BOSTON — And you thought last year was ugly.
For the second consecutive year, the Eli offense simply did not show up in The Game and rival Harvard walked off the field crowned Ivy League champions on Nov. 22. After last season’s 37-6 drubbing of the Bulldogs in New Haven, the Cantabs yet again looked dominant and shut out Yale, 10-0.
Harvard (9-1, 6-1 Ivy) shares the Ivy League championship, their second in a row and 13th in history, with Brown (7-3, 6-1), who claimed a piece of it with a 41-10 rout of Columbia (2-8, 2-5).
In last season’s contest, Yale (6-4, 4-3) recorded a paltry 109 yards of offense. This year, the Bulldogs made that look good, mustering just 90 yards of offense — 10 in the second half — and yielding three turnovers to the Harvard defense. The struggles made it difficult for the Elis to sustain a drive. Yale was just 1-of-11 on third downs and registered only five first downs.
The shutout was the first for either team in The Game since 1992, when the Crimson defeated the Bulldogs 14-0.
“Give them credit: They played great,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “Their defense was tough and played great. They have some great players.”
Even with the lackluster offensive performance, the Bulldogs were able to stay in the game behind the play of one of the nation’s best defenses. But there is only so much a defense can do.
The Eli offense had plenty of opportunities to put points on the board, but the three turnovers and a 24-yard missed field goal from usually reliable Tom Mante ’10 put several of them to waste. And the worst wasted opportunity of all came on Yale’s final possession of the 2008 campaign.
When the game looked out of reach as time ticked down, Gio Christodoulou ’11 struck again in the rivalry game, returning a Crimson punt 48 yards to put the Elis inside the red zone.
With the ball on the Harvard eight-yard line, the scoreboard reading 10-0 in favor of the Crimson and 3:20 remaining in the contest, the Bulldogs had a golden opportunity to begin an unlikely comeback.
One would think the game plan would be simple: give the ball to standout running back Mike McLeod ’09. The Yale coaching staff thought differently and threw the ball. And threw the ball. And threw it again. And again — each time to no avail.
After a defensive pass interference penalty was called against Harvard on fourth and goal from the nine, the Elis had the ball on the two-yard line, an even shorter distance for McLeod to cover. But yet again the Bulldog coaching staff saw it differently and elected to stay in the air.
Brook Hart’s ’11 pass on first and goal went in and out of the hands of H-back John Sheffield ’10 in the end zone. That was the last chance the Elis would have. On second and goal, after dropping back to pass, Hart was blindsided by Harvard linebacker Eric Schultz and fumbled the ball — as well as Yale’s hopes of a comeback.
Carl Ehrlic recovered the fumble for the Crimson, and celebration ensued on the field turf of historic Harvard Stadium as an upset McLeod left the field, tossing his helmet as he got to the Yale sideline in frustration.
Siedlecki said he thought running the ball in that situation would have been too much of risk with only one timeout remaining and time winding down.
“We needed to score immediately, onside kick, then we would’ve needed to move the ball whatever number of yards,” Siedlecki said. “I was just trying to score on one play or not have the clock run out on us because as we used the two timeouts during their [previous] possession, so we only had one left.”
On the day, Hart was just 4-of-11 for 36 yards. The southpaw was sacked three times and saw pressure all game long.
McLeod, who looked explosive on some runs and was coming off his best performance of the season last week against Princeton, finished his final collegiate game with 62 yards on 21 carries.
The tough loss comes despite another solid performance from the nation’s top scoring defense. The ten Harvard points were actually under the average of what the Bulldogs have surrendered per game (10.6).
The explosive Cantab offense may have only scored ten points, but gained 370 yards on offense in a surprising way. Known for a prolific passing game, led by Walter Payton Award finalist and NFL prospect Chris Pizzotti at quarterback, Harvard decided things needed to be done a little differently in the frigid conditions.
In the sub-freezing weather, the Crimson looked to the run game and tailback Gino Gordon responded with the game of his life. The sophomore rushed 39 times for 168 yards and the game’s lone touchdown. Normally a pocket passer, Pizzotti even got into the act and scrambled for 83 yards for the day. The fifth-year senior quarterback was completed 12 of 21 passes for 109 yards in the freezing weather and as a unit, the Cantabs rushed for a season-high 261 yards.
Gordon’s four-yard score in the first quarter was set up by great field position after a questionable call by the referees.
After their first drive stalled on the Yale 35-yard line, Harvard punted away to the Elis. Christodoulou called for the fair catch, but someone deflected the ball as it came down. The referees at first determined it was touched by a Harvard player, but after deliberating, decided to switch the call and award the Crimson the ball, ruling that the ball was indeed touched by a Bulldog.
The spot, on the Yale 13-yard line, made things easy for the Cantab offense and three plays later, Harvard had taken a lead that they would never relinquish.
But after the game, the Bulldogs still didn’t believe the punt hit one of their guys.
“I called for a fair catch but a Harvard player was blocked into me and I was unable to catch the ball,” Christodoulou said. “It was a judgment call by the referees but I didn’t think it hit myself or Larry [Abare ’10].”
Harvard followed the touchdown up with an unexpected and perfectly executed onside kick. Ultimately, when the Bulldog offense took the field for the first time, they were already down 7-0 and only 3:25 remained in the first quarter.
“That whole first quarter, with not running an offensive play in the game until [3:25] left in the quarter was very difficult thing to handle, for any team, especially on a day like today,” Siedlecki said.
That sequence of events, along with the Crimson able to run wild on the Bulldog defense and Yale’s inability to sustain much of anything on offense led to a huge discrepancy in the two teams’ times of possession — something Siedlecki has harped on all season. The Cantabs held the ball for 39:15, almost 20 minutes for than did the Elis.
In a number of ways, the devastating loss was a microcosm of Yale’s season — wonderful play from the defense and lackluster performance from the offense.
Coming into the season, expectations were high for the Yale offense, and maybe too high, with the return of preseason All-American McLeod in the backfield and an expanded passing game. But the expectations didn’t translate on the field.
McLeod finished with only 921 yards and six touchdowns on the ground after rushing for 1,619 yards and 23 scores in 2007. The passing game was considerably improved with Ryan Fodor ’09 and Hart under center at various times throughout the season. But the coaching staff’s reluctance to throw the ball downfield combined with the struggles in the run game didn’t make the passing game a consistent threat.
On the whole, the Bulldogs were held to 14 or fewer points on six occasions, including all four losses. Those four defeats were by a combined 17 points.
The 125th meeting between Yale and Harvard also marks the end of the line for one of Yale football’s great senior classes. The group led by McLeod and captain and standout linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 finished its career with an impressive 27-13 record and an Ivy League championship in 2006.
All season, the Bulldogs stressed not allowing emotions to get in the way of their play. But the thought of not suiting up again in a Yale uniform got the best of the Bulldog captain, who ended his career with an 18-tackle performance.
“I really can’t put it into words,” Abare said. “Just playing football and playing for Yale has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”