Decisions, decisions, decisions
We're not only going to start with Tom Williams' decision to attempt a fake punt leading by three points in the fourth quarter, we are going to finish with it as well. I'm not going to sugarcoat this, it was a reckless decision. In the 20 years I have been a sports reporter, I can't remember a coaching decision I disagreed any more strongly than this one. I am not alone. When I checked my phone, I had four missed messages in the hour after the game from people wanting to know why he wouldn't punt the ball and put the game in the hands of his defense.
This Yale team had been through so much this year, disappointing losses to Cornell and Princeton, so many injuries, a constantly changing lineup and a nearly completely new coaching staff. They could easily have had their eyes elsewhere especially in an academic setting like the one they reside in at Yale. But they didn't. They were on the verge of their most complete effort of the season and only needed for their coaching staff to demonstrate a little self restraint.
Faced with 4th-and-22 at their own 25 and Harvard out of timeouts, Tom Mante trotted onto the field to punt. All Mante did was average 51.3 yards on his previous three punts to clinch the Ivy League punting crown. Harvard had enough respect for Mante that their returner lined up 50 yards from the line of scrimmage when Mante dropped back to punt. But he never got the chance. The designed fake was snapped to up back Paul Rice, who twice this season got the call on successful fake punt calls who pitched the ball to freshman safety John Powers. Powers, a former dual-threat runner and passer during his days as the starting quarterback at Hopkins, nearly got the first down but was tackled seven yards short of the first down. Rather than Harvard needed to drive somewhere between 60-80 yards for the winning TD, it only needed to go 40.
There is no defending the decision. If Williams ponders a decision in that situation again that he will remember the post-game scene. Senior linebacker Travis Henry, one of the truly class acts on the team, kneeled on the 50 by himself for what seemed like an eternity or some of the seniors wandering slowly around the field as if they were trying to comprehend what had just transpired. Henry and the other seniors bought into Williams' deal from the outset. Even when some of them saw their playing time cut or their roles diminished, there seemed to be little discord in the program (at least none I discovered). Instead of walking off the field snapping a two-game losing streak to Harvard, the departing seniors were left to deal with a bitter end to their collegiate careers. Many of them will never play in a football game again and this was not the ending they envisioned or deserved.
I have gone on the record saying I am impressed with the job this coaching staff has done but there is no defending a decision like this. If you want to try it in a JV game or spring it early on Harvard, fine but not in the final quarter against your greatest rival. I compare it to fouling a 90 percent free throw shooter with a 1-point lead with 5 seconds to play in a basketball game. The risks simply outnumber the reward but such a large margin that you just don't do it. I also found it ironic that on a day when Yale ran the ball so well, the Bulldogs resorted to a gimmick with their version of the Wildcat formation. Williams scoffed at the impact of the Wildcat when asked about after the Penn game and yet they went to it. Why?
The sad part is that it all seemed to be coming together for this team. They shook the turnover bug, discovered a running game in sophomore Alex Thomas, the offensive line was playing better than it had all season even if the Bulldogs' two best linemen (Jake Koury and Cory Palmer) were dealing with injury issues. Defensively, Yale resembled the stingy unit of the last couple of years. All of that ended with one call which was simply to risky to justify.
The good news is the future is bright. Replacing John Sheffield, who finished third on Yale's career receiving list, and the entire starting linebacking corps will not be easy. But with Alex Thomas and Mordecai Cargill, the Bulldogs have two talented running backs. Speedy receivers Gio Christodoulou and Chris Smith return after dealing with injury-shortened seasons. Four offensive line starters are back and with the development of Chris Stanley and Kurt Stottlemyer, Adam Money should be able to move to safety to help fill the void left by Larry Abare's graduation. I think Yale could compete for the Ivy League title with an experienced group of returning players.