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This Saturday marked the end of a season of historic parity in Ivy League football. And it ended with a single champion.
In front of a raucous crowd of 51,426, Yale dominated Harvard, 24-3, to claim its first outright title in 37 years. The Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1 Ivy) held the Crimson to 26 rushing yards and scored touchdowns on all three red-zone trips to seize the 134th playing of The Game.
The contest concluded a wacky year in the Ancient Eight. Last week, seven teams—including Harvard—remained in the running for a league title. Now only one stands atop the peak.
“This is more than just a win for Yale,” Bulldogs coach Tony Reno said. “This was a complete culture change. People showed how football should be played.”
The death knell sounded with 12:04 left when freshman running back Zane Dudek punched in a two-yard score.
On an 81-yard drive that took 4:50, the Bulldogs tore holes in the Crimson defensive front. Backup running back Melvin Rouse II escaped for 25 yards and then another 11. On first-and-goal, the Yale offensive line pushed forward two yards, and in waltzed Dudek.
That touchdown illustrated the moral of the game. Offensively and defensively, the Bulldogs bullied Harvard (5-5, 3-4) in the trenches. After a sluggish start, the Yale run game picked up 118 yards. Dudek led the way with 25 carries for 64 yards.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs defense held runners to an average of 0.8 yards per carry. The absence of leading rusher Charlie Booker didn’t help. The junior running back sat out with an unspecified injury. Yale, which entered as the league-leader in sacks, substantiated that reputation with six quarterback takedowns. All told, the Crimson failed to score a touchdown in consecutive weeks for the first time since 1986.
“The bottom line is [that] Yale is a terrific football team,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “They’re by far the best football team in our league. They have no real weaknesses, and they deserved to win.”
By mid-afternoon, only a smattering of fans colored the Crimson section. By contrast, the Bulldogs side remained full until the final whistle, at which point students stormed the field.
Yale could celebrate a remarkable turnaround. In 2016, the Bulldogs crawled to a 3-7 record. However, the Elis closed the year with a 21-14 shocker over Harvard. Yale rode the momentum of that upset into 2017, exceeding a predicted fourth-place finish en route to the Ivy championship.
Harvard, meanwhile, slumped to a 5-5 record a season after going 7-3. Navigating a storm of injuries, the Crimson finished with a sub-.500 record in conference play for the first time since 1999.
“I want to say how proud I am of our kids,” Murphy said. “We’ve had our share of challenges this year, week after week, sometimes under difficult circumstances. But our kids have just been incredible to coach.”
On Saturday at the Yale Bowl, early play settled into a defensive battle, with Harvard nursing a 3-0 lead after 15 minutes.
Eight minutes into the second quarter, the Bulldogs got on the board with a 54-yard touchdown drive. Most of the yardage came when wide receiver JP Shohfi split the safeties on a 46-yard post-and-run. The Crimson forced third-and-goal, but Rawlings lofted a gorgeous fade to Shofi to seize a 7-3 lead.
The competitive first half turned disastrous when Murphy dialed up a pitch-option 10 minutes into the second quarter. Starting at the 16, freshman quarterback Jake Smith darted forward about five yards before shoveling an errant pass to freshman running back Aaron Shampklin.
Defensive back Malcolm Dixon scooped up the fumble and raced 19 yards for a 14-3 lead. He circled the Yale bench and raised his arms to the roaring crowd.
Two plays later, the nightmare repeated. Smith ran another pitch-option, and Shampklin lost another lateral. Defensive end J. Hunter Roman recovered the fumble at the Harvard 38, setting up the Bulldogs with 4:24 left.
The Yale offense advanced inside the 10 after converting a fourth-and-eight. But the Crimson halted Dudek on consecutive runs to set up a decision for Reno. One second remained on the clock, and eight yards separated the Elis from the end zone.
Reno went the safe route, electing for a 25-yard field goal that sent Yale into halftime with a 17-3 advantage.
Furthering a season of quarterback controversy, Smith got the nod for Harvard. He slotted in for fifth-year senior Joe Viviano, who started versus Penn last week.
Smith finished 9-for-16 for 83 yards. He was replaced by Viviano in the fourth quarter, after Dudek had pushed the lead to 24-3. Seven Crimson completions went to junior wide receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley, who totaled 77 yards. At times, the lithe junior seemed to be the only source of Harvard offense, using quick footwork to beat defensive backs off the line.
“He’s our best player,” Murphy said. “It’s been really tough getting the ball to him because he’s seen so much double coverage…. He’s such a champion that he just took it up somehow another notch today.”
After the hosts wasted their first set of downs, Shelton-Mosley spearheaded the Crimson’s lone scoring drive. He caught three passes for first downs and moved Harvard to the nine.
That’s when the drive sputtered. Yale’s touted defensive line stopped two rushes, and defensive end John Herubin swallowed up Smith on third down. Sophomore kicker Jake McIntyre converted a 29-yard field goal to give Harvard a 3-0 lead.
All afternoon, the Bulldogs sought to minimize the effectiveness of Shelton-Mosley, who entered the game leading the FCS with 18.8 yards per punt return. On kickoffs, Yale squibbed the ball up the middle, and punter Alex Galland sent high kicks down the sideline. Shelton-Mosley could only signal for fair catches and watch as the score crept from 7-3 to 14-3 and then 17-3 to 24-3.
The wide receiver did a lot of watching because the two teams did a lot of punting. The Bulldogs and the Crimson combined for significantly more punting yards (621) than offensive yards (459).
The third quarter, which exemplified those statistics, could have put an insomniac to sleep. Harvard and Yale punted seven times, and neither team scored. By that point, the onus lay on the Crimson, which already trailed 17-3.
That deficit obscured a staunch defensive performance by Harvard, especially in the first half.
With 10:46 left in the half, a short punt by Schmid set up the Bulldogs in Crimson territory at the 49. But Hutton ended the threat with an interception. The captain found himself in isolation coverage on a long post, and he stuck with his man to grab the underthrown ball.
In the first half, Harvard held Dudek to 24 yards on 11 carries. And besides Shohfi’s long grab, no Yale play topped 16 yards.
“You try to stop the run,” Hutton said. “Our defensive staff really made a great game plan for us to cut back on their [running plays].”
The problem was, the Bulldogs defensive line proved even more suffocating. After 30 minutes, Smith ranked as the Crimson’s leading rusher. He had seven yards. As a team, Harvard had run 17 times and netted six yards.
No relief came when Smith dropped back to pass, as Yale rushers imploded the pocket. The Bulldogs recorded three sacks before halftime and generally made Smith miserable. Viviano fared no better, as the senior tossed two interceptions.
On Saturday in New Haven, Conn., clouds gathered early, and they never receded. Few silver linings existed. Still, by the time the final whistle sounded, Crimson seniors had earned the right to reflect on their past four years.
“[My teammates] have taught me so much, much more than I could ever teach anyone else,” Hutton said. “Coach Murphy changed my life, and he did all that through recruiting me and then exposing me to these coaches and these players. I’m so thankful for that.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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