Big Green football wins a share of the Ivy League title for first time since 1996

by Alexander Agadjanian | 12/8/15 2:51am

For 19 long years, the most successful program in Ivy League history lay dormant.

Winning conference titles nearly every other year in the 1960s and 70s, Dartmouth returned to its championship heights in the early 90s with Buddy Teevens ’79 at the coaching helm. Yet from 1996 until now, major successes on the football field were few and far between.

Brought back to Hanover to rebuild the illustrious program and his alma mater — and inheriting a one-win team to start — Teevens embarked on the mission in 2005 and has since steadily inched his way closer to program revival. Last Saturday in the 2015 season finale, that rebuild process and path back to dominance reached its apex, as the Ivy’s sleeping giant awoke. For the first time in nearly two decades, the No. 21 Dartmouth football team (9-1, 6-1) grabbed at least a share of the Ivy League championship with a 17-10 comeback victory over rival Princeton (5-5, 2-5), clinching a conference-leading 18th title.

“We won a game, and we won a championship,” Teevens said after the game. “Couldn’t be happier for our guys, the seniors in particular, [for] all that they’ve put in, with the fifth-year guys coming back, having it end this way for them, [I’m] very happy for them. They earned it, and they deserved it.”

In an atypical game flow for the 2015 season, Dartmouth had to overcome multiple deficits against the Tigers and trailed for the majority for the afternoon. Much of the struggle by the Big Green on offense emanated from four turnovers — the same amount committed by Princeton — and increased quarterback pressure on Dalyn Williams ’16. Constantly frustrating the senior quarterback and sacking him seven times — an amount that is tied for the most that Williams suffered in his career — the Princeton pass rush heavily disrupted the home team’s rhythm and regular efficiency.

“I think they did a really good job mixing up their blitzes,” Williams said. “Personally [at times when I felt the pressure], I reverted back to ‘freshman Dalyn.’ Just when things don’t work, I get antsy. I feel caged, and I’m trying to get out, and I just have to relax. And that’s what I’ve done over the years throughout my maturation process.”

Held scoreless at the half for the first time since 2012, Dartmouth then entered the fourth quarter of play trailing an opponent for the first time in four years. But having seen its Ivy title hopes nearly vanish earlier in 2015 with the devastating loss to Harvard University, the Big Green ensured its second chance — the kind Teevens himself said doesn’t come around too often — would not pass in vain.

A creative punt return by Ryan McManus ’15 — atoning for a bobbled punt catch earlier in the game that resulted in a turnover — set Dartmouth up with excellent field position with eight minutes left in the game and facing a three-point deficit. Following four quick pass plays from Williams that covered 27 yards, Alex Gakenheimer '17 knocked through a crucial 22-yard field goal to tie the game up.

The kicker would miss his next attempt one possession later, but the Dartmouth defensive unit — as it has done so often in 2015—rose to the occasion and drowned out any opposing offensive life to give the Big Green’s own offense one more opportunity. After safety David Caldwell ’16 snagged his Ivy League-leading fifth interception late in the game, fellow senior defensive end Cody Fulleton ’16 finished forcing a three-and-out with a sack of Tiger quarterback Chad Kanoff on the next defensive outing.

Taking over control of the ball with 2:01 left on the clock, Williams began the last-minute drive with a 23-yard connection with McManus and then a first down on the ground. After fortunately recovering a fumble inside Princeton’s 15, Dartmouth finally pulled ahead. Just as Williams was brought down by a Princeton rusher, the quarterback found Kyle Bramble '16 to his left on a screen play, and the running back — with plenty of space ahead of him — easily covered the 12 yards for the decisive touchdown.

“It feels great — this a story,” Williams said about the win. “Defense stands tall, we get the ball back, we move the ball down the field, and we score with [about] 20 seconds left on the clock. It’s like we envisioned it. I wanted to do this so much for my teammates, the seniors, coach Teevens, the program. This is great, this is something you can build on, this will bring a lot of hope to a lot of people, and it’s definitely great for recruiting purposes. So hopefully we continue this success as we depart.”

Teevens also praised the win’s almost cinematic quality, and he credited the team’s seniors for assisting in clinching the victory.

“It was a gutty win,” Teevens added. “As close as it was, we turned the ball over four times, [we] didn’t look real sharp, they schemed us up pretty effectively, we had to do some things at the half. But the fact that our guys didn’t lose their poise [or] confidence, executed when we had to, is really a tribute to the senior leadership.”

The final offensive play was significant beyond its scoreboard implications: not only had the Big Green finally and symbolically managed to overcome the incessant Princeton pass rush, but the score represented the end of a difficult but ultimately rewarding Dartmouth career for the recipient in Bramble.

“They were pressuring,” Teevens said, “and we thought they’d bring their all-out, which they did. [It was] a nice job [by offensive lineman Joshua] Clark that led him into the end zone. It was fitting for Kyle Bramble to score that final touch. Two ACL [injuries], the amount of rehab that he’s gone through to come back and to finish up like that. He was happy, and I think I may have been happier for him.”

For a short while on Saturday, Dartmouth was the sole possessor of the Ivy League crown. Later in the afternoon, Penn knocked off Cornell 34-21 after jumping out early, and Harvard defeated Yale 38-19 in one of the oldest rivalries in college football. As expected heading into the day, these two other victories forced the Big Green to share the conference title with the Quakers and the Crimson, as the Ivy League ended in a three-way tie atop the standings. If tiebreakers existed in the Ivy world, it still would be hard to distinguish the three schools, as each won one game and lost another in their head-to-head matchups against each other.

The result marked the first time a three-way title split occurred since 1982, and only the third time in the conference’s 60 seasons. Dartmouth has been involved in the last three and now the fourth of these occurrences.

After the game, Teevens made sure to affirm that while the present moment stood as the most salient point in the program’s progress in the last decade, Big Green players of former classes — those not playing on Saturday — were as much a part of this rebuilding process that culminated in a championship.

“A lot of [former players] have taken pride, they were not here to get the ring, but they helped lay the foundation from which the ring was obtained,” Teevens said. “I think there’s an awful lot of pride with some of the guys that they had a part in this. The older alums, the support they’ve given when we weren’t a really good team. They just believed, and that’s a Dartmouth thing. And the support they all gave, this is the end result. We’re very happy for all of them, I feel like they were a part of our team, which they are.

Arriving at the championship mountaintop but doing so with and led by a tight-knit senior group that played its last game together, linebacker Wil McNamara ’16 expressed nostalgia after Saturday’s contest.

“This has been an unreal ride,” McNamara said. “These are my best friends. It is kind of bittersweet, we finally got that championship and at the same time it’s the last time we get to play together. It’s great to go out on top.”

McNamara also spoke about the effect that this game and title-winning season has had on the school in bringing the community together.

“Guys I haven’t seen since freshman year were giving me a hug at the end of the game, so that kind of sums up right there what it’s done for this school,” McNamara said.

It seemed like every week this season that Williams etched his name in his school’s and the Ivy League’s record books, in one way or another. By the end of Saturday, the senior finished with the most passing yards, total yards, completions, pass attempts, and highest completion percentage in school history.

In an interview earlier in his career with CSNNE discussing his professional prospects, Williams said the following: “If my individual goal is to take it to the next level, who’s going to want a quarterback who hasn’t won a title? He doesn’t know how to win. If you’re not getting a quarterback who knows how to win, why are you really interested in him?”

For all of the individual accomplishments he could garner, which will now have him leave Hanover as one of the most decorated players in school history, Williams knew — for the sake of how his legacy will be viewed and for his own competitive mindset — that leading his team to the highest level of success mattered most.

“[For] a quarterback, his job is to manage the game,” Williams said after Saturday’s win. “Each quarterback is different, each team is different. But if you manage the game and give your team a chance to win the game and ultimately you win, that’s how you’re going to be remembered. Eli [Manning], guys [say], ‘Is he a leader, is he not?’ The man has two championships and when it’s all said and done, he can talk to his brother Peyton and be like, ‘I got more rings than you, forget all your awards.’ That’s why you play. Thirty-two teams in the NFL line up and play, eight teams in the Ivy League line up against each other and beat each other. So records are fine and dandy, but I just want to win. That’s my first goal.”

After four record-breaking years, Williams has now achieved his ultimate goal; fittingly, the next step in the talented quarterback’s career will be pursuing a chance to play in the professional football ranks.

Expectations surrounding a once-powerful football school were at an all-time high entering the 2015 season. Through all the peaks — starting the season 6-0 and ultimately winning a share of the Ivy title — and valleys — a heartbreaking last-minute defeat to rival Harvard — the Dartmouth community rallied around this team, both at home and away. For the quarterback, the excitement — especially in games at key points — was apparent compared to years past.

“It [was] a little different from previous years,” Williams said. “You [used] to look up, it’s third-and-one, and the crowd’s just sitting there, and you’re wondering, ‘what are these guys looking at?’ But I can’t say that this game, a lot of guys were standing up [and getting] into it, and it definitely gives you energy.”

Williams was making reference only to this final game against Princeton, but in truth, the observation characterized the increased enthusiasm all season shown towards the team by the crowd present at games and by the broader fanbase.