Had The Game been called after regulation, one could imagine the front page of last Monday’s Harvard Crimson reading: “Harvard beats Yale, 24-24.”
The Elis suffered a monumental collapse of 1968 proportions, blowing an 18-point second-half lead with minutes to go. But it was only after three historic overtimes and four hours of play that the Crimson (7-3, 5-2 Ivy) truly topped Yale (4-6, 4-3), 30-24, when Harvard All-American tailback Clifton Dawson scored a two-yard touchdown to send home the 53,213 who witnessed one of the greatest games ever played at the Yale Bowl.
“You’re never going to see anything like that again,” said captain and quarterback Jeff Mroz ’06, who was visibly shaken when he spoke after the 122nd playing of The Game.
Last Saturday’s game was the first overtime contest ever played at the Yale Bowl, the first triple-overtime affair in Ivy League history, and, most painful to the Eli captain, the first time in the history of the rivalry that Harvard had won five games in a row.
But things for Mroz and the Bulldogs did not start poorly. After long Harvard drives to open the game, the Yale defense twice stuffed the Crimson in the red zone. On the first possession, linebacker Bobby Abare ’09, who has played like a veteran since stepping in for the injured Michael McGinity ’07, forced Dawson to fumble on the Yale eight-yard line. On the next, steady coverage by the secondary forced a 28-yard Matt Schindel field goal.
The Bulldogs responded early in the second quarter, when receiver D.J. Shooter ’07 capped a 13-play, 88-yard drive with a sensational diving touchdown catch — the first of his career — on a 29-yard fade from Mroz.
Two Yale possessions later, Mroz called his own number on fourth-and-goal from the one on the last play of the first half. His touchdown sneak came to the dismay of the screaming Harvard student section nearby, which had effectively given the Crimson home-field advantage when the ball was near the south goal.
Cantabs would have even less to cheer about when Yale began the second half in the same fashion it ended the first.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, running back Mike McLeod ’09, the 2005 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, rushed five times for 26 yards and a five-yard touchdown.
A long TV timeout followed Yale’s third touchdown. With a 21-3 lead early in the third quarter, an anxious exuberance seemed to set in on the Bulldogs sideline. In the stands, there were visions of a reversal of Harvard’s 35-3 win last year.
But the lead immediately began to crumble. Yale’s overworked defense, which has been the lone constant in a sometimes-up, sometimes-down season, started to give way as Harvard discovered its vulnerability to underneath passes. Dawson, who made ten receptions for 85 yards to go along with 128 yards on 33 carries, became the fifth running back to lead his team in receptions against Yale this season. He scored his first touchdown of the day on a 16-yard pass from Liam O’Hagan.
“They ran some good plays at the right time,” safety Matt Handlon ’06 said. “There were a couple of times we were in good coverages and they ran good routes. Harvard is a good offensive team. We were playing the same defense [after halftime], you just have to give them the credit.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Harvard drew within five when cornerback Steven Williams intercepted an Ashley Wright ’07-bound pass and returned it 18 yards for a score.
“We were in [a] cover two [defense],” Williams said. “We knew that was a big route for them. And Ashley Wright’s a great, All-Ivy League receiver. Coach said, ‘If they run that route, just run with him,’ and the pass was a little behind him. It was the perfect play at the perfect time — exactly what we needed to turn the momentum around.”
The two-point-conversion pass, which would have put Harvard within a field goal, fell incomplete.
Yale’s Alan Kimball ’08 extended the lead to eight with a 26-yard field goal at 6:26 of the fourth quarter, but Harvard roared back again.
On the ensuing possession, freshman receiver Alex Breaux beat cornerback Mike Holben ’06 on a post pattern for a 22-yard score and a chance to tie the game.
O’Hagan, from the shotgun, made the two-point conversion when he ran a draw into the end zone before the blitzing Brendan Sponheimer ’07 could reach him.
Yale had a chance to win the game when it had the ball as far north as the Harvard 43, but two foolish shotgun draw plays to Spence forced a turnover on downs.
In the first overtime, Yale had the initial possession. On the first play of the drive, Spence, who played the end of the fourth quarter and all of overtime after McLeod went down with a leg injury, lost a fumble which Williams scooped up.
Yale was given a breath of new life, however, when Schindel missed a game-winning field goal attempt from 37 yards out.
Things grew even more promising when O’Hagan began the second overtime period by floating a pass that cornerback Andrew Butler ’06 intercepted in the end zone.
“It was so wide open,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said. “He babied it in there instead of just drilling it.”
But Yale, needing only a field goal to break the spell of infamy, ceded the ball again. On the second play of Yale’s possession, Shooter caught an eight-yard pass but fumbled while fighting for extra yardage.
“We played our hearts out,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “There were a lot of mistakes in the game, on both sides. But they were all effort. You can’t fault a guy for trying to get a couple extra yards and make that play that was going to make the difference in the game.”
Mroz tried to make “that play” as well on the first play of the third overtime. Forced to the sideline by a Harvard rush, his pass was tipped and intercepted by a diving Michael Berg, a defensive tackle who had never made an interception in his life.
At last, with dusk settling over the late-Autumn sky, Harvard was in position to end The Game and the Ivy League season. A 15-yard pass to fullback Kelly Widman brought Harvard to the brink of victory. Then the Cantabs deferred to Dawson for his 41st, 42nd and 43rd touches of the game. No. 43 was the one that made ESPN’s SportsCenter.
“They’re a great defense and there were times when I took a lot of hard hits,” Dawson said. “But I kept thinking, ‘I have the next eight months to rest my body.’ I just relied on my offensive line and got a great push.”
After Dawson’s score, the Harvard players and fans rushed the field in jubilation. Yale players and fans stood still in disbelief.
Murphy walked to midfield to meet Siedlecki, the much-maligned leader of the Elis, whom he has beaten six out of nine times.
“The hardest thing for me was walking across the field to Jack Siedlecki,” Murphy said. “Because in no way did they deserve to lose.”
Even before the overtime heartbreak, Yale’s second-half meltdown bore an eerie resemblance to the one suffered at San Diego Sept. 17 — as well as those against Lehigh, Penn and Brown last year. Against the Toreros, short passes to another running back, J.T. Rogan, exploited a too-soft cover-four defense while an offense averse to second-half adjustments stood still.
In perhaps the most telling score of the weekend, Yale beat Harvard, 22-19, in the annual JV game. Though edged last year, the JV Bulldogs pummeled their Crimson counterparts 41-3 in the 2003 contest.
The JV annals are easily overlooked, but recent results certainly beg one question of the coaching staff: Why do players beat Harvard as freshmen, but lose to the Crimson three years later?