Recently, venerable Yale art historian Vincent Scully ’40, MA ’47, GRD ’49 recounted for me a time long ago, when Yale vs. Harvard meant just as much as Michigan vs. Ohio State. Back then, he said, games would be played later in the afternoon, so when Yale would lose, the sky was inevitably a bluish black (as it was 364 days ago), the sun having set not just on a day or a season but on all of autumn.
On those afternoons the now-anachronistic Yale Bowl took on a tragic quality, the crisp evening air a harbinger of cold winter — a winter that Yale victories over Harvard somehow seemed to defer.
It is no secret that winter has indeed come early in New Haven these last few years, although Yale still holds a 13-game advantage in the all-time series. None of the last five Games has been enjoyable for Yale, but the last two — a humiliating rainy day in Cambridge in 2004 and a triple-overtime, 1968-like collapse last year — have been especially painful.
With Harvard boasting the same All-Americans — running back Clifton Dawson and defensive tackle Michael Berg — as last year, things could look grim for the Elis.
Dawson, now a senior (thank God), is statistically the Ivy League’s best ever runner, having broken the 35-year-old rushing record in last week’s loss at Penn. His 4,781 career yards include 422 in three games against Yale, not to mention last year’s ten-catch, 85-yard output on the underneath dump-offs that became Harvard’s most dependable source of offense in the improbable second-half comeback.
But Dawson should not expect to find similar success this year against Yale’s much-improved underneath pass defense, spearheaded by first-year starting linebacker Bobby Abare ’09, whose four interceptions lead the Ivy League. As Dawson stands on the Harvard sideline during Yale possessions, wunderkind Mike McLeod ’09, from hard-hittin’ New Britain — not Canada, eh? — will reveal the Big Ten washout and his rushing record for the old news that they already are.
Connecticut defector Berg, a disruptive two-time All-Ivy defender who picked off Jeff Mroz ’06 in triple overtime last year, is Harvard’s only hope of stopping the nation’s fourth leading rusher. Often lining up over the center, Berg will usually be out of the reach of star tackle Ed McCarthy ’07, which could mean in the face of McLeod.
That would seem to bode well for the Crimson. But it just might be the best thing that could happen for Yale.
Seven months ago I wrote a story on the four Yale quarterbacks vying to replace Mroz. Though pedestrian statistics this fall might have inspired second-guessers, I endorsed Matt Polhemus ’08 because “on an offense that is by all accounts predictable, a playmaking quarterback is Yale’s only hope of diversifying its offensive menu. Polhemus’s speed would pose the only X-factor in what could otherwise be a steady diet of hooks, counters and posts.”
There’s a line in the film “Miracle” where U.S. assistant coach Craig Patrick, astounded that Herb Brooks would want Jim Craig as his starting goalie, tells Brooks, “Word is Craig’s game’s been off since his mother died.” Without missing a beat, Brooks snaps, “Have you ever seen him when his game’s on?”
What Thomas Stephenson Family Coach for Harvard Football Tim Murphy doesn’t realize — indeed, what the Thomas Stephenson family doesn’t even realize — is just how good Polhemus is. There is a schoolyard quality to his game that stems from a renegade attitude and an aversion to quarterback orthodoxy. Against a Harvard defense that must blitz constantly to cover up its atrocious secondary (111th in pass defense out of 116 teams in division I-AA), things will inevitably break down. When they do, Polhemus will elude the rush unlike any quarterback Harvard has faced, and find the Ancient Eight’s best pair of receivers to reveal the Crimson scheme for exactly what it is: a bad combover. Murphy would have seen it on the game tape from last week, except that Jack Siedlecki bungled away a sure victory by opting repeatedly — and gutlessly — to run McLeod into a wall of eight or nine defenders throughout the second half — prompting a loss that, sans Cambridge fun police, we were at least able to watch drunk as hell.
Polhemus, captain Chandler Henley ’07 and the rest of the ’06 Bulldogs don’t care about the last five years. Henley and half of the defense didn’t play in the game last year. Polhemus didn’t take a snap. The last time The Game was played in Cambridge, McLeod and Abare were in high school.
To the ’06 Bulldogs, every week this season has been a Game. They dubbed the matchup against Penn “separation Saturday” then beat the Quakers team that last week beat Harvard. They ignored the impending H-Y-P hoopla to beat Brown on the road. They topped Lafayette by three and avoided collapse to take Lehigh in overtime.
For wide receiver D.J. Shooter ’07 — whose overtime fumble tarnished the memory of a sparkling first-quarter touchdown — or McCarthy, a four-year starter, or the much-maligned Siedlecki, tomorrow may be about redemption.
But for the rest of the ’06 Bulldogs, it is about a genuine disdain for Harvard, which, if you’ll excuse us, is standing in the way of our Ivy League title.
Alex Goldberger is a junior in Trumbull College.