Yale will enter the 133rd rendition of the Yale–Harvard football game much farther down the Ivy League standings than its crimson-clad opponent. While Harvard sits at 5–1, atop the Ancient Eight, the Bulldogs stake claim to fifth place in the conference with a 2–4 record against Ivy foes. Since 1970, the team entering the contest with the lower record has emerged victorious on just 13 occasions.
In the long history of this rivalry, Harvard has typically been the team to pull off the upset. Of those 13 wins by the unfavored opponent, the Crimson owns 10 of them, with only two coming in the past 16 years. The last time the Bulldogs won as the underdogs in The Game was in 1993, a year in which Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was the highest grossing film, Bill Clinton LAW ’73 presided over the Oval Office and a gallon of gas cost $1.16.
Unless Yale is able to defeat Harvard this Saturday, the win in 1993 will remain one of only three victories for unfavored Bulldog teams since 1970, joining those of the 1973 and 1985 campaigns. That is the same number of times that, in the same period, the Crimson has upstaged an Eli team that entered The Game undefeated. Harvard delivered the Bulldogs’ only loss in 1974, 1979 and 2007, leaving 1960 as the last year in which Yale was perfect for an entire season.
In 1974, Harvard entered The Game with a 6–2 record facing an undefeated Yale team. A career high performance for Eli quarterback Tom Doyle ’75 helped lead Yale to an early 13–0 lead. But Harvard quarterback Milton Holt answered back with two touchdown drives to give the Crimson a 14–13 lead before the end of the half. With five minutes remaining, Holt led a 76-yard drive to secure the 21–16 win for the Crimson. However, Yale ultimately finished as an Ivy champion that year.
In 1979, another then-undefeated Yale team faced a 2–6 Harvard team at the Yale Bowl. Harvard used the 40-formation multiflex-style offense — a scheme largely dysfunctional throughout the season — to great success, and was able to defeat Yale 22–7. The Bulldogs still finished with an Ivy League championship that year.
Harvard once again took down — and stole an Ivy championship from — an undefeated Yale team in 2007, when the 7–2 Crimson faced the 9–0 Bulldogs at the Yale Bowl. The Elis were seeking their first undefeated season since 1960 and first undisputed Ivy title since 1981. However, Crimson quarterback Chris Pizzotti, a Reading, Massachusetts native, torched the Yale secondary by completing 27 of 41 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns en route to an easy 37–6 victory for the Crimson.
In spite of all of these Harvard upsets, there have indeed been times in the last 50 years when Yale pulled off the win against a Harvard team with a stronger record. Perhaps the most notable Yale upset occurred in 1985, when a 3–4–1 Bulldog team was able to defeat a 7–2 Crimson squad 17–6 at the Yale Bowl.
Even though Yale has not scored a win as an underdog in recent years, the Bulldogs have come close to accomplishing the feat multiple times. In 2005, a 4–5 Yale team took a 6–3 Harvard squad to triple overtime before ultimately falling 30–24 to the Crimson at the Yale Bowl. The contest was a four-hour marathon and the first and only overtime game in the history of the rivalry. Although Yale intercepted Harvard in the second overtime, the Bulldogs fumbled just two plays into their subsequent possession. Quarterback Jeff Mroz ’06 threw his own interception in the third overtime, sealing Yale’s fate.
In 2009, another 4–5 Yale team faced off against a 6–3 Harvard team in New Haven. The Bulldogs did a fantastic job of keeping the Crimson offense in check, not allowing Harvard to score during the first 53 minutes of the game. However, leading 10–7 with two and a half minutes to play, Yale head coach Tom Williams elected to run a fake punt on fourth-and-22 from the Elis’ own 25 yard line. This bold move did not pay off, as Harvard smothered the deception and then scored the game-winning touchdown just a minute later to walk out of the Yale Bowl with a 14–10 victory.
Finally, in 2014, the Crimson hosted Yale at Harvard Stadium, which was the site of ESPN’s College GameDay that week. Harvard, boasting a 9–0 record, came in as a 12.5-point favorite over the 8–1 Bulldogs in what was a de facto Ivy League Championship game for Yale (Harvard had already locked up the title). Despite trailing by 17 in the fourth quarter, the Elis managed to come back and tie the game with 3:44 to play. However, Crimson quarterback Conner Hempel then led a 78-yard drive that was capped off by a 35-yard pass to receiver Andrew Fischer to deal Yale a heartbreaking 31–24 loss and its eighth-straight defeat in the series.
Considering that the 2014 team was 8–1, it seems peculiar that this 2–7 Yale team enters The Game in 2016 as 12.5 point underdogs yet again. Multiple Las Vegas sportsbooks also have the over/under set near 55. This implies that Harvard is predicted to win roughly 34–21, which seems strange considering that the Bulldogs’ average margin of defeat is 22.7 points against multiple teams with worse records than Harvard this season, and the Elis are coming off a 31–3 loss to Princeton at home last weekend.
If the Bulldogs are ultimately defeated as double-digit underdogs, then Harvard will stretch its streak in the rivalry to 10 consecutive games, extending the series’ longest winning streak.