And then there were two.
Four teams entered this weekend’s play with untarnished Ivy records at risk, but only Yale and Princeton emerged victorious, tied atop the standings and one step closer to the most coveted prize in the Ancient Eight.
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For the Bulldogs (5-1, 3-0 Ivy), the 17-14 overtime triumph over Penn (4-2, 2-1 Ivy) was more than just another number in the win column. It was a defiant proclamation of Yale’s merit as a football program, which established that it will not allow half a decade of consecutive losses to Penn to dictate the 2006 season. The Elis, completely unfazed by the enormous expectations and potential consequences of this game, battled the Quakers on every snap and, for the fifth straight week, adamantly refused to lose.
“It was an incredible win for our program,” said Alan Kimball ’08, whose 35-yard overtime field goal gave the Bulldogs their first 3-0 Ivy start since 1989. “I can’t even say how much it means for our team to beat them.”
The win, coupled with Harvard’s 31-28 loss at Princeton, means that the Elis stand atop the Ancient Eight standings with the Tigers. Although four conference games remain to be played, at this point, it is looking more and more like the Princeton-Yale and Harvard-Yale affairs in the final two weeks of the season may have serious title implications for the first time in years.
Yale started the game as a team on a mission led by up-and-coming quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 and captain wideout Chandler Henley ’07. The duo kick-started the Bulldogs’ opening drive when Polhemus fired a pass over the middle to Henley, who then shook off a would-be Quaker tackler and sprinted through a flurry of defenders to the Penn 20-yard line for a whopping 40-yard gain. Determined not to settle for a field goal, the pair connected again when Polhemus evaded several Quakers by rolling out to his left and finding Henley in the corner of the end zone. With the score, Yale held its first lead over Penn in years, 7-0.
The Elis kept the heat on Penn and made sure Penn’s first drive ended prematurely. Solid defensive pressure forced Quaker quarterback Rob Irvin to launch an ill-advised pass down the left sideline that free safety Steve Santoro ’09 picked off for his third interception of the year.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs were not able to capitalize on the turnover and Penn refused to stay silent for long. A 57-yard Irvin bomb from behind midfield to wide receiver Matt Carre would set the Quakers up in great scoring position. Two plays later, tight end Chris Mizell made a beautiful one-handed snag for a six-yard touchdown and evened the score at seven with five minutes to go in the first quarter.
After negating a fourth-down conversion attempt to kill Yale’s next drive, Penn took it upon itself to keep the pressure on the Bulldogs and quickly found itself in the red zone again. As the second quarter began, Irvin rolled out to his right and pitched the ball to tailback Joe Sandberg, who picked up six of his 125 yards and the Quakers’ second touchdown.
Yale’s next possession was an impressive display of efficiency, as the Elis marched down the field and tied the game at 14. The drive started when running back Mike McLeod ’09 took a handoff at the Yale 20, ran around the entire Penn defensive line and up the left sideline for a 19-yard gain. Polhemus matched McLeod’s long gain with an impressive display of his own. Seeing no options downfield after rolling out to his right, Polhemus quickly cut back and sprinted 20 yards into Penn territory. Yale would subsequently display its expertise in the passing game by connecting on two long completions to get the ball to the 8-yard line.
In perhaps the most important play of the first half, Polhemus fired the ball into the outstretched arms of Penn defensive back Greg Ambrogi under heavy pressure. A sure interception was broken up by wide-receiver Ashley Wright ’07, who not only knocked the ball away from Ambrogi, but somehow dove forward and snatched it before it hit the ground for his third reception of the half.
“Ashley made a huge play for us,” offensive tackle Ed McCarthy ’07 said. “The ball was nearly picked off and Ashley just stole the ball away. If that ball had been picked off, we probably would’ve lost the game, but instead we scored on the next play.”
McLeod powered his way over the goal-line from there, tying the score and picking up his 10th rushing touchdown of the year with five minutes left in the half. He would finish the day with 122 yards, his fifth consecutive game rushing for over 100 yards.
The second half saw more of the back-and-forth between the two teams but without any of the scoring. Hard-nosed defense throughout the half, and especially in the fourth quarter, forced a series of punts for both teams. Late in the fourth quarter, the Quakers mounted a strong drive that got them to the Eli 25-yard line. But the ever-maturing Bulldog defense clamped down from there, making a huge defensive play on fourth-and-four to force an incomplete pass deep in the end zone.
Yale would take over with under a minute left to play, but a Polhemus interception with 10 seconds left gave Penn the ball back for one last shot. The Elis were able to fend off any last-second heroics by the Quakers by batting down a Hail Mary in the end zone and entered their third overtime game in the last four played at the Yale Bowl.
Just as overtime play was underway, the crowd — a factor the entire day at over 21,000 strong — roared with excitement when the announcement came over the PA system that Harvard had fallen to Princeton, 31-28, and was no longer undefeated. The prospect of distancing themselves from the hated Crimson seemed equally appealing for the squad, as they halted Penn’s progress at the 19-yard line and forced them to attempt a field goal in the first possession of overtime. Penn’s field-goal smacked the right goal post and left Yale to write its own destiny.
A key reception by wideout D.J. Shooter ’07 advanced the ball to the 18-yard line, where Yale took its shot at a field goal. Unshaken by a Penn timeout, Kimball calmly drilled the first game-winning field goal of his Yale career to give the Bulldogs their first victory over the Quakers since 2000.
“You just want to build off something like this,” linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said. “I think our confidence is as high as it’s ever been, but at the same time we’re not going to get cocky. We still have four tough opponents on our schedule and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them.”