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The last time the Bulldogs won The Game, today’s freshman class was in fifth grade.
Snapping a five-year losing streak, the 2006 Yale football team swept Harvard aside 34-13 to claim a share of the Ivy League title.
The 2006 Bulldogs (8-2, 6-1 Ivy) entered the game on the back of a frustrating loss to Princeton in which they let a 14-point halftime lead slip away. But three touchdowns by running back Mike McLeod ’09 and a 38-yard fumble return by safety Steve Santoro ’09 handed the Elis their biggest win at Harvard (7-3, 4-3) since a 39-6 victory in 1960.
“After that game [against Princeton], a lot of people didn’t give us any chance of beating Harvard,” said Jack Siedlecki, who was head coach of the team at the time. “But we came back and played what probably was the best game we played all year, in what was the biggest game of the year.”
The defense played an outstanding game, according to assistant head coach Larry Ciotti, who was also around in 2006. On the first series, the Yale defenders sacked Harvard quarterback Liam O’Hagan for a 10 yard loss and stopped Harvard running back Clifton Dawson for five and six-yard losses.
Dawson had broken a 35-year-old Ivy rushing record a week earlier, but he endured a quiet game, and was held by the Bulldogs to a season-low 60 yards on 24 carries.
Yale opened the scoring with a rushing touchdown by McLeod with six minutes left in the first quarter. Harvard responded with a one-yard run by Dawson, but two field goals and another McLeod rush handed Yale a 20-7 lead at halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, two big turnovers at the start of the final frame swung the game decisively in Yale’s favor, according to head coach Tony Reno, then assistant coach for defensive backs. Harvard kicker Matt Schindel shanked a punt, which McLeod promptly ran in to make the score 27-7. Santoro then scored a 38-yard fumble return, putting the game beyond reach.
“We had three absolutely outstanding players for offense,” said Siedlecki. “Matt Polhemus ’08 as quarterback, Mike McLeod as running back and captain Chandler Henley as receiver.”
McLeod rushed 87 yards on 34 carries, finishing the season with 19 rushing scores – a third best all-time Ivy record. Polhemus completed 9-of-19 passes for 125 yards, including 5 to Chandler Henley ’07 for 67 yards.
“Both teams had great offenses. In the end, it boiled down to who wanted to win more,” McLeod said.
The defense, meanwhile, held Harvard to a season-low 218 yards, forcing four turnovers in the process.
Yale started the season with a very young and inexperienced defense, the coaches said. But the players were determined to win, matured over the season played a “real fine game” at Harvard, Ciotti said.
“We took time to gel and to find our chemistry. That was the game we really clicked,” said Paul Rice ’10, who played cornerback and who is now back as assistant coach for the Bulldogs.
The 2006 team was similar in many respects to the 2014 team, coaches agreed. The offense trio of Tyler Varga ’15, Morgan Roberts ’16 and Deon Randall ’15 matches up well to the trio of McLeod, Polhemus and Henley, Siedlecki said.
Rice said that this year also has a very young defense, but one that is driven to get better every day.
The team will also head to the same stadium where they last defeated the Crimson.
“It is easier to play the game at Harvard than at home,” said Siedlecki. “You have more control over the team and it is easier to keep the players focused,” he explained.
The statistics back him up. Over the past 20 years, the Bulldogs have triumphed four times at Harvard but only once at Yale.