With one thunderous hit on an unsuspecting 165-pound Princeton receiver last Saturday, Brendan Sponheimer ’07 added meaning to tomorrow’s 122nd edition of The Game.
After Sponheimer’s forced fumble helped the Bulldogs secure their victory over the Tigers, Yale’s (4-5, 4-2 Ivy) battle with Harvard (6-3, 4-2) this weekend became a contest in which the rivals will compete not just for the usual bragging rights, but for the H-Y-P title and possibly even the Ivy League Championship.
Yale has not topped Harvard and Princeton in the same season since 1999, and with Harvard’s loss to Princeton and Yale’s heroics last week in Old Nassau, the Elis are the only team remaining with a chance to take the HYP title outright. But an outright Ancient Eight crown is out of the question for the Bulldogs. Brown, which plays lowly Columbia tomorrow, can clinch sole ownership of the title with a win.
“[The league championship] is in the back of our minds, obviously, but we’re not really counting on it,” said linebacker Lee Driftmier ’07, last week’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week. “It’s the H-Y-P — we just need to win that. And if Columbia pulls out a miracle, all the better.”
Driftmier, who last week grabbed two interceptions for the second time this season, will need to continue his standout play for Yale to stop the league’s second-best offense. Led by running back Clifton Dawson, a consensus first-team All-American as a sophomore last season, and emergent star quarterback Liam O’Hagan, the Crimson offense has averaged over 31 points per game. Driftmier, the heart of a defense that forced seven turnovers a week ago, is not terribly impressed by Harvard’s stats.
“We’re not going to change much,” he said. “To stop O’Hagan, we just need the D-line to keep him contained. With Dawson, I don’t know. I’ve never played against him. We just have to keep him inside the tackles and wrap up.”
Of course, stopping the potent Harvard offense is only half the battle. Quarterback and captain Jeff Mroz ’06 must ignite the Eli offense if he wants to improve upon the team’s 14.5 average points per game during the current four-year drought against the Crimson. Mroz needs just one more passing touchdown to tie Alvin Cowan’s ’05 single-season record (22 in 2003), but statistics are the farthest thing from his mind entering his first start against Harvard since 2002.
“I don’t look at numbers,” Mroz said. “I don’t know where I stand at all. Numbers don’t mean anything. The only numbers that matter are wins and losses.”
Truth be told, it might be a good thing for Yale if Mroz does not break the record. The key to victory for the Elis will undoubtedly be establishing a viable ground game against Division I-AA’s No. 2 run defense (83.1 yards allowed per game). The three teams stubborn enough to run the ball 40 times or more against the Cantabs were rewarded with victories.
If running back Mike McLeod ’09 carries the ball even 25 times tomorrow, Yale’s prospects will be promising.
So, too, will be the Bulldogs’ chance to snap the dreaded winless streak. No team on either side of the series has ever lost five games in a row, and Mroz, who entered Yale with the infamous class of ’05 before sitting out last season, has the weight of two classes resting on his right arm.
“I saw Ralph [Plumb ’05] this past week,” he said. “I see Rory [Hennessey ’05] a couple times a week. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from guys from that class. There are a lot of people who didn’t get the chance to beat Harvard. They really want this for me, and I think they really want it for themselves as well.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”15527″ ]