WEST HAVEN, Conn. — During his first year at Yale, Coach Tom Williams kept telling his football team that he would be aggressive. The Bulldogs ran two fake-punt plays earlier this season, and both worked.
But this time, Yale was playing Harvard, its nemesis, in the 126th edition of their annual matchup known as The Game.
Paul Rice, a senior linebacker who is the Yale captain, relayed the fake punt call in the huddle Saturday on fourth-and-22 at the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line with two and a half minutes to play. Rice said he had no doubt it would succeed.
But this time, John Powers rushed for only 15 yards. Three plays later, Harvard quarterback Collier Winters threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Chris Lorditch with 1 minute 32 seconds left to give the Crimson its first lead in its 14-10 victory.
In the final minute, Harvard linebacker Jon Takamura intercepted a pass by Yale quarterback Patrick Witt to seal the season-ending triumph for Harvard (7-3, 6-1Ivy League). The Crimson has won three straight against Yale (4-6, 2-5), and eight of their last nine meetings for the first time since 1922. Yale has a 65-53-8 lead in the series, which dates to 1875.
“We’re playing to win the football game,” Williams said afterward. “We thought it was worth 22 yards, and we came up 5 yards short. Our whole idea was to keep our foot on the pedal and not play scared.”
Williams was crestfallen, a stark contrast to the Harvard players, who were mobbed by their fans among the Yale Bowl crowd of 52,692. They later put on bright pink leis, courtesy of Takamura, a native of Honolulu.
The Yale senior Larry Abare, a ferocious safety, played with a cast that covered almost his entire right arm, including his hand. He broke the arm Oct. 17 in a 7-0 victory against Lehigh. Yale lost three of its next four games, and Abare received medical clearance on Monday to play against Harvard.
“It’s something I definitely was going to do,” Abare said.
But Williams became the focal point.
Harvard scored on its previous possession, when Winters hit Matt Luft for a 41-yard touchdown with 6:46 left.
The Crimson used its final timeout during Yale’s ensuing possession. Yale led, 10-7, and Williams did not want to give the ball back to Harvard. So Yale ran a variation on a fake-punt play the Crimson had never seen. It included a lateral from Rice to Powers, but defensive back Anthony Spadafino dragged Powers down at the Yale 40 with less than three minutes remaining.
“You’re a genius if that play works,” Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said. “If you don’t, you know the deal.”
Yale punter Tom Mante averaged 51.3 yards on three punts Saturday, including a soaring 69-yard kick that wowed the Bulldogs’ fans. And the Yale defense stuffed the Crimson on a goal-line stand midway through the third quarter.
But Harvard seemed to get on track after a slow start. Two plays before Luft scored Harvard’s first touchdown, running back Gino Gordon broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-4 and rambled for 19 yards.
“We were moving the ball,” Winters said, “and eventually, we thought we’d get it across the goal line.”
Although Luft said he ran the wrong route, he made an alteration to find open space in the middle of the field and gathered in the touchdown pass from Winters. The 6-foot-4 Lorditch later beat defensive back Adam Money for the winning score.
“We were fortunate today,” said Murphy, whose team lost a chance to tie for the Ivy League title when Penn (8-2, 7-0) beat Cornell in its season finale, 34-0. “But you do get a little bit more fortunate if you play hard all the time.”
Murphy said his team was outplayed and outcoached by Yale in the first half, when the Bulldogs took a 10-0 lead.
Williams ended up as the coach who had to defend his decision-making, not unlike New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick last week. The Patriots failed to convert on fourth-and-2 with a 6-point lead and a little more than two minutes remaining, and they lost to Indianapolis.
Williams addressed the fake-punt play before anyone even asked.
“I was trying to keep momentum on the blue side,” he said with a weak smile.