Luckily for Yale and Harvard, The Game, in its 110 year tradition, offers more than a chance to earn bragging rights for the next year. It offers a 50-50 chance to redeem a season of disappointments.
The Elis and the Crimson both come into the contest 1-5 in the Ivy League, tied for last place with the lowly Lions of Columbia.
While the Crimson have shown signs of football prowess with near-victories against the top three teams in the Ancient Eight (Pennsylvania, Princeton, Dartmouth), the Elis (2-7 overall) have not challenged any conference foe, save Columbia, whom they beat 35-28 the sixth weekend of the season.
Yale's year got off to an inauspicious start in their opening game against Brown. Not only did the Elis drop the contest 12-3, they also lost junior starting quarterback Chris Hetherington in the first quarter to a groin injury.
Ironically, Hetherington's replacement, Steve Mills, has been one of the few bright spots for the Elis this season. Against Connecticut in week two, Mills started a streak of five consecutive 200-yard games. This included a 305-yard performance against Holy Cross that earned him Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week honors.
On the receiving end, Mills' primary target, senior split-end Dave Iwan, has been producing at a record-breaking rate. Coming into The Game, Iwan needs only 93 receiving yards to break Yale's single-season receiving record of 791 set by Curt Grieveat in 1981. Iwan, whose 39 receptions and 17.9 yards per reception lead the team, also poses the primary deep threat in Yale's attack. Earlier this season, Iwan hauled in a 90-yard touchdown pass from Mills against Dartmouth.
Iwan heads a productive receiving corps that also features senior wide-out Steve Nalepa (29 receptions., 12.9 yds/recpt.), tight-end James Langford (19, 13.0), and Iwan's brother, sophomore wide-receiver Dan (15, 14.9).
Last year, in Yale's 14-0 loss against the Crimson in Cambridge, the Elis completed only two passes, one of which was thrown by the elder Iwan. The Crimson defensive backs will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance.
But while the Elis have swallowed up yards through the air, the glaring absence of a running attacks has weakened them significantly.
A seasons-ending knee injury to featured back Keith Price during the off-season left the Bulldogs' groping for a consistent producer on the ground. This runner has not yet arrived for the Elis. Coming into the season finale, the Bulldogs' rushing average stands at 2.7 yards per game. Neither junior tailback Bob Nelson nor senior fullback David Dixon have been able to fill the hole in the offense that opened up when Price was injured.
The Crimson defense can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Price; who rushed for 162 yards in last year's contest, will not suit up this year.
In recent weeks Yale's offense has been sputtering, scoring only 14 points in the last three games. The imbalanced Yale attack has allowed defenses to gear up for the pass, as Harvard certainly will Saturday.
On the other side of the field, the Bulldogs' defense has not been able to keep an opposing offense in check for 60 minutes this year, with the possible exception of their opening day loss to Brown. Against the run, the Elis give up an average of 189 yards per game, and an average of 219.9 yards per game in the air.
The defense is anchored by junior inside linebacker Carl Ricci, considered by many as an All-Ivy candidate. Ricci's team-high contribution of 22 tackles last week against Princeton leaves him just 24 tackles short of Yale's single season tackling record set by Joe Lund (176 in 1988).
Ricci was responsible for preserving Yale's sole Ivy win this year, causing Columbia's quarterback to fumble late in the game as the Lions were driving deep into Bulldog territory.
Ricci's was not the only big play this season for the Yale defense, an inconsistent force this season.
In its 28-7 loss against Princeton, the defense caused four fumbles, two interceptions and, in general, kept the game from getting out of hand.
Also, in Yale's two wins against Holy Cross and Columbia, the Bulldog defense disabled the opposing quarterback during the course of the game. Holy Cross' quarterback Andy Fitzpatrick left the contest with a leg injury in the third quarter as Yale came from behind to win 31-27. The Lions' signal caller Chad Andrezejewski was forced out of the game before the half, and Yale captured that game 35-28.
Yale's defensive line provides nearly all of the pass rush for the Elis. In fact, of the 16 sacks racked up by the Bulldog defense, 14 were by members of the defensive line, led by junior defensive tackle John Lykouretzos.
On the whole, what the Elis lack--on both offense and defense--is consistency. Their big-play defense, which gives up an average of 29.1 points a game, has not made the big play consistently enough to keep opposing teams out of the end-zone. Their air-attack also has not soared consistently, producing many three-and-out series and registering a low 37.5 third-down efficiency mark.
Still, this is The Game, and the season's deficiencies will dissolve into the sea of football history if the Bulldogs produce a victory this weekend. And with impact players at quarterback and split-end, as well as a talented and highly-touted Bulldog at linebacker, the possibility of erasing a season of disappointments is very real.