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Yale Rallies, but Harvard Scores Late TD to Win The Game 31-24

Tyler Varga. (photo by Jack Warhola)
Tyler Varga. (photo by Jack Warhola)

Bid for Share of Ivy League Title Falls Just Short

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - With a share of the Ivy League championship on the line Saturday afternoon at Harvard Stadium, the Yale football team rallied from a 17-point deficit to tie The Game at Harvard 24-24 with 3:44 to play. But the Crimson got the final score of the day -- a 35-yard touchdown pass to take the lead with 55 seconds left -- and came away with a 31-24 win. With the victory, Harvard finishes the season 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the league, claiming the Ivy title outright.

"This was a great football game between two very good football teams", said Tony Reno, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "In the end, Harvard made a play on the last drive and we unfortunately did not. That was the game."

The 131st edition of the storied rivalry game will go down as a memorable one for its dramatic finish. The first half was a defensive battle, and the second half saw both teams take advantage of having the 14-mile-per-hour wind at their backs -- of the 45 points scored in the second, 38 were scored by the team with the wind.

Harvard was the first team to rally, as the Crimson overcame a 7-3 halftime deficit by scoring 21 points in the third quarter. But Yale then responded with the first 17 points of the fourth quarter, including two touchdowns for senior tailback Tyler Varga.

"Team 142 is a very resilient group," said Reno, referring to the term the Bulldogs have used all season long as a tribute to the number of Yale teams that have come before this one. "We don't quit."

Before the lopsided third quarter made things difficult for the Bulldogs, though, they put together an impressive first half in which they held Harvard to just three points.

The Yale defense faced its first test when Harvard drove to the Eli 33 on its first drive. But senior linebacker Charles Cook immediately forced the Crimson backwards by forcing a fumble that Harvard recovered at the Yale 44. Three plays later, the drive ended with an incompletion on fourth down from the 29.

The next Harvard drive started at the Yale seven after a blocked Eli punt. But tackles by sophomore cornerback Dale Harris on first down and by Cook and freshman defensive end Earl Chism on second down left the Crimson facing a third-and-goal from the 10. Harvard quarterback Conner Hempel saw his receivers covered and had to scramble for just a pair of yards on third down before sophomore defensive end Victor Egu got to him, forcing the Crimson to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Andrew Flesher at 5:36 of the first.

Yale almost had to settle for a field goal on its next drive, but a substitution infraction penalty on the Crimson on fourth-and-five from the Harvard 24 gave the Elis a first down. Varga (who finished the day with 127 yards on 30 carries) then had two bruising runs to get the ball to the six, and he took it in from there to give Yale a 7-3 lead with 38 seconds to go in the first. It was his 24th touchdown of the season (21st rushing), setting the Yale all-purpose single season touchdown record.

Harvard's two drives after the Yale score totaled just 22 yards, and included a sack by sophomore defensive lineman Jack Rushin. But on the third drive, a 58-yard run on an end around by wide receiver Andrew Fischer set the Crimson up at the Yale 11. On the next play, though, running back Paul Stanton Jr. fumbled and sophomore linebacker Darius Manora recovered the ball at the line of scrimmage to end the scoring threat. Yale took a 7-3 lead into halftime.

Harvard drove 58 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, a one-yard run by Stanton, on the opening drive of the third quarter. On the Crimson's next drive, a 45-yard completion from Hempel to Fischer helped get the ball to the Eli seven-yard line. Sophomore free safety Foyesade Oluokun blocked a field goal attempt from there, though, keeping Harvard's lead at just 10-7.

Trickery led to Harvard's next score. On what looked at first to be another end around from the Yale 40, wide receiver Seitu Smith II pulled up and launched the ball down the right side of the field to Fischer. He hauled it in and broke a tackle before heading into the end zone to give the Crimson a 17-7 lead with 2:45 to play in the third.

Yale quickly moved into Harvard territory on its next drive, with junior quarterback Morgan Roberts completing three straight passes to three different receivers -- senior wide receiver Deon Randall, junior tight end Sebastian Little and senior wide receiver Grant Wallace -- for a total of 43 yards. But on third-and-five from the Harvard 15, Harvard linebacker Connor Sheehan grabbed a pass at the Harvard 10 and took off 90 yards into the end zone amidst a convoy of blockers.

Harvard thus had its biggest lead of The Game, 24-7, heading into the final quarter.

Yale answered with a 79-yard drive to pull back within 10. The big play was a 38-yard completion from Roberts to freshman wide receiver Michael Siragusa Jr. that got the ball to the one. Varga took it in from there with 12:35 to play. That was his 22nd rushing touchdown of the season, leaving him within one of the school record set by Mike McLeod '09.

A big tackle by Oluokun and junior strong safety Cole Champion on a third-down run by the Crimson, combined with a 15-yard penalty on Harvard, then forced the Crimson to punt from its own 32. The punt, into a stiff wind, traveled only 14 yards and set Yale's offense up at the Cantabs' 46.

A 36-yard completion to Wallace, who finished with a team-best 10 catches for 127 yards, ate up a big chunk of that yardage. Three plays later, Roberts hit Varga over the middle for another touchdown (an eight yarder) bringing Yale within 24-21 with 8:21 to play.

"Everybody on the team felt it," Varga said when asked about Yale's confidence in its ability to make a comeback. "We're a resilient group. There wasn't a doubt in our mind that we could do it."

That was Roberts' 22nd passing touchdown of the season, tying the record held by Alvin Cowan '04 and Jeff Mroz '05.

The Yale defense came up with another big play when sophomore defensive end Marty Moesta recovered a Harvard fumble at the Crimson 46. That enabled senior placekicker Kyle Cazzetta to come in and drill a 33-yard field goal that tied The Game, 24-24, with 3:44 to play.

On its next drive, Harvard went from its own 22 to the Yale 35 with 1:02 to play. From there, Hempel lofted one to Fischer at the right sideline. He hauled it in, broke a tackle and went in for the go-ahead score with 55 seconds on the clock.

"I knew I was going to [Fischer] right when the play was called," said Hempel. "It was perfect timing. We had it set up all game long. It was a double move, slant and go, and we had been running slants all game."

After the kickoff Yale (8-2, 5-2 Ivy League) got the ball at its own 29 with 52 seconds left. An 11-yard completion to Varga converted a third down. Roberts then completed another 11-yard pass, this one to sophomore receiver Robert Clemons III.

The Bulldogs called timeout with 25 seconds to play and the ball at the Harvard 48 after a Roberts scramble. A 22-yard completion to Wallace then got the ball to the Crimson 26. But two plays later an interception by Harvard free safety Scott Peters at the Crimson 15 sealed The Game. With just 10 seconds left, Hempel and the offense came on the field to take a knee and run out the clock.

"This game makes my career," said Hempel, underscoring the significance of the rivalry. "I couldn't have drawn it up any better."

For Yale, the loss provides a bitter end for a season that was otherwise marked by great progress. The Bulldogs' two league losses -- to Harvard and second-place Dartmouth -- were by a combined 14 points, leaving the team just shy of a 15th Ivy title.

"There's growth," said Reno, who just completed his third season as Yale's head coach. "Last time I sat here [in the post-game press conference], we were 2-8. Today we were playing for the league championship … [The players] have done an unbelievable job of moving Yale football back to where it belongs."

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