Coming into Saturday’s game, the Bulldogs are the underdogs — and they aren’t afraid to admit it. In fact, captain and linebacker Paul Rice ’10 said this fact would make a victory all the better.
“We are considered the underdog right now, but that would just make [a victory] a lot sweeter, especially because we are at home,” he said.
Saturday’s 126th edition of The Game is the seniors’ last chance to avenge the recent string of defeats Harvard (6–3, 5–1 Ivy) has dealt Yale (4–5, 2–4). The Crimson have won seven of the past eight meetings between the rivals, including two especially painful games for the Bulldogs the last two years.
In 2007, with both teams undefeated in the conference and the Ivy League title on the line, the Cantabs crushed the Elis, 37–6, to spoil what would have been Yale’s first undefeated season since 1960.
Last year wasn’t much better for the Bulldogs, who were held to 90 total yards in their 10–0 loss in Cambridge. The defeat meant Yale would not split the conference title with Harvard and Brown. Former Eli head coach Jack Siedlecki stepped down four days later.
“The past two years have been unacceptable, and it’s time to change that,” Rice said.
With a new head coach — Tom Williams — and with a more pass-oriented offense than in recent seasons, the Crimson will face a much different team from what they have seen recently.
The Game will also be different from what Yale is used to, though, because this contest does not hold any title implications for the Elis.
After losing 35 seniors last year, including All-Ivy tailback Mike McLeod ’09 and Buck Buchanan Award finalist linebacker Bobby Abare ’09, this season has largely been a rebuilding year for the team.
“We’ve kind of talked about having that kind of chip on your shoulder the whole year anyway,” Williams said. “We’re a young football team, people didn’t expect much from the team, and we just wanted to try to prove as many people wrong as we could.”
The Bulldogs have had mixed success this year. Two of their four Ivy League losses — the Elis’ 14–12 loss to Cornell (2–7, 1–5) and their 9–0 defeat to conference leader Penn (7–2, 6–0) — have seen the offense squander dominant performances by the Yale defense.
Since then, though, it seems the Bulldogs’ troubles have reversed, as the offense under quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 has demonstrated potential, while the Eli defense has struggled to regain its early-season form when it allowed only nine points in the span of three games at one point.
Three weeks ago, Witt led a dramatic 12-point fourth quarter comeback to bail out a Yale defense that had allowed 22 points against Columbia.
But for the past two weeks, the offense’s second-half comebacks have not been enough. And the troubles on defense — which allowed 35 and 24 points in Yale’s losses to Brown and Princeton, respectively — have been exacerbated by six Witt turnovers.
“I’m trying to minimize [turnovers] as much as possible, but at the same time if you’re playing scared, then you’re not going to play your best game,” Witt said. “I’m not going to change the way I play. Hopefully I’ll just make some better throws and some better decisions.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs recently heard encouraging news about strong safety Larry Abare ’10, who has sat out the past month with a broken forearm. Just last week, Abare was wearing a cast, but now he has received medical permission to play against Harvard.
“Somehow, someway we’ve got to get him out onto the field,” Williams said.
Abare, who has been hoping to get a chance to play in his final game, could not be more excited.
“It would obviously be extremely tough for me to watch from the sidelines… so I’m extremely grateful to get to be with my teammates and play in this rivalry one more time,” he said.
The Bulldogs are going to need all the help that they can get from Abare, who had led the team in tackles before going down against Lehigh.
Last week saw the Eli defense fall at the hands of the Princeton (3–6, 2–4) running game, which statistically had been ranked second-to-last in the Ivy League — ahead of only Yale — in the conference.
Not only does Harvard feature the strongest running attack in the Ivy League, but the Crimson also, statistically, have the conference’s best offense.
Leading Harvard’s attack will be junior quarterback Collier Winters, who poses a threat both in the air and on the ground. Winters has thrown for 1,650 yards and run for another 244 yards this season.
The Bulldogs have struggled to wrap up mobile quarterbacks, a trend Williams said must stop.
“When you have an elusive quarterback that can make those types of calls in space, it is a concern,” he said. “[The last three weeks] we have had guys in position, but we just didn’t finish those plays. There’s no magic formula that’s going to help you do that — you just have to tackle them.”
Despite the challenges the Cantabs will pose, Williams said he thinks Harvard is beatable.
For one, the Crimson’s losses to Lafayette and Penn occurred in very similar fashions to how the Bulldogs fared against the two teams. Both the Cantabs and Elis were blown out by Lafayette by scores of 35-18 and 31–14, respectively. And both Harvard and Yale lost defensive struggles to Penn, which defeated Yale 9–0 last month and topped Harvard 17–7 last week.
“There is no transitive property of football like there is in geometry,” Williams said. “But you kind of look at those [scores] and say, ‘I think that we’re pretty even football teams.’ As it always does, it’s going to come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.”
In the Crimson’s loss to the Quakers, Harvard missed a chance to clinch a piece of the Ivy League title. The Crimson can still earn a split of the title if they win Saturday and Penn loses to Cornell.
Tomorrow’s game will be the last for Yale’s senior class, a group that includes the defensive core of Rice, Abare, linebacker Tim Handlon ’10, linebacker Travis Henry ’10 and defensive lineman Tom McCarthy ’10.
“It will be great to have Larry out there with [us] seniors,” Rice said. “We’ve grown together as football players and as men, so it will be very special out there.”
For now, though, Rice wants to focus his thoughts on The Game and not on his and his classmates’ legacies.
“I’m going to try to stay with my pre-game routine and treat it just like it’s another game,” Rice said. “Then we’ll see what happens.”
And tens of thousands will be there watching.