Ask virtually anyone at The Game and he’ll tell you the same thing: Yale was the better team. Yale deserved to win. But Harvard wanted it more, and the Crimson willed itself to a 30-24 overtime win.
The disparity between the heart and desire of both squads was never clearer than on each side’s fourth-quarter scoring drives. Leading 21-16 with 11:00 remaining in the game, quarterback Jeff Mroz hit wide receiver Todd Feiereisen with a 26-yard pass on third-and-18. After a Harvard face-masking penalty, the Bulldogs had the ball first-and-10 at the Crimson’s 17-yard line.
A touchdown would have iced the game. But Yale coach Jack Siedlecki chose to run the ball three times, picking up just eight yards and settling for the field goal.
No play-action passes. No shots at the endzone. Just a conservative trifecta of plunges into the teeth of the Harvard defense that provided a telling glimpse of the Bulldogs’ intestinal fortitude.
When Harvard got the ball back trailing by just eight, there was little doubt about where the game would end up. As the Crimson had done against Brown in the Ivy opener, Harvard marched right down the field behind 28 yards from junior running back Clifton Dawson—including a seven-yard scamper on fourth-and-one—with a nine-play, 66-yard drive that was capped by a 22-yard scoring strike from sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan to freshman wideout Alex Breaux.
On the ensuing two-point conversion, O’Hagan dropped a couple steps back, and then sprinted forward determined to even the score. O’Hagan absorbed a hit from a Yale defender just a couple feet from the line, but willed himself forward, falling right on the goal line to tie the game.
That kind of attitude comes from the coach.
It came from Harvard coach Tim Murphy when he proclaimed that O’Hagan could throw 10 interceptions against Brown before he’d think of pulling him. It came from Murphy in his decision to stay with O’Hagan despite a terrible four-week stretch that saw the Crimson go 1-3, and in which the sophomore turned the ball over more times than Harvard had the entire previous season. And it came from Murphy on Saturday, when he stuck with O’Hagan for that final drive despite the quarterback’s two fumbles and one interception up to that point.
It’s the same determination and drive to win that was lacking on the other sideline and has been lacking on the Yale bench since winning the 1999 Ivy title—Siedlecki’s high-water mark as the Bulldogs’ coach.
Since sharing that league championship with Brown six years ago, Yale has gone 20-22 in the Ivy play, never finishing better than 4-3 in the league during that stretch. If the Bulldog faithful are content with 5-5 or 6-4 records and third-place finishes in the league, then Siedlecki has proven that he is the man for the job. If the sons of Eli ever want to celebrate the big win over Harvard or Penn—against whom Yale is 2-10 in the past six seasons—and another Ivy title, however, it might be time to look a different direction.
While you can’t blame Siedlecki for the failed fourth-and-one that might have given the Bulldogs a chance to beat Harvard in regulation or the three turnovers that doomed Yale’s chances in overtime, you can criticize the heart and desire the Bulldogs failed to show down the stretch. Yale played the final 25 minutes and overtime like a team afraid to lose, mustering just three points and turning the ball over five times. All the while, the Crimson charged from behind like a squad destined for victory.
After Dawson’s touchdown in the third overtime sealed the win, Murphy strolled across the field toward Siedlecki, his longtime friend. Though he was doubtless pleased with the victory, he couldn’t help but think of the immense pressure that Siedlecki was under from dissatisfied Yale alums. Murphy knew that those cries would only grow in the wake of the most recent bitter Bulldog defeat, admitting afterward that “there [was] no way Yale deserved to lose this game.”
Most in attendance at the Yale Bowl on Saturday might agree with Murphy’s sentiments. Under Siedlecki, however, that’s a feeling that Bulldogs fans have come to know all too well.
—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.