THE GAME | Football preview

It’s that time of the year. It’s freezing, Thanksgiving is on the horizon and another chapter of one the greatest rivalries in college sports is ready for the books.

On Saturday, the football team heads on the road to battle No. 19 Harvard in what will be the 125th edition of the contest simply known as The Game.

Riding one of the country’s best defenses, the Bulldogs (6-3, 4-2) will be coming off three consecutive league victories that have them right back in league title contention in the season’s final weekend. But the arch-rival Crimson (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) have momentum of their own. The Cantabs, coming off a 24-21 nail-biter over Penn, have won seven straight games, have been a Sports Network FCS top-25 team the past five weeks and have yet to lose at Harvard Stadium this season. The team’s seventh win of the campaign two weeks ago against Columbia (2-7, 2-4) extended an Ivy League record of consecutive seven-win seasons to eight.

Last year’s meeting was as highly anticipated a football game as ever in the Ivy League. Both teams were undefeated in league play and were looking to add another Ivy League championship to their mantels — Yale was actually looking to complete an undefeated campaign for the first time in decades. But the Bulldogs simply did not show up. The Cantabs waxed the Elis at the Yale Bowl to the tune of 37-6 and claimed Harvard’s 12th Ivy League title in front of 57,248 fans.

The teams will not be going into the game with unblemished Ivy League records like last year’s meeting in New Haven, which in effect was a conference championship game, but Saturday’s contest has major title implications of its own.

A Yale victory combined with a Brown (6-3, 5-1) loss against Columbia on Saturday gives the Elis a share of the Ivy title for the second time in three seasons and the 15th time in school history.

The idea of sharing the crown is better than nothing, but to some Elis, settling on a tie is not as satisfying as winning it outright.

“Sharing the title with three other teams isn’t really that sweet at all,” tackle Darius Dale ’09 said. “As an athlete, I cringe at the idea of tying in anything. [But] if we happen to win a share of the title in the process [of beating Harvard], I’ll take it.”

A Crimson win guarantees Harvard at least a piece of the Ancient Eight crown. A victory coupled with a Brown loss gives Harvard the outright title.

As expected, the Bulldogs are not too worried about all the scenario talk; they know they need to take care of business against a formidable Harvard squad.

“The title scenarios are for the media and the fans,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We need to focus on the game, play hard, play smart and put ourselves in the best position to come away with a win.”

The teams may have a shot at the title, but things were not going so well for the two preseason conference favorites after early league losses. Both teams went on the road on Sept. 27 for their first Ivy games of the season, and both came out losers.

Cornell (4-5, 2-4) did the honors against the Elis, upsetting Yale 17-14, and Brown defeated the Cantabs 24-22.

While Harvard has been on a tear since, the Bulldogs’ road to Saturday’s finale was a bit bumpier. A tough 12-10 loss at Fordham was followed by a devastating 9-7 loss at the hands of Penn (5-4, 4-2) on Oct. 25, which dropped the Elis to 1-2 in the league.

That adds up to three losses by a total of just seven points.

In those two games, the offense was nowhere to be found and combined to register a paltry 10 points and 274 total yards of offense.

The Eli offense has bounced back with three consecutive wins behind backup quarterback Brook Hart ’11, who replaced starter Ryan Fodor ’09 after the senior suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at Fordham.

“In the last three wins, we came up with some great game plans that took advantage of some things each defense was doing,” Dale said. “Basically, we put certain defenders in binds and forced them to make decisions on how to play certain formations and made calls based on their choices.”

With Hart under center, the Bulldogs have averaged 290.6 yards of offense and 18 points per game over the last three games — more than enough for the country’s top scoring defense.

The vaunted Bulldog unit surrenders an average of just 10.6 points per game and has kept the opposition in single digits in five of the team’s nine games.

“I think being in the position we are in says a lot about the guys on this team,” captain and linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said. “They stuck together and continued to prepare and compete week after week no matter what happened in previous games.”

The face of the stingy defense, Abare leads the Bulldogs with 68 tackles, is tied for the lead with cornerback Paul Rice ’10 with four interceptions and has recorded 3.5 sacks. But Abare’s presence has transcended the stat sheets. Abare’s knack for clutch play led to two interceptions in the Eli endzone and two touchdown returns this season — and Siedlecki’s belief that he is the best defensive player he has ever coached.

To be the top-notch defense that it is, Yale needs more than just one standout — and the Elis have got plenty. The unit boasts All-Ivy talent at many positions, ranging from the team’s sack leader, Kyle Hawari ’09, on the line to Abare’s twin brother, strong safety Larry Abare ’10, and free safety Steven Santoro ’09 in the secondary. Hawari is second in the Ivies with his seven sacks, Larry Abare is second on the team in total tackles with 65 and Santoro has picked the opposing quarterback three times.

The unit has been especially impressive as of late considering Rice, a starter, hasn’t suited up for the Bulldogs in two weeks. The physical cornerback is a game-time decision this weekend, although Siedlecki said Rice will likely sit out.

What makes the situation more intriguing is that the team may lose its other starting cornerback, Casey Gerald ’09. This weekend is one of the most important of Gerald’s life — and it has nothing to do with football.

The Dallas native is one of 13 finalists in the Texas/Louisiana region for the Rhodes Scholarship. Gerald is set to fly down to Houston today for his interview, which is scheduled for tonight. He hopes to be in Cambridge on Saturday in time for the game, but he did admit there was a chance that things would not go as planned and he could miss his final collegiate game.

If Gerald is a no-go, Drew Baldwin ’12 will accompany Adam Money ’11 in the secondary. Just a freshman, Baldwin appeared in seven games and has registered three tackles. Money has stepped in admirably for Rice, recording a game-high nine tackles against Brown.

In the win over the Bears two weeks ago, the Elis had their most impressive showing, and held one of the league’s most explosive offenses to a season-low three points.

Now the unit is going to try its hand against the most explosive offense in the Ancient Eight.

The Crimson head into The Game averaging a league-best 29.3 points per game and a second-best 395.2 yards per game.

As far as the running game goes, the Cantabs do not have a conventional back system due to an injury-plagued campaign for last season’s starter Cheng Ho; Ho appeared in just five games this season. The team’s leading rusher, Gino Gordon, is fifth in the league in rushing but is averaging only 45.6 yards per game. Accompanying Gordon in the backfield is junior Ben Jenkins, who is averaging 30 yards per game this season.

The running back-by-committee system is effective, however. The Crimson rank third in the Ancient Eight in team rushing, averaging 130.3 yards per game, and lead the conference in rushing touchdowns with 13.

Taking away the running game will be key for the Elis. The Yale defense was able to do just that against the two most prolific offenses it has seen thus far — Holy Cross and Brown — and came out on top in both cases.

“They have a great passing attack and a solid run game,” Abare said of Harvard. “If we can take away their threat to run the ball and concentrate on their passing, we may have a little more success.”

As a defensive-minded squad, Yale will look to do three things to make it easier for an offense that has not consistently sustained effective drives — control the clock and win the turnover and field position battles.

In order to accomplish all three, Siedlecki has the perfect weapon at his disposal — Mike McLeod ’09. Yale’s all-time leader in virtually every rushing statistic, the Walter Payton Award candidate is not having the season many envisioned but has been critical in the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak.

Against Columbia, the preseason All-American rushed for 85 yards on 23 carries and tallied three touchdowns, doubling his season total. After 63 yards on the ground in the huge win over Brown two weeks ago, McLeod rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries in sloppy conditions against Princeton last Saturday. The 100-yard game was his third of the season.

In those last three games, the Elis held the ball for an average close to nine minutes longer than the opposition, dominated field position and committed two turnovers against nine for the opposition.

Yale leads the Ivy League and is fourth in the country in turnover margin (1.56). Harvard isn’t far behind with a margin of 1.11 per game, good for 11th in the nation.

The Crimson defense has forced 21 turnovers on the season and is third in the Ancient Eight in scoring defense, surrendering 19.8 points per game.

For the Eli offense, it is only a matter of executing the game plan — something it could not do at last season’s meeting against Harvard.

“We will try to keep doing what we have been doing the last couple of weeks, which is formulating a game plan that we think we can have success with and executing that game plan,” Hart said.

The matchup, set for a noon kickoff, will be nationally televised on VERSUS as the Ivy League Game of the Week. Emotions will be running high in what promises to be an electric atmosphere, especially for the seniors suiting up for their school for the final time.

But while some may let their emotions take over, Abare does not expect his team to do so.

“We’ll keep our emotion leveled and on an even keel,” the said. “In my experience from playing this game, it is the people who stay the most focused and withdraw themselves from the emotion who have the most success.”

The Elis just hope it will be enough success to avenge the humiliating loss in last season’s debacle and prevent the rival Crimson from an outright championship — and, if the Bulldogs get a break, maybe even capture a title of their own.

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