Yesterday afternoon was just as perfect—even though it did not end with an Ivy League title.
“We wanted to go out the right way,” said senior tailback Nick Palazzo after his team’s 20-13 win before a sellout crowd of 30,323 at Harvard Stadium. “Some of us seniors are going to be lucky enough to play again, but a lot of us won’t. We didn’t want to go out on a somber note. Coach said before the game, ‘You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you earn.’ And we earned this.”
You bet they did. The Crimson was up against a determined Yale squad that had won three in a row.
The cold, gray day and a stingy Bulldog defense combined to limit Harvard to 127 total yards and zero points in the first half.
In the second quarter, Murphy substituted sophomore Ryan Fitzpatrick for captain Neil Rose at quarterback, who had struggled early and completed just three of nine passes for 63 yards and an interception.
The change proved to be exactly what Murphy’s team needed.
With Rose rushing for just nine yards on three carries, Yale was able to hang back and double-team senior wideout Carl Morris, limiting him to just one catch for 11 yards in the first half.
With Fitzpatrick, Harvard’s leading rusher with 523 yards, Yale was forced to bring an extra player into the defensive front to protect against the run.
“In the first half, we probably played the best defense we had all year,” said Yale linebacker Ken Estrera. “But then the quarterback change threw us off. It shouldn’t have, but it did.”
A 20-point third quarter gave the Crimson all the offense it needed.
Fitzpatrick—who did not turn the ball over once this season—was as efficient as ever, running for 72 yards (including TD runs of four and five yards) and completing 7-of-12 passes for 135 yards.
Fitzpatrick’s exploits on the ground opened things up in the passing game, and Morris finished his final game in a Harvard uniform with four catches—three of them spectacular—for 106 yards.
“The difference in the game was that they had a quarterback who could run the ball,” Yale coach Jack Siedlecki said. “They put us in a situation where we couldn’t put as much attention on the wideouts. Then we had to fool around with our safeties a little more, so they had Morris isolated and made a couple big plays.”
When asked if he was as proud of this year’s team as the 2001 championship squad, Murphy’s response was emphatic.
“Absolutely,” he said. “As a class, this team has won more back-to-back games than any team in Ivy history,” Murphy said. “And today, I was just so pleased with how our guys responded. There was no championship on the line, but our guys played like it was.”
Everything went right for Harvard last season. Most things did not fall for the Crimson this season—which is the difference between 9-0 and 7-3.
“When you win every game, you need to have three things,” Murphy said. “You need to have a great team, have great health and get all of the big breaks. Last year, we had all of that.”
The defense, Murphy admitted, was not as consistent at the beginning of this season as it was in 2001. That was due to inexperience more than anything else, he said, adding that the defense did a “tremendous job” against Yale.
The season certainly did not go according to plan for Rose, who was hurt for long stretches of the year and found himself on the sidelines for much of his final game.
That’s an unbelievably difficult situation for someone who took last spring off of school to play in The Game one last time.
Rose, though, is a class act and conducted himself in such a manner. When Murphy made the switch to Fitzpatrick yesterday, everyone understood why.
“As much as I love [Rose], my obligation is to the team,” Murphy said. “We talked about it last night, with the weather report, and it was a foregone conclusion that if we got into this type of game plan, [Fitzpatrick] was going to be the guy because he gives you that extra option that you don’t have with a pro-style quarterback like Neil.”
In the face of adversity, this team performed admirably—if not brilliantly—all season long. It will be hard for Murphy to watch this senior class leave, after all of the success it has brought.
And it’s just as tough for the seniors.
“I’m definitely going to miss this a lot,” Morris said. “This team is like a family, and it hurts because I’m going to lose a lot of friends. We’re a real close team—but it’s my time to go.”
The legacy of this senior class, though, will not be leaving anytime soon.
—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org