Courtesy: Steve Conn (Yale Sports Publicity)
NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The crowning of the 2017 Ivy League Champions came after a dominating defensive performance before a crowd of 51,426 in the 134th edition of The Game. Yale, which earned its first outright league title since 1980, sacked Harvard quarterbacks six times and limited its offense to 164 total yards in a 24-3 victory over the Crimson.
The Bulldogs, whose consecutive wins in The Game are the first for the school since 1999 and 2000, had champagne and cigars after putting together a complete, team effort that brought their record to 9-1, 6-1 Ivy.
The Eli offense did its job in taking advantage of opportunities, but the defense took control of the contest after Harvard opened the game with a 29-yard field goal. Three first-half sacks, including two by senior linebacker Matthew Oplinger, who finished the year with a team-high 11.5, helped the Elis take over on the scoreboard.
J.P. Shohfi, who had a 46-yard reception over the middle, made a spinning grab of a pass in the back corner of the end zone on a third-and-goal play while getting one foot in bounds. The throw from sophomore quarterback Kurt Rawlings (18-27, 177 yards) was on the money.
Fifty-five seconds later sophomore defensive back Malcolm Dixon grabbed an errant Jake Smith (Harvard QB) pitch off the ground and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-3. That set the tone for the Blue defense as it limited the visitors to just three series past the 50-yard line overall.
“I thought it was a route. I saw the quarterback running out, so I got outside,” said Dixon, who led Yale in pass breakups this fall. “I saw him slip, I saw end zone, I saw ball, and I put 2 and 2 together, that was it.”
Another botched toss from Smith ended up in the arms of J. Hunter Roman on the next series, leading to a 25-yard Alex Galland field goal with no time left on the clock in the first half.
After a scoreless third frame, freshman running back Zane Dudek put the icing on the championship cake with a two-yard plunge, his 15th rushing score of the season.
Senior linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, who had one of the season-high six sacks, led the Elis with nine tackles, including three for lost yardage, and caused one fumble in his final contest.
Yale’s great defensive effort also had Hayden Carlson with an interception and two pass breakups, while freshman Deonte Henson also registered a pick. Meanwhile, captain Spencer Rymiszewski had the challenge of staying with Harvard standout WR Justice Shelton-Mosely all day. The Yale senior limited him to seven catches and 77 yards, while the secondary did its job in allowing the Crimson just a dozen completions all day.
“He’s incredibly smooth,” said Rymiszewski of the Harvard star. “You have to stay on top of him. Coach [Sean] McGowan put us in a great position to get double teams on him. All around, it starts with the front, it starts with Op [Matt Oplinger] leading the middle and charging. They did a great job, put pressure on the quarterback all day and that makes it 10 times easier in secondary.”
Rymiszewski and his mates allowed just 16 points in the Bowl over the last four games, and today’s total for Harvard was the fewest allowed by the Blue in The Game since a 28-0 game in 1981.
Harvard, which only allowed 12 sacks through the first nine games this fall, used two signal-callers on a total of 24 pass attempts. There just weren’t many white shirts open to throw at.
Tony Reno, Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach, who helped the Elis clinch their 15th title last week at Princeton, had to wait a week to explain how his team got up so high to play two important, rivalry games in consecutive weeks.
“I think it shows the ability for these guys to compartmentalize day in and day out and continue to embrace what they set out for,” said Reno. “It would be really easy for these guys – after they won at Princeton – just to be fat cats, but that wasn’t it at all. These guys came with a different type of energy last Sunday. It means everything to us. It means everything to our university, to our alumni.”