CAN’T BEAT PERFECTION

Crimson claims Ivy title after defeating Yale, 35-23

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—It was New Heaven in New Haven.

For the first time since 1913, the Harvard football team finished its season with a perfect record, defeating Yale (3-6, 1-6 Ivy) 35-23 in New Haven Saturday to win the Ivy League championship.

In the 118th edition of The Game, Harvard (9-0, 7-0 Ivy) relied on its seniors for steady leadership and its youth for game-breaking plays as the Crimson completed a perfect season before 51,634 spectators at the Yale Bowl.

“We had to play our absolute best today, and we did it,” Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said. “It’s gratifying to see a bunch of young men do everything you ask from them from the beginning to the end of a season. This group of kids is a blend of talent, leadership and unselfishness the likes of which I have never seen before.”

Though the Crimson never trailed in the contest, Yale threatened throughout the second half, right up to its final drive when the Elis marched to the Harvard 6-yard line with over a minute remaining. But on the game’s final play, Harvard senior safety Andy Fried intercepted Yale quarterback T.J. Hyland at the Crimson goal-line to clinch the win.

Four seconds remained on the game clock after the interception, but the Harvard fans stormed the field anyway while players and officials futilely attempted to hold back the rush. Yale’s coaching staff consented to allow the clock to expire and Harvard celebrated at midfield.

“It was incredible to see all the student support, and we’re very glad to share our championship with the 10,000 men of Harvard,” Fried said.

The turning point in the game occurred late in the third quarter with Harvard ahead 22-17.

Following an incomplete pass on third-and-5 from midfield, punter Adam Kingston trotted onto the field as Harvard lined up to punt. But it was sophomore linebacker Dante Balestracci, not Kingston, who took the snap. Dashing to the right, Balestracci gained the first down, then lateralled the ball to Kingston, who sped 36 yards to the Yale eight-yard line.

Three plays later senior quarterback Neil Rose ran untouched up the middle for a three-yard touchdown. The play shifted momentum in Harvard’s favor and temporarily crushed the spirit of the Bulldogs.

“I guess the cat’s out of the bag now—Adam Kingston was an outstanding wide receiver in high school,” Murphy said. “We drew up the play before the game in a coaches’ meeting because we knew we had to be aggressive.”

Rose’s sneak extended Harvard’s lead to 28-17. Yale wouldn’t go away, however. The Bulldogs stopped Harvard superstar receiver Carl Morris on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt and then answered with an eight-play, 63-yard scoring drive. A 15-yard touchdown reception by P.J. Collins—his second score of both the game and his career—cut Harvard’s lead to 28-23 with 9:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.

But this was Harvard’s day to shine, and the Crimson fought back with a nine-play, 75-yard drive to keep the Elis at bay. Rose was 4-for-5 for 62 yards on the series, unfazed by the prospect of losing an undefeated season. Rose found Morris in the end zone from 16 yards out to put Harvard on top by the game’s final margin.

“We lost to a better team today. They have one heck of an offense,” said Yale captain Tim Penna. “They are a championship team.”

Harvard’s victory was especially gratifying to 22 members of this year’s senior class, who had endured three straight losses to Yale in The Game.

“We were really up for this game,” Rose said. “Between having lost the last three years to Yale, trying to win an Ivy League Championship outright and keeping our record unblemished, that’s just about all the motivation we needed as seniors.”

Harvard’s final statistics were typical of the season on the whole.

Rose, who is officially returning for a fifth season next year, threw for 277 yards and four touchdowns. Rose broke Harvard’s all-time career marks in both touchdowns thrown and overall passing yardage in The Game. His 4,511 yards break the former record of Tom Yohe ’88 by 104 yards. Rose’s 33 touchdown passes break Yohe’s mark of 30.

When push came to shove in the red zone Saturday, Rose turned to his usual favorite target, Morris. The junior receiver, who last week became Harvard’s career leader in receptions with 155, caught two touchdowns Saturday.

“I love playing with these guys and am so happy that I have the opportunity to come back next season, so we can all try to do it again,” Rose said.

With junior Nick Palazzo out with an ankle injury, senior tailback Josh Staph picked up the slack, rushing for 100 yards. Rose also ran for 71 yards on 14 attempts as Harvard proved why it was the leading rushing team in the Ivy League all season.

Harvard scored first in The Game Saturday on a three-yard sliding catch by Morris.

On the ensuing extra-point, senior Sam Taylor picked up a low, bouncing snap and looked toward the end zone. He then heaved the ball into a swarm of four Yale defenders and one Harvard defensive end. Senior Marc Laborsky, having lined up as a tight end on the play, used his 6’4, 250 lb. frame to box out the defense. He came down with the ball, giving Harvard an 8-0 lead.

Yale responded to Morris’ touchdown by droving 67 yards, keyed by a 46-yard scamper through the gut of the Crimson defense by Hyland. The Yale quarterback eventually found Collins for a five-yard touchdown.

Yale had a chance to seize the lead late in the first quarter when senior safety Ryan LoProto intercepted Rose at the Bulldogs’ 44-yard line. Hyland’s effective rushing from the quarterback position set the Elis up for a 26-yard field goal attempt. But senior placekicker Justin Davis failed to deliver, missing wide right as Harvard maintained its one-point advantage.

Despite having only made seven catches all year prior to The Game, Harvard sophomore tight end Matt Fratto caught two touchdown passes from Rose. Fratto, who gained more and more playing time as the year progressed, caught a two-yard pass that put Harvard on top 15-7 with 12:46 in the second quarter. He then scored again with 2:22 remaining in the first half on a 21-yard strike from Rose, extending Harvard’s lead to 22-7.

In between Fratto’s two scores, Yale tried The Game’s first fake punt from Harvard’s 43-yard line. Sophomore holder Alvin Cowan hoped to catch Harvard’s special teams off guard, throwing to Yale senior wide receiver Billy Brown. Harvard senior cornerback Willie Alford was in excellent position, batting away Cowan’s pass and giving possession back to the Crimson.

On Harvard’s first play from scrimmage after Alford’s defensive hold, Rose was intercepted by Yale free safety Barton Simmons. It was just another twist in a back-and-forth game, because when Yale’s offense stalled, Davis’ 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Balestracci at the line of scrimmage. Harvard had dodged another bullet.

“The key to the game, all day, was Harvard’s ability to respond,” Yale Coach Jack Siedlecki said. “They answered us every time with big plays, and they deserve all the credit for that.”

Yale scored just before halftime, kicking a 20-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. But even that was a moral victory for Harvard.

Moments before, the Crimson had been called for a roughing-the-kicker penalty on fourth down, setting up a first-and-goal at Harvard’s 10-yard line. Yale accepted the penalty even after Davis kicked the 38-yarder through the uprights. Harvard held its ground, stopping Hyland short on a keeper at the two-yard line and Yale was forced to settle for the field goal anyway.

Yale began the second half with the ball and scored on its opening drive, a two-yard dive by junior tailback Jay Schultze up the middle. On its next possession, Yale received the ball at its own 26-yard line with a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown, but went three-and-out with 6:41 remaining the third quarter. It was the first three-and-out forced by either team, and the result was the first punt of the game in the middle of the third quarter.

Hyland, who accounted for 444 yards of offense by himself Saturday, was playing in place of injured quarterback Peter Lee. Entering The Game, Hyland had thrown nine interceptions in 82 attempts in three games.

He threw only one Saturday, but it was the last pass of the 2001 season. Fried’s interception sealed Harvard’s perfect season.

For Harvard, losing to Yale had been a sorry tradition for the past three seasons. It led to plenty of second-guessing in the offseason.

There’s no need for that this year, Fried said.

“The monkey’s finally off our back.”