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One year ago, the Yale football team crumbled in the face of pressure.
The Elis yielded four first-half touchdowns to Harvard en route to a disheartening 34–7 defeat in front of 50,934 at the Yale Bowl. The injury-plagued Bulldogs appeared toothless, unable to snap Harvard’s winning streak in The Game.
A different team will be charging into Harvard Stadium tomorrow afternoon.
Nine games into the 2014 season, Yale no longer even remembers what it is like to score just seven points in a game. In fact, were it not for a fourth quarter lapse against Dartmouth a month ago, Yale would not even remember what it is like to lose.
Completely revitalized, boasting the highest-gaining offense in the entire Football Championship Subdivision and still holding a chance at an Ivy League title share, the Elis (8–1, 5–1 Ivy) go head-to-head with the Crimson (9–0, 6–0) tomorrow seeking redemption.
But even with ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasting from outside Harvard Stadium, Yale coaches and players say that this Game is the same as any game.
“The greatest satisfaction that we’re going to get out of a game isn’t who’s watching or what television station we’re on,” running back Tyler Varga ’15 said. “It’s going to be going out there, playing for each other and being with each other for one last shot as Team 142, knowing that we will have prepared as best we can.”
Mentally, the Elis may be up against themselves, but on the field, they will also be up against the best-performing defense in the nation in No. 14 Harvard. Yale’s offense, averaging 43.0 points per game, will attempt to win via shootout versus a Crimson squad that has allowed just 11 points per game in its first nine contests.
This year’s rendition of The Game will be a battle of strengths against strengths, as quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, Varga and the stellar Eli offensive line go up against the strongest group of defenders they have seen this season.
An Eli win would guarantee Yale a share of that title, while a Yale win and simultaneous Dartmouth win over Princeton would produce a three-way at the top of the Ancient Eight among Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. The 131st Game is just the eighth time that both Yale and Harvard entered the game with title chances.
The main story to watch for may be whether Harvard’s defense can finally neutralize a Yale offense that virtually no team, not even Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Army, has been able to stop. But the Crimson offense is also a threat as the second-best in the Ancient Eight, having averaged 32.9 points per game behind running back Paul Stanton, Jr.
Stanton, a 5’9”, 190-pound elusive back who has benefited from a strong Cantab offensive line this season, is second in the Ivy League, well behind Varga, with 110.1 rushing yards per game.
Stanton’s abilities, which he showed off last week with 235 yards and three touchdowns against Penn, are essentially the only aspect of Harvard’s offense that Yale can be sure about heading into The Game. On the passing side, less is certain because Crimson starting quarterback Conner Hempel has suffered two injuries in 2014.
Hempel, who threw for 209 yards and two touchdowns against the Elis in 2013, shined in one of his only true playing opportunities this year, tallying a career-high 382 passing yards and three touchdowns in Harvard’s 49–7 rout of preseason Ivy favorite Princeton. But a back injury put him out for four straight games in the first half of this season, and an injury to his throwing shoulder has sidelined him for the two most recent games.
The Bulldogs expect Hempel to play tomorrow. But if he does not, his backup, Scott Hosch, has plenty of experience in the starting role after owning it for six games this season.
“They’ve got playmakers on the perimeter and in the backfield, so I don’t think they miss a beat with either [quarterback],” head coach Tony Reno said. “They’re both talented quarterbacks.”
But Hosch, who averaged 213.3 passing yards in those six starts, originated his career with the core of Yale’s recent progress. Three leaders on Harvard’s squad — Hosch, defensive end Zach Hodges and captain and defensive back Norman Hayes — all have one thing in common: Reno was the one who brought them to Cambridge.
While serving as special teams coordinator and defensive secondary coach at Harvard from 2009 to 2011, Reno recruited players from the southeast region of the United States. Several still remain on the team, including Hodges and Hayes, the senior leaders of a defense that has held eight of its nine opponents to fewer than 20 points in 2014.
Hodges, in particular, will lead a team of defensive linemen and linebackers to defend against Varga with the best run defense in the Ancient Eight. The Cantabs have allowed just 82.6 rushing yards per game this season, which is less than Varga individually has had in any game this season — even at Cornell, when he was taken out at halftime.
But while Yale has not seen a defense as stellar as Harvard’s, the Crimson has also not seen an offense quite like that of the Elis.
“Our offense is pretty dynamic,” said captain and wide receiver Deon Randall ’15. “You know you want to make the most of your opportunities, because you know the ball’s going to be spread to a various amount of players.”
From the punishing carries of Varga, to the stellar completion percentage of Roberts, to the dynamic trio of spread wide receivers Randall, Grant Wallace ’15 and Robert Clemons III ’17, Reno said that his current offense is the most balanced and healthy it has been entering The Game since he became head coach in 2012.
Yale owns the most productive offense in the FCS with 587.2 total yards per game, and for a few weeks, it had the highest-scoring offense, as well, until a disappointing 25-point performance at Columbia.
Much of that success can be attributed to the offensive line — anchored by senior leaders Ben Carbery ’15 and William Chism ’15 — which leads the Ivy League with just seven sacks allowed this season, and which Varga has called the best offensive line he has ever played for.
“They play with some nastiness,” Reno said. “You need to have that up front. They take pride in team accomplishments. They take pride when Deon catches a ball downfield, when Tyler rips off a run. We firmly believe that each guy’s role is as important as the other’s.”
Tomorrow, that offense will be even healthier than it has been for the majority of the season, as tight ends Stephen Buric ’16 and Sebastian Little ’16 returned last week against Princeton after missing multiple weeks with injury.
Backup tight end Leo Haenni ’17 jumped in as starter and has since climbed the ranks to own the third-most receiving yards on the team.
“[The three tight ends] all bring something different, whether it’s physicality, catching the ball [or] running good routes,” Randall said. “It’s nice having them all back because they can rotate in and come in fresh.”
One area of concern in a rivalry game, especially for FCS teams who generally do not pack stadiums with crowds, is that players will get caught up in the moment or distracted by the noise in the stadium.
The weather, as well, will provide adverse conditions, as the wind tunnel that is Harvard Stadium is predicted to host weather in the mid-30s tomorrow.
But players said that the team is “following the process” as it has done for each game leading up to this one. Reno added that the players already felt what it is like to play on the big stage in September when the Army Black Knights came to New Haven.
“We had probably the biggest spectacle that Yale has had [in a long time] when Army came here … WRoberts, a junior, is one touchdown away from the passing touchdowns record of 22. Five completions would tie the record of 227 successful passes in a season.
But to Reno, that history will not matter until the clock shows all zeroes tomorrow.
“At the end of the year, when it’s all said and done, it’ll be a great time to reflect,” Reno said. “But now is not the time to reflect.”