Pride and bragging rights are the only things on the line for the Yale football team this weekend.
The Bulldogs (5–4, 4–2 Ivy) will take on a heavily favored Harvard squad (8–1, 6–0) this Saturday at the Yale Bowl for the 128th edition of The Game. A win would end the Elis’ four-year losing streak to their archrival and put a dent in a decade of Harvard dominance. Beating the Crimson, however, will no be no easy task.
Since losing its season opener to Holy Cross, Harvard has reeled off eight straight wins, claimed its fifth Ivy League title in the last decade and is currently ranked 14th in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Still, the Bulldogs have not counted themselves out yet.
“The thing about rivalry football games is that records don’t really matter,” head coach Tom Williams said. “The team that has the better record hasn’t always won The Game. Our guys are ready to play on Saturday.”
On paper, Harvard looks unstoppable. The Crimson’s scoring offense ranks first in the Ancient Eight, while its defense ranks second. The Bulldogs are ranked third and fifth in those two categories respectively.
But numbers are often not enough to crown the winner of an emotion-filled game. Last year, the Blue and White dominated every statistical aspect of the game, except the scoreboard, and The Game 2010 ended in a 28–21 loss.
While the Bulldogs said they hope hyped emotions will help them on game day, the players added that they are not preparing for The Game differently from other games in their season.
“We try to standardize what we do every week,” defensive lineman Jake Stoller ’12 said. “I think preparing the same way for every game is important, so you don’t get ahead of yourselves before a big one like this.”
Before this season started, the Elis, with numerous returning starters on both sides of the ball, were optimistic of their chance for an Ivy championship. But the Bulldogs came up short in two critical games and let the Ancient Eight title slip through their fingers.
A month ago, Penn erased a 10-point deficit and scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat Yale 37–25. With that loss, the Bulldogs would need to win out the rest of league play to climb to the top. But two weeks after the loss to the Quakers, a slow start doomed the Elis’ comeback against Brown as the Bears walked away with a 34–28 win.
While the Old Blue struggled against the Quakers and the Bears, the Crimson had little trouble dispatching these two opponents, beating them by a combined score of 61–27.
Few teams have been able to stop Harvard’s aerial attack, led by senior quarterback Collier Winters, who has 1239 passing yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Crimson’s best passer, however, might be sitting on the bench Saturday. During a four game stint at the beginning of the season, in which Winters was out with an injured hamstring, junior Colton Chapple took over at quarterback and amassed 918 yards and 12 touchdowns. Still, Winters returned as the starting quarterback after he had recovered and will be taking the field Saturday.
Overall, Williams said Harvard’s offense will be a formidable threat for the Bulldogs.
“Harvard is very explosive offensively,” Williams said. “They have great balance with the run and the pass.”
The Yale secondary will have its hands full against a group of dangerous Crimson receivers. The tight end duo of Kyle Juszczyk and Cameron Brate has combined for 13 touchdown receptions. Wideout Alex Sarkisian, who caught the game-winning score against the Bulldogs last season, ranks third among the Cantabs for touchdowns caught at five.
“It’s going to be crucial to get after the quarterback [since] he can sling around a bit,” Stoller said. “When you create pressure on those guys and you fluster them a little bit, you can create turnovers as well as incomplete passes. Whatever way we can get after them, we are going to do it.”
But the Blue and White’s passing attack is just as dangerous as the Crimson’s. Giving up a shot at the Rhodes Scholarship to play this Saturday, Patrick Witt ’12 will walk onto the field as the most prolific passer in Yale history. Witt holds Yale’s records in career pass attempts, completions and passing yards.
Against a porous Princeton pass defense last week, Witt completed 26 throws on 33 attempts for 379 yards and three touchdowns. The senior signal caller should thrive on Saturday against a Harvard secondary that ranks sixth in the Ancient Eight and has surrendered an average of 232.9 yards through the air this season.
“[Witt] is a dominant player and one of the best quarterbacks in the Ivy League,” wide receiver Chris Smith ’13 said. “Having him out there gives us the added confidence and an advantage over the Harvard defense.”
Saturday’s game will be a stiff challenge for the Yale offensive line, responsible for protecting Witt from the Crimson pass rush.
Last year against Harvard, Witt had little time in the pocket and was sacked six times. This season, Harvard’s pass rush leads the Ivy League with 24 sacks, nine of which were notched by senior lineman Josue Ortiz.
“Their defensive line, and defense as a whole, is one of the best we have seen all year for sure,” center John Oppenheimer ’14 said. ”They are really talented up front.”
Smith, the Bulldogs’ leading receiver, will be benched Saturday with a sprained ankle.
With Smith gone, Witt will look to the trio of Deon Randall ’14, Cameron Sandquist ’14 and Jackson Liguori ’14 to carry the receiving corps. The three sophomores combined for 290 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers last week.
In order to keep the offense balanced, however, the Elis must also consistently run the ball. The Crimson’s rush defense ranks sixth in the FCS and has given up a stingy 91.2 yards per game. Led by Alex Thomas ’12 and Mordecai Cargill ’13, the Bulldogs have run an average of 150.8 yards a game this season.
Williams said the ground game will be key for the Elis’ offense.
“We have to be able to run the football,” he said. “That’s always something we try to establish.”
In addition to preventing aerial advance, the Blue and White defense must also slow down Harvard’s rushing attack. Crimson junior Treavor Scales and freshman Zach Boden are spearheading Harvard’s ground attack with a combined average of 135.8 rushing yards a game and 13 total touchdowns.
Winters has shown that he is capable of running the ball as well. The quarterback has scored six touchdowns on the ground this season. Winters averages 7.2 yards per touchdown run, whereas Witt, who has run in four touchdowns this season, averages only two yards.
But the Crimson runners have had trouble securing the football this year and have fumbled 14 times, five of which were lost.
Still, Williams said the defense will need to perform consistently against Harvard’s strong offense.
“Defensively, we have to tackle well and fit the run,” he said. “We have to eliminate big plays down the field, make them drive the ball and be patient so they don’t make any big plays.”
For the seniors on the team, Saturday will be their last chance of beating their archrivals.
“There’s nothing we like to do more than to send out our senior class with a victory over Harvard at home.” Oppenheimer said.
Stoller said winning against both Harvard and Princeton has been a goal for the season and would mean a lot for his class.
Smith added that while beating Harvard would be a fitting end for the season, he does not believe the players should obsess over ending Yale’s losing streak.
“I don’t think we should put too much pressure on ourselves to end the streak. But I think it will definitely mean a lot to our seniors,” Smith said. “Beating Harvard, especially after their undefeated league play, would be a huge statement game and put a good stamp on the end of our season.”
Yale has lost The Game five consecutive times just once in its history, from 2001 to 2005.
Kickoff is at noon.