The Game? More like The Embarrassment.
In the most hyped edition of The Game since 1968, Harvard defeated Yale 37-6 the Saturday before Thanksgiving, putting an end to the Elis’ quest for their first perfect season in half a century.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”13078″ ]
Yale came into the game as the heavy favorite, looking to go undefeated for the first time since 1960. But instead, it was Harvard that left with an Ivy League championship and its largest margin of victory in 15 years.
The 124th edition of The Game — which featured two undefeated teams seeking to secure the Ivy League championship — failed to live up to expectations, as the Bulldogs came up short in virtually every way possible. Having come in riding their first 9-0 start since 1960, the Bulldogs were dominated by the Cantabs on both sides of the ball, disappointing one half of a record crowd of over 57,000 — the largest recorded since 1989.
The Yale faithful started filling up the Yale Bowl near the end of the first quarter. But for many fans, the fun and excitement of The Game may have peaked at the tailgate festivities beforehand — a large majority of the crowd had begun streaming out of the stadium by the beginning of the fourth quarter, after Harvard had pushed its lead to 37-0.
Tailback Mike McLeod ’09, the Ivy League MVP, turned in his most unimpressive performance of the season, recording only 50 yards on 20 carries for an uncharacteristically low 2.5-yards-per-carry average. McLeod’s performance was emblematic of the Bulldog offense as a whole, as Yale barely recorded 100 yards of total offense.
Despite a talented roster featuring 16 All-Ivy selections, the Bulldogs were thoroughly outplayed by their archrivals the Crimson.
The 37-6 blowout can be attributed at least in part to poor in-game adjustments by the Yale coaching staff. Head coach Jack Siedlecki had difficulty adjusting to the Crimson’s offensive and defensive game plans.
“We had a horrible day,” Siedlecki said. “We got outplayed, got outcoached, whatever. It was a tough day.”
Things went badly for the Bulldogs from the very beginning. On the first drive, Harvard came out of the gate attacking, relying on a scramble drill to exploit Yale’s cover-two defense. Less than a minute into the game, Crimson quarterback Chris Pizzotti found wideout Matt Luft behind the Yale secondary for a 40-yard touchdown.
The drive set the tone for the rest of the game, as the Cantabs quickly realized the Elis could not stop their passing attack.
At the end of the first quarter, Pizzotti again found Luft for a 33-yard touchdown. The Elis could not find an answer to the slippery wide receiver, who ended the half with 142 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Before the beginning of the third quarter, the Crimson had already recorded 299 total yards of offense and converted seven of 12 third downs. Harvard boasted a six-minute advantage in time of possession.
The Bulldog offense seemed impotent by comparison. The potent Eli rushing attack was stuffed by a swarming Harvard defense that consistently dominated the line of scrimmage.
The Bulldogs had moderate success on the ground in the first quarter, picking up 45 yards on 11 rushes, but they could not sustain a drive. Yale did not get past its own 40-yard line until late in the second quarter and did not reach the red zone once all day.
“I’m not sure what it was,” McLeod said. “I thought we did a great job running the ball in the first quarter — moving people off the ball, getting yards. We weren’t converting on third down — that was the problem.”
The game seemed to spiral out of control in the second quarter. After the Crimson drove the length of the field using a combination of screens and draws to stretch their lead to 20-0, the Bulldogs could not even punt without the Cantabs’ getting into their backfield.
With nearly eight minutes left in the second quarter, punter Tom Mante ’10 was forced to pull down the ball and run with it after a bad snap and Harvard penetration made it impossible to get the punt off. Mante was stopped on the Yale 15-yard line, and Pizzotti threw his third touchdown pass on the next play, giving the Crimson a 27-0 lead before many Yale fans had left the tailgate.
Facing such a huge early deficit, the Elis had to rely on the Ivy League’s worst passing attack to try to get themselves back into the game. The Bulldog passing offense lived up to its reputation, as quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 completed as many passes to the Harvard secondary as he did to the Bulldog wide receivers, finishing the half one for seven for 20 yards with a sack and an interception.
By the end of the game, Polhemus had only connected on two of 18 passes for 29 yards. The Elis gave up almost twice as many yards through penalties — drawing six flags for 50 yards — as they picked up through the air.
“We just really had no answers offensively,” Siedlecki said. “They seemed to be in our backfield every play, whether we were running or throwing. Obviously, it got us completely out of our style of play. I don’t know how many plays our defense played, but they were out there all day. I’m not a big believer in the snowball thing, but today it really seemed like it.”
McLeod and the Eli offensive line did nothing to help Polhemus out. The junior tailback, visibly suffering from a broken toe that he injured against Penn four weeks ago, carried seven times for zero yards in the second quarter and was largely ineffective the entire game. McLeod was pulled out before the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“It hurts,” McLeod said of his broken toe. “It limits me. I say I was probably about 60 or 70 percent.”
The offense stalled without McLeod. The Elis only picked up 50 total yards in the second half, and the outcome was never in doubt.
The Cantabs added 10 more points to stretch their lead to 37-0, and the only thing preventing the first Game shutout since 1966 was a punt return for a touchdown by Gio Christodoulou ’11 in the closing minutes of the game, which gave the few remaining Yale fans in the Bowl stands something to cheer about.
The Crimson may have turned in a dominating performance, but it is debatable whether they were 31 points better than the most talented Yale team in recent memory. At a post-game press conference, Harvard coach Tim Murphy said he expected to win, but not in such dominating fashion.
The Bulldogs came out flat, could not make any meaningful in-game adjustments and faltered when they were forced to throw the ball for the first time this season.
The Cantabs exploited the one-dimensional Yale offense — the Bulldogs rushed 34 times and only threw 22 passes, despite being behind the entire game — and cruised to an easy 37-6 victory.
In what promises to be one of the most painful offseasons in Yale football history, the Bulldogs will try to pick up the pieces of their once promising season and figure out exactly how things went so wrong.
“We had a great year, and I told the seniors I’m proud of them for what they’ve accomplished over the past two years,” Siedlecki said. “They’re going to be proud of themselves. I know they’re really down today — rightfully so, it was a tough day for all of us. But these guys have won a lot of football games, and they’ve done a lot for this football program.”
The Bulldogs will begin next season looking for their first outright Ivy League title since 1980 and their second victory over Harvard in their last eight attempts.