Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cambridge Under Siege

Freshman quarterback Kurt Rawlings '20 tossed a couple of touchdown passes before Yale students, alumni and followers dashed onto the Harvard turf to celebrate the end of years of losing to the Crimson (YWAA photos)
When you have not much on the line and not much to lose, football coaches can take risks.  Why not?  The Yale football team entered its annual season-ending test with Harvard with only two wins. It had no stake in the Ivy League championship. It had struggled with injuries and question marks about who should play quarterback. It suffered embarrassing losses to teams like Lehigh and Penn. It tried this; it tried that. Not much worked. 

And to boot, the Bulldogs hadn't beaten the Crimson since 2006, 10 long years ago. Last year, the Crimson thumped the Elis, 38-19.

To start the second half of the Yale-Harvard football game, Nov. 19, in Boston, Yale coach Tony Reno, knowing thousands of alumni across the country were growing impatient with Yale's inability to beat Harvard, called for an onsides kick.

It caught the entire stadium by surprise, as well as the hundreds of thousands who might have watched The Game on a nationwide CNBC-TV broadcast. 

Nobody expected it. Nobody. Yale squibbled the kick just moments after halftime shows where Harvard and Yale bands hurled taunts each other, as tradition requires. The ball bounced and rolled for about 15 yards.  Yale recovered the ball. It had worked.

Thousands of Yale fans were finally convinced Yale might really have a chance to win This Game.  Victory was no longer a dream or an outrageous ambition. A short time later, Yale lined up for a field goal and shocked the crowd of 32,000 again.  The Yale holder Andrew Johnson '18 picked up the snap and threw a wobbly, too-short pass to a receiver, who grabbed it for a first down.  Yale later scored on the drive with a touchdown by Reid Klubnik '20 to take the lead, 14-7.

The streak just might end after all. Or would it not?

Reno and his squadron proceeded. Were there more tricks in the bag?  Reno had to have known of the gamble Yale coach Tom Williams took in the 2009 Game, where late in the fourth quarter with Yale leading, the team faked a punt on fourth down (with what seemed like half a field to go) and botched the effort and later the game. 

Some controversy ensued. You can't have a Yale-Harvard game without some angst, big or small. First, the Yale end-of-third-quarter "Saybrook Strip," a Yale football tradition (frowned upon by adult staff) since the 1970's, went steps beyond what Game fans are accustomed to.  Students stripped naked (not to their underwear), causing even members of the Yale football team to cast glances into the stands. Harvard officials, who should have known, scrambled to whisk the mischievous strip team out of the stadium.

Second, late in the game, Yale's dazzling discovery of a quarterback, freshman Kurt Rawlings '20, whirled a touchdown pass diagonally near the goal line.  His receiver, Klubnik, reached for the ball and shoved it across the goal line before Harvard defenders slapped it from his hands for an apparent fumble. 

Officials ruled the score a touchdown.  Yale fans roared.  The Harvard crowded cursed the referees in unison. More than a few Yale followers whispered they were thankful the Ivy League doesn't permit replay review of officials' calls. 

That late-game toss was enough for Yale to hold on until the end.  With seconds to go, Harvard's offense desperately flung passes around the field to try to tie the game and send it into overtime. It would be the Harvard way to devastate Yale with a heartbreaking defeat, likely with a bizarre bounce or deflection.

But Yale's stalwart defensive back, Jason Alessi '18, broke up Harvard's last pass with seconds to go, and the Bulldogs were pronounced winners of the 133rd Game, 21-14.

Off to the races. Yale students sprang from their seats, jumped from the tall concrete barriers, and dashed toward the middle of the arena in a shadowy blur. On cue, a party erupted on the field like few that have ever been held on the floor of Harvard Stadium. Thousands of Yale students and young Yale alumni, who have never witnessed a Yale triumph over Harvard, laid claim to the Harvard turf. They danced with the football players, they sang "Bulldog, Bulldog" several times, and they snapped selfies with the scoreboard in the background.  They meandered around the field.  They hugged each other. Many were teary-eyed.

Yale had seized the grounds of the stadium from one goal post to the other.  And no one dared to tell them it was time to go back to New Haven. 

The teams couldn't get their offenses going in the first half, as many fans presumed the Crimson would explode in the second half (YWAA photos)

The Game, of course, always features the drama and hurls of insults delivered by the bands of Yale and Harvard (YWAA photos)

After the Yale defense stopped Harvard's offense with seconds to go, a Yale party exploded on the field. No Yale fan wanted to depart this celebration too soon (YWAA photos)

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