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Yale takes on Harvard for the 131st time tomorrow at Harvard Stadium, and for the first time since 2007, the Elis enter this contest with chances of bringing home a title with a win. The matchup will feature a battle between the Football Championship Subdivision’s highest-gaining offense in Yale and the top-performing defense in the nation in Harvard. If the Bulldogs can outrun the Crimson, utilize all their weapons and win the turnover battle, they can emerge victorious from The Game for the first time since 2006.
Varga vs. Stanton
“You have to have the ability to run the football to be successful continuously,” head coach Tony Reno said on Tuesday. For no other teams in the Ivy League is this more true than the two rivals fans are about to see squaring off tomorrow.
Punishing running back Tyler Varga ’15, speedy tailback Candler Rich ’17 and a stellar offensive line have combined to produce a deadly Eli running game, averaging an Ancient Eight-leading 261.6 yards per game.
Harvard’s Paul Stanton, meanwhile, has been the clear centerpiece of the Crimson offense. A smaller, elusive back whose abilities contrast with Varga’s skillset, Stanton has tallied 110.1 yards per game and 10 total touchdowns in his eight games played, including 235 rushing yards and three scores in Harvard’s 34–24 win over Penn last Saturday. He also leads the FCS in yards per carry at a robust 7.1 yard average. Given that the Crimson passing situation is unclear — Harvard is just sixth in the Ivy League in passing yards, and starting quarterback Conner Hempel has played in just three games all season — Stanton will likely be the determining factor of Harvard’s offensive success tomorrow.
Though Yale’s running game holds the advantage as the top rushing team in the Ivy League, Harvard holds a clear advantage defensively, led by a powerful crew of linebackers as well as defensive end Zach Hodges. Harvard has allowed a meager 82.6 rushing yards per game to its opponents this year, compared to 138.6 yards allowed by Yale. Even more impressive is the fact that no opposing rusher has accumulated more than 100 yards against the Crimson since September 28, 2013, while Varga has done so eight times this season alone.
In order to overcome Harvard’s nation-leading defense in this contest, Yale will need to win the battle in the trenches by outmatching Harvard on the ground. The relative play of Varga versus Stanton, as well as Yale’s offensive line versus Harvard’s, will be a key deciding factor in this matchup.
Spread the wealth
Eli players have noted time and time again that in addition to its rushing ability, the main reason Yale’s offense has been able to rise to the top of the Ivy League this season — averaging 43.0 points per game — is the number of weapons available to quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 under Reno’s spread offense.
Against strong defenses, Yale has been able to adjust quickly and take advantage of mismatches wherever its opponent’s weaknesses lie. In keeping with Reno’s “we play against ourselves” mantra, the Elis have not seemed to mind how talented their opposing defense is, as they tallied 45 points against Brown, the third best defense in the Ancient Eight, but just 25 against perennial doormat Columbia.
When the best offense in the Ivy League takes on the best defense in the entire FCS tomorrow, look for Yale to continue that adjustment with its playmakers. Harvard’s league-leading rush and pass defenses leave no obvious holes, and the most points Harvard has given up this season, 24, is lower than the 25 points the Eli offense scored in its worst performance of 2014 at Columbia.
But Roberts now has a nearly unlimited supply of options with his top three running backs, wide receivers and, recently, tight ends all healthy heading into week 10. If Yale continues to spread the ball around and receive strong performances from every unit on the field, it can turn this contest into the type of shootout that it is accustomed to winning.
Win the turnover battle
In a stadium as tightly-packed and loud as Harvard Stadium is during The Game, big plays can be extremely effective in reversing momentum and using the crowd to a team’s advantage. This, along with the fact that Yale and Harvard are both extremely good at taking advantage of the opportunities they get, means that any turnover either team can get will be a huge factor in the game.
To see an example of this, one only needs to look at the sole loss between these two teams — Yale’s 38–31 defeat at the hands of Dartmouth. Three interceptions thrown by Roberts allowed the Big Green to respond with 10 total points, more than the margin of victory in the contest.
The Elis and Crimson have been roughly on par with respect to turnovers this season — Harvard has gained 16 turnovers and lost 14, while Yale has had 11 go each way — and the turnover battle could go in either direction. To silence a Harvard crowd that is coming in ready to celebrate an undefeated season, Yale should both seek interceptions with its secondary and make sure to keep the ball on offense.