I’ll make this quiz real simple for the Yale kids reading. Something of the multiple-choice variety should be more familiar to you guys.
Harvard will win the 123rd edition of The Game, one of college football’s most storied rivalries, at Harvard Stadium tomorrow because:
a. Its running back and quarterback, Clifton Dawson and Liam O’Hagan, are a more talented and experienced version of Yale’s own rusher-passer duo — Mike McLeod and Matt Polhemus.
b. Its defense, ranked first in the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed and sacks per game, is far superior.
c. It is playing at home, where it is unbeaten in 2006, outscoring its opponents 112-51.
d. It has not lost to the Bulldogs since 2000, a streak unprecedented in the history of the series, giving it a psychological edge before the teams even leave their locker rooms.
e. All of the above.
Now, don’t strain yourselves, my dear Yalies. When all of the above is offered as an answer, it’s usually the right one. And, sure enough, the preeminence of its skill players, the ferocity of its defense, the home-field advantage, and the recent results all spell a Crimson conquest come tomorrow afternoon.
I could easily end this column where I’ll begin it, with Harvard tailback Clifton Dawson, the best player in the history of the Ivy League (yeah, I said it). Whether Dawson will be playing on Sundays next fall remains an open question, but it is certain he will suit up for the final time in his collegiate career tomorrow. With the distraction of the Ancient Eight’s all-time running record removed after he broke it at Penn last weekend, Dawson can focus solely on making his last game for the Crimson a memorable one. Dawson has never run for less than 120 yards against Yale, and padded his rushing stats with 10 catches for 85 yards in last season’s triple-overtime thriller. Taking the field with 4,781 career rushing yards to his name, the 5,000-yard peak is remote, but, if he breaks a couple of long ones, not unattainable.
In addition, Harvard has the aerial attack to complement Dawson’s irrepressible running. In Yale’s season-opening loss to San Diego, the Toreros’ mobile quarterback, Josh Johnson, torched the Bulldogs defense for five touchdowns in a 43-17 rout. O’Hagan is a two-way threat cut from a similar cloth, able to stand and deliver like Princeton senior Jeff Terrell did in the Tigers’ comeback win in New Haven last Saturday or make plays with his feet, scrambling to stay alive and find the inevitable holes in the Bulldogs’ young secondary, which allows a league-worst 242.3 yards through the air per game.
But the best matchup in this game is the Harvard defensive front against the Yale running game anchored by the sophomore standout McLeod. The Ivy League’s leading rusher spearheads a Bulldogs’ ground assault that posts a robust 207.4 yards per game.
However, Yale hasn’t faced a rushing defense of Harvard’s staunchness. Senior tackle Michael Berg leads a unit that rates a 8.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness, somewhere between topaz and corundum. They should be able to handcuff McLeod, and I’m guessing Bulldogs QB Matt Polhemus, untested because of the run game’s success (21 pass attempts per game, five touchdowns in nine outings) isn’t prepared for the challenge.
In addition to the benefits of hosting, the psychological element in this edition of The Game is non-negligible. Harvard has captured the last five meetings between the archrivals, meaning no member of the Bulldogs has ever participated in a victory over the Crimson. This means one of two things on the Yale end: either the squad is demoralized by its sustained losing streak or especially geared up to end the slide. The team’s seniors, including captain Ed McCarthy, the linchpin of the offense from his left tackle spot, will be particularly motivated to experience a season-ending win for the first time.
All in all, there’s a definite big brother-little brother dynamic to Harvard-Yale this year. Over the past half-decade, Harvard has been the kind of older sibling that won’t let the younger win. Dawson is the legend riding off into the sunset; McLeod is the young challenger taking aim at his new record two years down the line. Polhemus is a talented and mobile (and scandal-touched) junior signal-caller like O’Hagan, but lags behind the Crimson starter in big-game polish. Harvard head coach Tim Murphy and Bulldogs skipper Jack Siedlecki, assistants together at Lafayette in the early 80s, have three and a half Ancient Eight titles between them; Murphy has three.
Upstart Yale, however, picked fifth in the preseason media poll, can earn at least a share of the Ivy League crown in 2006 with a victory tomorrow, while Harvard, the early favorite, can force a three-way tie with a win and a Princeton loss versus Dartmouth.
And, you know, 1636.
There’s a silver lining here in terms of Harvard-Yale relations. After the Crimson flattens the Bulldogs tomorrow, supporters of the two schools can join together in saluting the Ivy League’s new champion: Princeton sucks.
Crimson staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at email@example.com.