A win is a win, even if it isn’t pretty.
Missed field goals, tipped punts, and costly fumbles highlighted a grinding 125th edition of The Game, but when it came down to it, Harvard made the big play—as it has almost all season—to escape unscathed with a share of the Ivy League championship.
With time ticking down and Yale (6-4, 4-3 Ivy) threatening inside Harvard’s 10-yard line, the Crimson (9-1, 6-1) put together six defensive plays to stop the Bulldogs, culminating in an Eric Schultz sack that knocked the ball loose from quarterback Brook Hart’s grasp and defensive tackle Carl Ehrlich pounced on the fumble.
The senior-to-senior connection quelled a late-game threat from Yale and gave the Crimson its seventh victory in eight years over the Bulldogs, 10-0 in front of 31,398 fans at Harvard Stadium.
“I think our defense has done an incredible job this year of coming up with big plays in critical situations and being resilient, being able to perform under pressure, that’s kind of been our m.o. this entire season...We haven’t always been perfect, but we’ve been able to come up the big play when we’ve needed it,” Schultz said.
It is the Crimson’s second championship in as many seasons and third in the last five. Brown holds the other piece of the title after its 41-10 win over Columbia.
“I’m very, very proud of our seniors,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Back to back Ivy League champions. Chris Pizzotti, who was here for five years, helped us win three Ivy League championships, and this is a special senior class.”
The Game was a defensive battle to the finish. On a cold day at the stadium, both teams used ground-based attacks to counter a punishing wind. With a run-first offense at heart—bolstered by last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year Mike McLeod—and the best run defense in the league, the conditions seemed to tip the scales in Yale’s favor. But a workmanlike performance from Crimson sophomore Gino Gordon and a dominating effort from Harvard’s front seven never even gave the Bulldogs a real chance.
Harvard established a run game early, as the offensive line created huge holes for the sophomore to run through on eight of the Crimson’s first 12 plays from scrimmage.
But it wasn’t until Yale misplayed a ball on the Crimson’s first punt that things really got going. The Crimson took over at Yale’s 13-yard line and inched its way through the red zone, as Gordon capped off the drive with a 4-yard spurt up the middle and into the end zone. The lone touchdown of the day gave Harvard a 7-0 lead with 8:07 left in the first frame, a score that wouldn’t change for nearly 50 more minutes of play.
“We knew that, based upon playing a great defense in Yale, they’ve had a lot of baseball scores. They hadn’t allowed teams they’d played previous to us. We knew it would be a close game, we knew it’d be a relatively low-scoring game, so we did what we had to win,” Murphy said.
After the Crimson successfully recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, the run game took over again. This time senior quarterback Chris Pizzotti got in on the action, as he would continue to the rest of the day. Combining designed runs, options, and heads-up plays, Pizzotti would combine with Gordon for 242 of Harvard’s 261 rushing yards on the afternoon. Gordon carried 39 times for 168 of them.
“I was happy with the 39,” Gordon said. “This week coach challenged us to run the ball. He wanted to run the ball. He said ‘if we run the ball well, we’ll win the game.’ Everybody stepped up on the offense. The offensive line, they stepped up, they had huge holes, and I pretty much just ran through them all day.”
While that second drive ended in a missed field goal from junior kicker Patrick Long, it seemed the Crimson would be able to control the ball as well as the pace of the game throughout the day.
Yale didn’t have its first offensive possession until 3:25 remained in the first—a harbinger of clock problems to come for the Bulldogs, who held the ball for just 20:45 to Harvard’s 39:15 overall.
“We had some opportunities to continue drives, and whether it was a dropped ball or a misthrown ball or whatever it might have been, we did not make plays to keep our offense on the field, to keep our defense off the field, and put the ball in the end zone,” Bulldog coach Jack Siedlecki said.
An ugly second quarter saw Yale move the ball a bit better, although the Bulldogs struggled in their first of two total possessions in the red zone. Unable to get to the goalline, they were forced to settle for a 19-yard field goal that wobbled wide left of the goalposts.
The Crimson, too, would get in on the special teams struggles, as one McLeod and one Harvard fumble later, the Crimson found itself inside the red zone for the third time on the afternoon. With a chance to extend its lead to two possessions as time expired in the first half, Long missed his second field goal of the day on a tipped ball that didn’t even make it in range of the uprights.
The teams entered the half with just seven points separating them. The game was far from out of reach, and it would take a continued solid effort from the defense to ensure things didn’t get too interesting.
As well as the defensive corps played in the first half, limiting Yale to 80 total yards of offense, in the second half they put on a clinic. The Bulldogs mustered only 10 yards of offense after the break, as the Harvard defense forced five three-and-outs and a fumble in the final two quarters and limited the Bulldogs to a net of -4 yards in the fourth frame.
“Going into these final games, our defense, it was great to be a part of it, because it was a unit that I feel like it was really senior-led, we had a ton of experience....So I think the confidence that we’ve had as a defense has come from our experience and the, like I said, the resilient mentality that the guys on the unit have.”
Long added some insurance points on a 23-yard field goal after a 13-play, 44-yard drive that consumed over six minutes of the clock. But in the end, the points weren’t a factor, as even a 48-yard punt return from sophomore Gio Christodoulou that set the Bulldogs up at the eight couldn’t give Yale the offensive edge it needed.
“This team, I said it last week at Penn, we have not been a dominant team in any respect. We’ve just been a team that’s been extremely resilient, very mentally tough, and when we’ve had to come up with a big play we did,” Murphy said.
“We had plays like that almost every game, we certainly had our share of those last week at Penn,” Murphy added. “Again, I think you recruit great kids with great character, we really preach the mental aspect of the game just in terms of being able to deal with adversity, and once again, our kids in a very challenging situation stepped up.”
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.