nolan Bieck's kick hit the left upright and bounced away. It was his first miss of the season; he had been 11-for-11.

The next Yale drive started with a pair of completions for a total of 28 yards to senior wide receiver Grant Wallace, who would finish the day with 10 catches for 149 yards. It also included a 30-yard catch for senior wide receiver Nick LaTesta. It ended with Varga breaking a tackle after a short completion and turning it into a 13-yard touchdown that put Yale ahead 37-21.

All told, Roberts utilized eight different receivers Saturday while completing 27 of 42 passes for 405 yards and a pair of TDs.

"There's no question this offense has an incredible amount of playmakers," said Roberts. "The coaching staff has done a great job of building depth and building playmakers."

Princeton got that touchdown back with a 68-yard drive that ended with another Epperly touchdown run, this one an eight-yarder where he and his teammates pushed a scrum of players into the end zone for the score. The Tigers' two-point conversion attempt failed, though.

The first play of Yale's ensuing drive was a 39-yard completion to senior wide receiver Deon Randall, Yale's captain. But the Bulldogs could not convert a fourth-and-four from the Princeton 22, giving the ball back to the Tigers. They got as far as the Yale 44, where a tackle at the line on third-and-six by Herubin kept the Tigers short of a first down. An incompletion on fourth down then gave the ball back to Yale.

It took just six plays for the Bulldogs to get the necessary yardage to increase their lead. The big play was a 20-yard completion to junior tight end Stephen Buric. Varga finished things off from the six-yard line by heading right and then cutting back to the middle for his third touchdown of the day. Yale led by 17 with 14:30 remaining.

Varga now has 20 rushing touchdowns for the season, three away from the school record (set by Mike McLeod '09 in 2007).

The Tigers' next drive included a sack by sophomore defensive tackle Jack Rushin. Princeton overcame that to drive to the Yale six. But a tackle for loss by sophomore cornerback Dale Harris on third down from there forced the Tigers to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Bieck with 7:53 to play.

A crucial 29-yard pass to Clemons on third-and-11 from the Yale 40 enabled the Bulldogs to kill some significant clock on their next drive. Senior tailback Kahlil Keys made the most of his first carries of the day, gaining 17 yards and a first down on seven runs. A 12-yard completion to Clemons on third-and-10 from the 19 with less than three minutes to play effectively eliminated any chance of a miraculous comeback by the Tigers. They stopped the Yale offense on downs at the Tiger two-yard line, but had only 37 seconds left on the clock for their final drive.

As the final seconds ticked away on the clock, the Bulldogs celebrated their eighth victory of the season and could begin to turn their attention to The Game next Saturday at Harvard. The Crimson won on Saturday to clinch at least a share of the Ivy title, but Dartmouth and Yale are both tied for second and could claim a share of the crown as well with wins on the final weekend.

For the Bulldogs, the final game of the season represents a chance to validate the game-by-game, play-by-play approach they have taken all year long.

"We believe in two things here," said Reno. "First we believe in preparation. Second we believe we play games against ourselves every week. In our eyes we have played nine games right now Yale against Yale. We play one more next Saturday Yale against Yale."

Report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity