“Before I even came here, my parents had three books on my bookshelf about the rivalry.”
— Defensive tackle Kirk Porter ’08
The mystique of Ivy League football has gradually diminished in the last few decades. Ancient Eight teams no longer compete for national championships, nor their players for the Heisman Trophy. But each year, for one Saturday in November, a century-old tradition still assumes the spotlight.
It is the game so big that one team’s 16-point comeback to tie can be called a win. It is the game where a pivotal reception is forever remembered as “The Catch.” It is the game so big that it commands two capital letters.
It is the 122nd meeting between the Yale Bulldogs (4-5, 4-2 Ivy) and the Harvard Crimson (6-3, 4-2).
“There’s no bigger game in this program than playing Harvard,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “There would be people who would argue that it’s even more important than winning the Ivy title. It’s a great opportunity for the players, at this level of football, to be able to play in front of that many people.”
Safety Matt Handlon ’06, who will enjoy the thrill of playing before a professional-size crowd for the last time tomorrow, knows that the Game would mean as much in a vacuum as in the context of the league championship race.
“The ultimate goal is for it to have Ivy League implications,” he said. “But the thing about the Harvard-Yale rivalry is that no matter what the records are, it’s filled with so much emotion. Alumni are back on campus, and it’s such a great atmosphere with lots of energy.”
Despite the burden of four straight losses to Harvard and all the other hoopla, which this year includes the presence of NFL Films on campus to film a documentary on the Game, at field level, quarterback and captain Jeff Mroz ’06 said that it’s just football.
“When you’re on the field and you take a snap, you don’t think, ‘This is for the Ivy League championship,'” he said. “Last year has absolutely no bearing on this team. It means nothing to me. I can promise you there’s no one on third-and-three thinking, ‘We haven’t beaten these guys in four years.'”
Perhaps Mroz and his cohorts ought to give at least some consideration to the recent losses to Harvard.
In last year’s embarrassing, rain-soaked 35-3 loss in Cambridge, Yale never made any waves with its running game. The staunch Crimson run defense limited Rob Carr ’05, Yale’s all-time leading rusher, to a scant 56 yards, forcing Alvin Cowan ’05 to throw the ball 46 times.
Harvard has continued to foil its opponents’ ground efforts this season, ranking second in Division I-AA (83.11 yards per game). The two times the Bulldogs have faced elite run-stuffing defenses this year — those belonging to Lehigh and Penn — are the only games in which the offense has amassed fewer than 100 yards rushing. Those games also mark two of the three times this season when Siedlecki has ordered fewer than 30 running plays.
The Elis have reverted to their effective, though not overly potent, passing game much too readily this season. A commitment to the run against Harvard could go a long way. It is only by running the ball and controlling the clock that Yale can keep Clifton Dawson off the field. Harvard’s junior tailback was a consensus first-team All-American last year and has rumbled through the Eli defense for 296 yards in two career games.
“He’s tough,” Handlon said of the 190-pound Dawson. “He’s not that big of a guy. But he’s quick, and he hits you hard. He’ll put his shoulder right in your chest and drive you back a couple of yards.”
Stopping Dawson and the Harvard rush offense is critical for the Elis. Crimson quarterback Liam O’Hagan has emerged as a capable run-pass threat, so much so that he has kept Tulane transfer Richard Irvin on the bench, but the sophomore has thrown 11 interceptions in his first year as a starter and poses a considerably smaller threat if forced to be one-dimensional.
Fashioning a game plan to contain Harvard’s major weapons is imperative for Siedlecki and his staff. After all, while the Ivy League championship will not be on the line during the 122nd edition of the Game, jobs will. Bill Clinton was president the last time Yale beat Harvard, and a fifth straight loss could spell the end for some Eli coaches.
“I just want to win,” Siedlecki said when asked if he personally felt extra pressure. “Obviously it’s big because we’re playing the big rival. I know we’re being criticized. Everybody’s being criticized. But the biggest way to get rid of the criticism is to win.”