A 9-1 season that ended up a disaster.
Despite winning their first nine games for the first time since 1960, the football team failed to achieve either of its preseason goals this year: winning an outright Ivy League championship and beating Harvard.
Instead, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the team broke the hearts of the Eli faithful in one of the most disappointing losses in Yale history. The 37-6 debacle came as a surprise to many of the 57,000 in attendance at The Game, including the Bulldogs’ hated archrivals.
“We dreamed we’d get this result,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said. “But we never dreamed we’d get this kind of dominance.”
Although few expected that the Crimson would embarrass the Bulldogs as badly as they did, there were several indications of a possible Cantab upset before The Game began. After winning their first five games in dominating fashion, the Bulldogs had to struggle to eke out their last four wins before The Game.
The perfect season started to unravel during the Elis’ triple-overtime 26-20 squeaker over Penn four weeks before The Game.
With less than two minutes left in the second quarter in Philadelphia, Ivy League MVP Mike McLeod ’09 sustained a toe injury that changed the Bulldogs’ season. Although the Elis would later learn that McLeod had broken a bone in his toe, the star tailback gritted through the pain and recorded 19 more carries to help the Bulldogs escape Franklin Field with their first victory there in 17 years.
Although McLeod scored the game-winning touchdown the tailback was largely a non-factor after breaking his toe. After picking up 114 yards on 16 carries in the first half against Penn, McLeod was held to 33 yards on 19 rushes in the final two quarters.
Head coach Jack Siedlecki refused to pull his workhorse out of the game despite McLeod’s ineffectiveness. Instead he stuck with what had gotten the Bulldogs their first five victories — a strategy that would eventually cost the Bulldogs an opportunity to record their first perfect season since 1960.
“He’d carry 70 times if I left him,” Siedlecki said about McLeod before the football team’s game against Princeton. “And I probably would let him. It’s [running backs] coach [Larry] Ciotti that keeps me under control. He’s got his little chart that says Mike’s got to come out.”
That chart needs some work.
By halftime against the Quakers, McLeod had recorded 185 carries for 1,109 rushing yards on the season, picking up nearly six yards per carry. In the next 14 quarters before The Game, McLeod gained only 460 yards on 122 attempts for a pedestrian 3.77-yards-per-carry average.
Despite a clear drop in production and a severely injured toe, McLeod continued to shoulder an incredible workload. The junior running back recorded at least 32 carries in the three games before the 37-6 blowout against Harvard.
With their star tailback struggling to carry the offense, the Bulldogs came perilously close to losing against inferior teams in the buildup to The Game. The Elis committed five first-half turnovers against perennial doormat Columbia and entered the second half tied against a Lions team that would finish 0-7 in the Ivies and 1-9 overall.
Against Brown, the Bulldogs trailed the Bears 7-3 until running back Jordan Farrell ’10 pulled the Elis to a 17-7 victory on the strength of 78 second-half rushing yards and a go-ahead 31-yard touchdown run.
The Bulldogs’ struggles continued against Princeton the following week, as the Tigers outgained the Bulldogs 361-272 in total yardage.
Princeton quarterback Bill Foran directed an effective spread offense that dissected the Bulldogs’ secondary. Two turnovers inside the Yale 3-yard line doomed the Tigers, as the Elis eventually pulled away with a 27-6 victory that belied the closeness of the game.
In each contest, the Bulldog defense bailed out a stagnant offense. Against Harvard, the Eli defense could no longer play savior, as the Crimson quickly ran out to a 7-0 lead barely a minute into the game. With the offense forced to play catch-up, the Bulldogs faltered. McLeod, clearly suffering from the lingering effects of a broken toe, was limited to 50 yards on 20 carries.
With their bread and butter failing to produce results, the Bulldogs turned to an untested passing offense that had not played under pressure the entire season. Predictably, the passing attack faltered, as quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 finished two for 18 for only 29 total yards against the Ivy League’s best secondary.
“I want to be out there, but it’s difficult,” McLeod said after leaving The Game early in the fourth quarter. “I know my limits. I could not run. I wasn’t effective.”
If only the Bulldogs had figured that out earlier.