For the first time since the turn of the current century, the Yale football community exited Harvard Stadium with heads held high, content and acutely aware of the Bulldogs’ return to the summit of Ivy League football.
In perhaps the greatest moment in recent memory for Yale athletics, thousands of fans rushed the field to celebrate the redemption and satisfaction that came with their team’s 34-13 domination of archrival Harvard (7-3, 4-3 Ivy). With the 2005 triple-overtime defeat cemented in their memories and a late-game collapse against Princeton fresh in their minds, the Bulldogs (8-2, 6-1 Ivy) displayed composure and poise absent in crucial games of the past, liberating themselves from a string of five consecutive losses at the hands of the Crimson.
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The pummeling of Harvard is perhaps the only fitting conclusion to a truly outstanding season that saw the Elis bounce back from an embarrassing season-opening loss against San Diego and emerge victorious in eight of the team’s subsequent nine outings, en route to its first Ivy League title since 1999.
“It’s amazing. To finally win an Ivy championship, and to do it in this way, beating Harvard under such adversity, is the best way I can imagine ending my career,” said offensive tackle Ed McCarthy ’07, a unanimous first-team all-Ivy selection. “Winning an Ivy League championship has always been my dream since coming to Yale. To finally achieve that goal cannot be described in words.”
Though Harvard entered the game with reportedly the best defense in the Ancient Eight, it was the merciless Yale defense that adamantly refused to grant the Cantabs even the slightest bit of rhythm. The tenacious Bulldogs, determined not to repeat the previous game’s mistakes, set the tone early by forcing the Crimson into negative yardage on their first two possessions and not allowing a Harvard first down until less than three minutes left in the opening quarter.
“I think defensively we just came after them and had a different attitude all day: We were going to make them earn every yard they got until the clock read zero,” defensive back Larry Abare ’09 said. “[Defensive coordinator] Coach Flanders called a tremendous game and I think he really threw Harvard off with a lot of different defensive looks and blitzes.”
The Bulldog offense was quickly able to capitalize on the fine defensive play. After a Crimson punt gave the Elis possession at midfield, tailback Mike McLeod ’09 and the dominant Yale offensive line went to work. The Bulldogs used five consecutive runs to march down the field, and McLeod punched in a one-yard touchdown with six minutes remaining in the first quarter to put the Elis on the board first.
It was the first of three scores on the day for McLeod, who broke the 30-year old record set by John Pagliaro in 1976 for most touchdowns in a season, and ended his 2006 campaign with 19 rushing touchdowns.
But Harvard was not ready to let the Elis run away with the game just yet. Early in the second quarter, the Crimson mounted a methodical 17-play, 68-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown run for all-time Ivy League rushing leader Clifton Dawson. The possession marked the only time Dawson and the Cantab offense appeared to gain any significant momentum. In fact, Dawson, who had rushed for over 120 yards in each of his previous three outings against the Bulldogs, was held to just 60 yards total and 2.5 yards per carry by the stingy Yale defense.
“The biggest thing with Dawson is to not let him get started,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “Once he gets past the line of scrimmage he is tough. He just kind of slips and slides. We made a lot of hits in the backfield, a lot of hits right at the line of scrimmage, and had a lot of people there. Obviously it was a good scheme and we were very aggressive.”
The sellout crowd did not have to wait long to see the Elis respond. Sparked by a 21-yard kickoff return by free safety Steve Santoro ’09, Yale used an effective combination of pass and run to advance the ball up field. Less than two minutes after the Crimson touchdown, McLeod found a wide-open right side of the field from four yards out, recording his second touchdown of the afternoon and reclaiming the lead for the Bulldogs, 14-7.
Yale continued its stifling defense for the remainder of the half, determined to redeem itself after giving up 504 yards of offense to Princeton last week. Harvard never entered scoring range, and although the Bulldogs would not find the end zone again before the end of the period, Alan Kimball ’08 registered two field goals to extend the lead to 13 heading into the locker rooms.
Despite leading by a seemingly comfortable margin, Yale players and fans alike knew they could not afford to relax, as vivid memories of past heartaches permeated the stands. After an interception ended the Bulldogs’ opening drive of the second half and gave the Crimson great field position, a Harvard comeback appeared not only possible, but probable to many weary Yale fans. However, the Yale defense displayed its iron resolve, clamping down to force a third-and-long situation, which ultimately resulted in a fumble recovered by linebacker Chris Barry ’07.
“I thought that was the biggest play of the game,” McCarthy said. “If Harvard goes in to score, the game would’ve been completely different. Instead, the defense held strong like it has all year and basically saved us.”
Neither team would score during the third quarter, but strong pressure applied by the Elis’ special teams unit forced Harvard punter Matt Schindel into a six yard punt that landed out of bounds at the Crimson eight-yard line. McLeod needed only one play from there to secure his 20th overall touchdown of the year, becoming the only non-senior in league history to reach that total and giving Yale a 27-7 lead.
Just one minute later, the Bulldogs effectively stomped out any remaining life in the Crimson when Barry stripped Dawson of the ball as he attempted to run up the middle. Santoro proceeded to scoop up the loose ball and return it 38 yards to the end zone untouched, proving once again that the Eli defense was simply too much for the Cantabs.
Harvard would register one more touchdown before the end of the game, but the 34-13 triumph was still the largest margin of victory for the Elis in the Game since their 28-0 shutout in 1981 and the largest in Cambridge since 1960.
Though Yale must share the Ivy crown with Princeton this year, players said they do not believe it diminishes what they have accomplished.
“It would be great to have been able to win it outright, but really it doesn’t matter,” defensive lineman Brandt Hollander ’08 said. “They don’t put any asterisks in the record books, they’re still going to put the signs up in the stadium, and hang our picture on the wall, and it’s still going to say ‘champions.’ Hopefully we’ll win it again next year and then no one will remember that we shared this one.”