This weekend, fans across New England will have a chance to witness one of the greatest and longest-standing rivalries in sports, complete with an unequaled tradition, uncompromising loyalties and unparalleled intensity. The difference this year: The Game actually matters.

In the 123rd meeting of these hallowed institutions, Harvard (7-2, 4-2 Ivy) and Yale (7-2, 5-1 Ivy) face off not just for school pride or annual bragging rights, but for a chance at the most sought-after prize in Ancient Eight athletics: a gridiron Ivy League Championship.

After dropping five consecutive games to the Crimson — including last year’s triple-overtime heartbreaker — the Bulldogs feel mounting pressure to unshackle themselves from the apparent stranglehold the Cantabs have held over the series in the recent play. Ending this breakout season with back-to-back losses to arch-rivals Princeton and Harvard will have devastating effects on the legacy of the entire 2006 campaign.

Add this to the fact that the matchup features the league’s top rushing offense for Yale against the league’s preeminent run-stopping defense for Harvard, and the stage is set for a battle of monumental proportions.

“I came to Yale to play in this game,” defensive lineman Brandt Hollander ’08 said. “Simply put, this is as good as it gets, and I can’t wait.”

The intense desire for victory will only be amplified further by the fact that both teams enter The Game following thoroughly disappointing losses to league rivals. The Bulldogs, who began the last game with their most prolific offensive performance of the season, managed only 59 yards in the second half and relinquished an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, resulting in the inopportune loss to Princeton for the first time in five years.

“Obviously, the team was very down immediately after the loss, but … I think everyone has come to the realization that we are still in first place and we get a second chance versus Harvard this weekend,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “You don’t often get a second chance in athletics, and we need to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Harvard suffered a similar fate when it traveled to Philadelphia last Saturday to take on Penn. The Crimson turned the ball over four times in the first half to allow the Quakers to get off to an early lead, and the Cantabs were not able to fight their way back into the game. The loss deprived Harvard of control of its own destiny, as even a victory over the Elis this weekend would leave them at the mercy of the results of the Princeton-Dartmouth duel — a Princeton victory condemning Harvard to a second-place tie with Yale.

Despite the loss, star running back Clifton Dawson broke perhaps the single most revered individual record in Ancient Eight sports, rushing for 119 yards against Penn to become the league’s all-time leading rusher. Dawson now has 4,781 career rushing yards and is only the ninth player in Division I history to register four 1000-yard seasons. He leads the league with 21 touchdowns this fall and must clearly be the focal point of the Bulldog defense.

Though Dawson will surely prove to be a handful, Yale must also contend with senior wideout Corey Mazza. Mazza ranks second in career receiving yards and receiving touchdowns at Harvard, and prior to the Penn game had snagged a touchdown in eight consecutive outings.

“We need a great week of practice preparing for Harvard’s multifaceted offense,” Siedlecki said. “They have a great back in Dawson, a great receiver in Mazza and have been successful with more than one quarterback.”

But like the Crimson, Yale has a lot of reasons to be confident going into Saturday’s showdown. Standout tailback Mike McLeod ’09 has now rushed for at least 100 yards in a Yale-record eight consecutive games and is tied for most rushing touchdowns in a season with 16. He had a career-high four touchdowns in the first half alone against Princeton last week and will be looking to penetrate the stingy Harvard defense this weekend.

Another Bulldog rising to the occasion as of late has been linebacker Bobby Abare ’09. Abare was named Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week for his three-interception effort against Brown and leads the Elis with 43 solo tackles this fall. He is the first Eli to record three interceptions in a game since 1998 and is just one pick shy of tying the record for most interceptions in a season by a Yale linebacker.

Players on both teams know that this is the premier showcase that they will have in their college careers. The reputations of the programs and the universities will be on the line, and, on the Eli sideline, the heat will be on after half a decade of painful losses.

“Anyone who comes to watch will see a Yale team that will leave it all out on the field with no regrets,” Abare said.

For as many as 23 Bulldogs — none of whom have ever beaten Harvard — this could be their last action in a Yale uniform.

“It’s my last chance to do something I love,” Henley added. “I can’t imagine a better ending than a victory over Harvard for an Ivy League championship.”