IN LEHMAN'S TERMS: Bulldog Flaws Brought To Light

This is a serious column.

Fair warning, because you’ll be waiting for the payoff, the gotcha moment, the just-kidding punch line, and it’s not going to arrive.

Last Saturday, I was a civilian; at far remove from the Yale Bowl press box, I cheered wildly for every Bulldogs stumble, every incompletion, every three-and-out. Virtually everything that could go wrong for the Elis did, and as a Harvard fan who loves to point and laugh and yell in the raucous environment of a near-full arena, I reveled in it.

Last Sunday, I asked myself why. Not why I had so much fun—the only thing better than routing your archrivals in their own stadium to claim the loftiest title within your reach is maybe doing it at home. No, I asked myself why 37-6. Why early-and-often domination of a squad that was as close to a league juggernaut as the Ivies had fostered since the Fitzpatrick-led Crimson of 2004.

The easy answer is that Yale was never that good, an iffy 9-0 team that built its reputation by running up the score on Cornell and Dartmouth in the unsettled early weeks of the Ivy slate. And that Harvard was underrated, just two plays—last-minute scores by Holy Cross and Lehigh—away from 9-0 itself.

Another avenue of explanation is that Tim Murphy completely outcoached his old friend Jack Siedlecki. Murphy utilized a majority-run offense for nine weeks, and then in the 10th finally turned quarterback Chris Pizzotti loose, throwing the ball on first down, taking chances down the field, and spreading the defense by mixing in a healthy dose of screens and draws. On defense, Murphy called a ton of blitzes—harnessing the speed of his front four and the aggressiveness of his linebackers while trusting his veteran secondary—to get into the backfield and boggle the Bulldogs’ attack.

In the end, the most plausible rationale is a clichéd one in the any-given-Saturday mold. Harvard played its best game of the season. Yale played its worst. The fact that the Crimson played its A-game with the championship on the line means that, despite going 1-2 in non-conference, scoring fewer points, and allowing more, it had the better season. But the fact that the Bulldogs graded a D-minus in the all-important showdown should not totally overshadow their accomplishments in 2007.

Disgruntled and embarrassed online readers started commenting on the Yale Daily News’ game story shortly after the final whistle, most of them calling for Siedlecki’s job. It fell to a few dissenters to note that Siedlecki won nine games this year, not to mention eight the year before. It seems that most fans of the blue team would have gladly traded all nine of those wins for a victory on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The Bulldogs were labeled one-dimensional, but their running game was an outstanding dimension. And it was a winning dimension, fueling Yale’s stretch of 17 triumphs in 18 games. Even with the paltry numbers from The Game, the Bulldogs wound up with 2,649 rushing yards, 31 ground TDs, and a team average of 4.9 yards per carry in their 10-game campaign.

The lion’s share of those stats came from sensational junior tailback Mike McLeod, who faltered on the bell lap of what was to be a record-setting season. Able to muster only 50 yards on 20 tries against the Harvard front, he fell shy of Ed Marinaro’s single-season Ivy League marks for rushing yards and touchdowns. His final ledger—1,619 yards, 23 scores—still puts him in rarefied air in Ancient Eight history and within striking distance of some of the more illustrious all-time records held by Clifton Dawson ’07 come 2008. Did I mention that he played the final four weeks, when he carried 123 times, with a broken toe?

Critics will rightfully indict Yale’s senior quarterback Matt Polhemus for his inability to rally the squad from its early deficit with the pass. 2-of-18 throwing for 29 yards and two interceptions is beyond an eyesore. But the kid was knocked down on almost every dropback. And kept getting up, without getting snippy with the refs, his bulldozed linemen, or the Harvard blitzers who kept planting him. He concludes his collegiate career with a 17-3 record as a starter.

And many blame the Yale secondary for failing to contain a locked-in Pizzotti, by comparison now 11-1 as a starter, or sophomore wideout Matt Luft. The unit actually entered last Saturday’s game surrendering less than five yards per passing attempt, so it wasn’t a total disgrace.

Excitement now runs high in Cambridge. The Crimson is the undisputed champion of the Ivies, with the bulk of its All-Ivy talent returning for the title defense. But as this year’s Bulldogs remind us, even if you live up to all of the expectations through the spring, summer, and early fall, without losing a game, the final judgment won’t come until Nov. 22, when Harvard and Yale meet for the 125th time.

—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at jlehman@fas.harvard.edu.

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