The Game itself needs no extra hype, but with history, the chance at perfection, and an Ivy League championship on the line, that’s exactly what it will get.
When the Crimson (7-2, 6-0 Ivy) travels to New Haven, Conn. tomorrow for a noon showdown against the Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0), the Yale Bowl will see one of the greatest matchups in The Game’s 124-edition history—two teams, both perfect in the Ivies, duking it out for a title.
Not since 1968 and the famous 29-29 Harvard “win” have the two squads faced one another unbeaten in the Ancient Eight. But history is just the beginning.
“When you come to Harvard you realize that everything’s been done,” senior quarterback Chris Pizzotti said. “The history is amazing. To have an opportunity like this is really special. As a team we’re trying to soak it up, go down there and get a win. I think everyone realizes if we lose, we’re just another 7-3 team.”
That 7-3 record is one that the team is all too familiar with. The last time the Crimson traveled to New Haven, it was a triple-overtime thriller that gave Harvard its seventh and final victory. Last season, it was an embarrassing 34-13 clobbering—ending the Crimson’s five-year Game dynasty—that handed Harvard its third loss.
This year, the Crimson defense has perhaps the toughest test.
It comes in the form of tailback Mike McLeod, a junior who has mowed down defense after defense, averaging 174.3 rushing yards per game on the way to 23 touchdowns this season.
And things don’t let up there. Senior Matt Polhemus is one of the more mobile quarterbacks Harvard has seen this year. With over nine carries per game, he averages nearly 50 yards on the ground.
“People assume that Yale is a one-dimensional offense,” said Crimson head coach Tim Murphy. “Statistically, it would suggest that, but they’ve got a complement to everything they do. They’ve got a play action pass for everything they do, they’ve got a bootleg where the quarterback can keep the football, and he’s great with the football in his hands.”
Unlike the rest of the league, Harvard shouldn’t have to stack the box to combat the ground game. The Crimson sits first in the Ivies in rush defense, giving up just 78.8 yards per contest. The team hasn’t allowed a single back to reach the century mark in over two years, and coming off a weekend in which it held Penn to under 100 total yards in the second half—the third time this season Harvard managed the feat—defensive morale is high.
“Right now [confidence] couldn’t be any higher,” said captain and defensive end Brad Bagdis. “All Yale does is run the ball, and that’s what we like to do, we like to stop the run.”
And run the ball Yale certainly does. The one-dimensional package features just 17 passes per game and lacks a receiver in the Ivy League’s top ten. Senior wideout Chris Denny-Brown leads the squad with two touchdown receptions on the year—half of the Bulldogs’ season total.
Should it go to the air, Yale will be sorely rebuffed by a Harvard secondary that already has 19 interceptions this year, second only to the Bulldogs. The Game features senior cornerback Steven Williams’ final shot at setting the career and single-season mark for interceptions at Harvard.
Unfortunately for the Crimson, Yale’s single dimensionality does not carry over to the other side of the ball. The Bulldogs come into the contest atop the league standings in total defense and first in Division I-AA in scoring defense, allowing only 11.1 points per game and 11 total touchdowns on the season.
The defense is anchored by junior linebacker Bobby Abare—who’s posted a team-leading 72 tackles, 6.5 for a loss—and classmate defensive end Brady Hart, who has added 57 tackles and three sacks.
The Crimson, home to the second-best offense in the Ivies, will rely on the league’s most efficient passer to counter Yale’s top-ranked unit. Frequently touted as the most improved player since last year, Pizzotti has 13 total touchdowns this season—10 passing, three rushing—to just four interceptions, all in just six starts.
Pizzotti has been helped by five wideouts that could start on most teams in the league. The corps is led by the duo of senior Corey Mazza and sophomore Matt Luft, averaging a combined 143.4 yards receiving per game. Like Williams, Mazza too has a shot at history, as with a single score he will overtake Carl Morris ’03 for first in receiving touchdowns in Harvard history.
“Having such unbelievable receivers makes our offense more dynamic,” Pizzotti said. “We can go four receivers on one play, two tight ends the next play. We create problems for the defense...Just having that many options gives the quarterback a lot of confidence. It’s helped me settle in this year.”
The offensive arsenal is bolstered by sophomore tailback Cheng Ho and freshman running back Gino Gordon, who’s ready to play after missing last week with a shoulder injury. The duo has improved as the season has progressed, averaging 142 yards per game.
But in spite of everything statistics provide, fans of Harvard-Yale know that The Game often comes down to turnovers, field position, and the kicking game. The Crimson has had kicking woes in the past and the Bulldogs boast the best kicker in the league, while the teams have a nearly identical turnover margin. As always, it will come down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who capitalizes down the stretch.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the 124th edition of The Game, only one thing’s for sure: tomorrow afternoon, as the sun begins to set in New Haven, an Ivy League champion will be crowned.
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.