Never before has the attitude that the Harvard and Yale football teams play nine exhibition games in preparation for The Game been more accurate than this year.
When the Crimson (5-4 overall, 3-3 Ivy) and the Elis (5-4, 4-2) play for the 107th time today at The Stadium (1 p.m. kickoff), it will be the culmination of a frustrating, injury-riddled season for both teams.
Yale can still share the Ivy League title if it wins today, Cornell loses to Penn in Ithaca, N.Y., and Dartmouth gets upset by Princeton. Which is about as likely as an Elis ECAC hockey championship.
Both squads started out as contenders for the league title. Both squads suffered through numerous injury problems to leading players. Both squads went through dry stretches when the goalline was as elusive as Fran Tarkenton. Both squads were hurt against Dartmouth. Both squads could-a, should-a, would-a, but didn't against Cornell.
And both squads are currently healthier and playing the best football of their seasons.
"We were riddled by injuries in the defensive unit, especially at linebacker," Yale Coach Carm Cozza said. "We were playing up-and-down when the kids got back. In many ways, our season has been comparable to Harvard's. I know [Harvard Coach] Joe [Restic] has had a lot of kids missing up there."
Without leaders like Captain and line-backer Chris Gaughan and All-Ivy quarterback Darin Kehler healthy, the Elis stumbled to defeats against Connecticut (44-7), Colgate (30-7) and Dartmouth (27-17). But both are back and clicking--witness Yale's 34-7 blowout of Princeton last week in New Haven. Gaughan and Co. was especially effective, limiting the Tigers to 29 rushing yards and 134 passing yards. The Princeton offensive unit managed to cross midfield only once.
But the Elis secondary quartet of seniors John Furjanic and juniors Eric Drury, Maurice Saah and Scott Wagner has been as maligned as the Harvard offense. Ranked last passing-wise in the Ivy League, the Yale defense has allowed 57 percent of its opponents' passes to be completed for 2077 yards. Opposing QB's would be candidates for the Heisman Trophy with a pass efficiency rating of 124.6.
"They're not as quick as some of the other teams we've played this year, such as Holy Cross and Dartmouth," Harvard running back Bert Smyers said. "We're going to need to throw the ball, however. They are the worst pass defensive team in the Ivies."
And doing the throwing for Harvard will be Tom Priore, who needs only 1957 passing yards today to break Tom Yohe's single-season passing record. Needless to say, Priore, who has one touchdown pass in three starts, has not been reminding anyone of Yohe. But the offense started clicking in the third quarter of last week's 24-20 loss to Penn. Trailing, 24-7, the Crimson drove 80 yards for one touchdown and added a long field goal later in the period, but Harvard couldn't complete the comeback after Priore left the game with a concussion.
Priore is fine and ready to start today, as are four of the team's starting offensive linemen--missing only Captain Tom Callahan. But center Darrin Duda, guards Mike Sukal and Mike Zweber and tackle Doug Rosenberry are healthy up front after a frustrating, injury-riddled year.
"The thing that's been troubling has been losing our strength on the offensive line," Restic said. "We thought our front would be our strength. It sure didn't end up that way."
Last year, Harvard ripped the Elis by running crossing routes underneath by backs, who beat one-on-one coverage by linebackers for big gains. Once the Elis reacted to those plays, Harvard QB Tim Perry beat Yale's over-reacting, inching-forward linebackers deep to tight end Kevin Collins. This year, it might be more of the same, if Priore can get the short passing game--ineptly nonexistent this year--going.
"Last year, we turned the game around with the big play," Restic said. "Our misdirection really bothered them. They'll be ready for that. We'll try some new things. You can bet on that."
"They had a lot of problems with misdirection, which is a large part of our offense," Priore said. "They are an attacking defense. We're going to have to offset their aggressiveness by giving them problems finding the ball."
Big Blue O
But the biggest challenge for Harvard lies on the defensive end of the ball in stopping an in-gear offense that has racked up 65 points in the last two games.
Kehler has passed for 651 yards and five touchdowns and run for another 409 yards on the season. Senior Kevin Callahan is the big-threat running back out of the wishbone, racking up 461 yards on the ground, leading the team with 17 receptions and passing for two touchdowns in as many attempts.
But the Toads, as the Yale offensive line is known, are vastly undersized compared to the Harvard defensive line--a plus when running the wishbone but a big problem if/when the Elis have to go to the air. Harvard has already set a team record for sacks in a season with 46, including 11 by linebacker Joe Gordian.
The key for Harvard is forcing Kehler to the air, where more likely than not Harvard's secondary will come up with a big play or the front seven will come up with a big sack. As Restic said, "If we let Kehler and Callahan run the option up the field, they'll control the ball all day."
And, of course, if Harvard will be at its most dangerous when it forces Yale to bring on punter Greg Bowman. The Crimson has already blocked six punts this season and tipped three other Rob Sims punts last week.
"Their kicking game has been devestating," Cozza said. "They're blocking punts all over the place and their kickers are effective."
Harvard junior Scott Johnson has connected on 11-of-14 field goal attempts this season, including a game-winner against Princeton four weeks ago and a career-high 43-yarder last week. Johnson's three misses have all been at least 43 yards long. Yale's Ed Perks is comparably dangerous, connecting on a 52-yarder this season and missing only two field goals inside 40 yards.