The Bulldogs defense, which came into The Game ranked last in the Ivy League against the pass and No. 4 in stopping the run, held the high-powered Harvard offense to a season-low 13 points in the season finale. Yale confounded the Crimson offense, rendering it ineffective in virtually every category.
Deflation was the name of the game for Yale, which popped Harvard’s confidence right out of the gates, sacking starting quarterback Liam O’Hagan for a ten-yard loss on the Crimson’s first drive and dropping senior running back Clifton Dawson for five- and six-yard losses on his first two carries.
“It’s nice to have a couple good things happen early,” Yale coach Jack Siedlecki said. “Psychologically, it had to be a great thing to have happen right away...I said to [defensive coordinator] Rick Flanders, ‘Just be aggressive, have the kids feeling we’re going to be aggressive the whole game.’”
The Bulldogs shut down Dawson early and kept him relatively under wraps throughout the rest of the contest.
The senior from Scarborough, Ont. ended his record-setting Harvard career with 60 net yards in his last game—71 positive yards after the initial two losses—but failed to break loose for one of his signature long runs, amassing no more than 14 yards on any one carry. Moreover, Yale seemed to surprise Dawson with its defensive intensity, forcing him into two uncharacteristic fumbles.
“The biggest thing with Dawson is not letting him get started,” Siedlecki said. “Once he gets past the line of scrimmage, he is tough. He just kind of slips and slides. We made a lot of hits in the backfield.”
With its strongest, most reliable option silenced, Harvard managed to gain a paltry 218 yards on offense, a precipitous drop from its Ivy League-leading average of 387.4 yards per game.
“Yale’s defense came ready to play today,” said junior quarterback Chris Pizzotti, who replaced O’Hagan halfway through the third quarter. “It was tough for our offense to get things going today.”
“Everything came grudgingly,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.
Even on the one drive when the Crimson offense seemed somewhat less than totally shocked by Yale’s defensive improvement—a seven-minute, 68-yard scoring charge that resulted in a leaping one-yard touchdown run by Dawson—Harvard needed 17 plays to do it.
“The defense, right from the get-go, really just came after them the whole day,” Bulldogs linebacker Bobby Abare said. “[It was] a great performance by the whole defense.”
So smothering was Yale that the Crimson found itself perpetually deep in its own territory, starting drives on its own 27-yard line on average, and advancing so little that Yale averaged a starting position on its 45-yard line.
The disparity stung the Crimson, leaving the defense little room for error and allowing the Bulldogs to rack up points despite a relatively stingy performance by Harvard’s defense.
Bulldogs sophomore defensive back Steven Santoro was a major source of pressure on the Crimson offense, intercepting an errant O’Hagan pass and running it back 42 yards, sacking the junior signal-caller and causing a fumble, and recovering one of Dawson’s fumbles and running it back 38 yards for a touchdown.
“The defense definitely came out here with the mindset to make up for last week,” Santoro said, referring to Yale’s painful 34-31 loss to Princeton on Nov. 11 in which the Bulldogs allowed a 14-point halftime lead to crumble under an aerial barrage by Princeton quarterback Jeff Terrell.
“There were certainly a lot of opportunities to step up,” Murphy said, “and most times their defense took it away.”
In the end, the Crimson offense was grounded by a Yale defense that felt it had something to prove. Regardless of whether, as thousands of Yalies adamantly insisted, that Harvard was overrated, the Bulldogs made it clear on Saturday that their defense, during The Game at least, wasn’t second-best.