When Yale and Harvard first clashed on the gridiron in 1875, Ulysses S. Grant was president, the NCAA did not exist, and the forward pass was illegal. The two schools have played The Game 126 times since then. Saturday will mark another chapter in the third-longest rivalry in college football as the Elis (7–2, 5–1 Ivy) try to break a three-year losing streak against the Crimson (6–3, 4–2).
A win would not just break the streak, but also put a dent in nearly a decade of Harvard dominance. The Crimson has won eight of the schools’ past nine meetings. Yale’s only victory in that stretch was 2006, when the Bulldog win clinched the school’s first Ivy League Championship in seven years.
There is a small chance that a blue and white victory this year could mean another title, but it would require an unusual alignment in the stars. Yale needs a struggling Cornell team to pull off the upset of the season against first-place Penn.
Penn (8–1, 6–0) clinched a share of the Ivy League title last week when they blew Harvard out, 34–14. But they still sit only one game ahead of Yale in the standings. If Yale wins and Cornell (2–7, 1–5) surprises the country Saturday, The Game will mean more than just everything.
“When you’re playing in front of such a big crowd in a rivalry that dates back over a 100 years, it’s an indescribable feeling,” linebacker Jordan Haynes ’11 said. “These are the games that you will remember for the rest of your life.”
On paper, despite its inferior record, Harvard has the upper hand. The Crimson’s offense is ranked first among the Ancient Eight, and its defense is ranked second. Yale is ranked fourth in both categories.
But paper tends to be insufficient to predict the outcome of a game as emotionally charged as this one. Last year, second-place Harvard was supposed to bulldoze the 2–7 Elis. But it took two late touchdowns, a failed Yale fake punt attempt, and a Harvard interception in the final minute to seal a come-from-behind 14–10 victory.
Yale has experienced the power and distraction of emotion once already this season. Last week, Princeton came to the Yale Bowl with the worst record in the Ivy League, yet lost by just one point — 14–13 — to Yale. Head coach Tom Williams said the Tigers team that showed up was unlike any he saw on film. He said it came into the rivalry game inspired.
Emotions inspired Yale too, but perhaps too much, according to captain and defensive lineman Tom McCarthy ’11.
“Emotions were high, and we showed that on defense,” he said. “We were undisciplined. We were trying to make the big hit instead of going for disciplined tackles.”
Quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 also spoke about the danger of intense feelings coming out of the tunnel.
“Teams come out extremely amped up and ready to play one another,” he said. “The key is to avoid making those critical mistakes early. Kind of weather that storm, because when everything settles down, it’s just another football game.”
Just like any other football game, Williams pointed out, this one will hinge on players completing their assignments. Too much energy can be as problematic as too little.
“It’s a 60-minute boxing match, not a 40-yard dash,” Williams said.
Yale has struggled in recent games to fight consistently for all 60 minutes. That problem was especially obvious in the Columbia game three weeks ago. The Elis blew the Lions away in the first half, and built a 31–7 lead behind three touchdown passes from Witt. After halftime, however, the offense was held scoreless, the defense faltered, and the Lions clawed back to within three points before the clock ran out and Yale escaped with a 31–28 win.
The Bulldogs showed some of that same inconsistency against Princeton. The defense allowed 273 yards to the Tigers in the first half before buckling down and holding the visitors to 60 in the second. The offense shut down after some early success, lost three fumbles, and scored only seven points.
“Nobody can stop us but ourselves,” running back Alex Thomas ’12 said. “We proved that this past weekend with some costly mistakes. We haven’t played our best game of football yet for four quarters.”
Despite that inconsistency, the Bulldogs have a knack for winning. Their margins might be slim, but week after week, they have come up strong when it mattered.
Williams pointed out that there are no style points in the win column.
“All we want is one more point than the other team at the end of the game,” he said.
But the Bulldogs are facing a team that has both a knack for winning and a habit of doing so by more comfortable margins. Harvard’s six wins this season came by an average of 19.33 points. Yale’s seven wins are by an average of 4.29 points.
Harvard’s success this season and consistently large margins of victory come in large part from takeaways and their running game.
Harvard has lost the fewest fumbles in the Ivy League, and made the most interceptions. Those numbers mask the fact that Crimson quarterbacks have thrown the second most interceptions among the Ancient Eight — Yale is first — and give Harvard the highest ratio of takeaways to turnovers in the league.
The Crimson’s lack of fumbles are a key aspect of their dangerous running game. Tailback Gino Gordon — a preseason first team All-Ivy selection — averages the second most yards per game in the Ivy League. Gordon’s 113.7 yards each week put him almost 34 ahead of Thomas, who is ranked third.
“On the field, [Gordon] has great vision, change of direction, power, and acceleration through the hole,” offensive lineman Wes Gavin ’14, a high school classmate of Gordon’s, said. “He is a real threat to take it to the house on any play, along with being a very consistent back.”
That consistency shows in Gordon’s numbers. Neither he nor second-string back Trevor Scales has a fumble on the season. Quarterback Collier Winters can count on Gordon to pound the ball up the gut to the tune of a spectacular 6.6 yards per carry — Scales averages 6.0 — and hold on.
It is when Harvard loses the running or turnover battle that the team has had trouble this season. The Crimson lost a net of 16 yards rushing in their loss to Brown. When they were dismantled by Penn last week, four turnovers negated their 388 yards of offense.
But Yale has faced strong rushing teams before. Led by McCarthy and Haynes, who leads the team in tackles, the Elis held Penn’s top-ranked ground game to 149 yards, almost 90 below its season average. The same Penn rushing attack shredded Harvard, the league’s second-rated run defense, for 206 yards.
But if Gordon does manage to break though Yale’s defensive line, or if Winters — whose two second half touchdown passes carried the Crimson to victory last year — can beat safeties Adam Money ’11 and Geoff Dunham ’12 with his passes, the Eli offense will have to rebound from their showing against Princeton.
That rebound does not have to be pretty. Whether Witt finds receivers Jordan Forney ’11 and Gio Christodoulou ’11 through the air, Alex Thomas ’13 runs the ball, or Chris Smith ’13 can notch another huge game returning kicks, the Bulldogs only care that they get one more point than the home team.
If they don’t, the class of 2011 will be the fifth Yale class ever to graduate without a victory over the Crimson. But they came five minutes away from a win last year, and, Williams thinks, have taken the lessons to heart.
“Sometimes you lose close before you learn how to win,” he said. “I think we have demonstrated that we have learned some lessons from last year. Having said that, our goal is to win. We don’t want to lose close. We want to win games.”