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NEW HAVEN, Conn.--Mano a mano, all day long.
And as the dust settled, they stood alone on the field.
The Harvard secondary knew what it was getting into in the Yale Bowl Saturday, as it has for much of the season. Harvard's dedication to an aggressive, pressuring defense left it to the defensive backs to hold their own in single coverage on the corners of the offense.
Yale understood the situation as well, and attacked downfield with its tandem of athletic wideouts, 6'4 sophomore Jake Borden and 6'6 junior Ken Marschner.
"We knew they would be in a lot of man-to-man," said Yale Coach Jack Siedlecki. "So we tried to mix up post and flag plays."
Indeed Yale went deep on six of 13 pass attempts in the first half, and got single coverage on all six.
All six fell harmlessly incomplete.
With the drop-back-and-sling-it strategy failing, Yale mustered only 49 passing yards on its way to a 14-0 deficit and the intermission.
"We knew [the scheme] would be man-to-man going in," said junior cornerback Glenn Jackson. "All eyes were on us."
Yesterday the Harvard defense rode on the shoulders of a secondary that came into the season a source of concern.
"Going into the season, we questioned the secondary," said Harvard Coach Tim Murphy. "It's a big, rugged secondary, and we knew people would try to pick on it."
That questionable secondary gave up no deep balls yesterday before Harvard switched to a more prevent-based defense in the second half.
But the Crimson defensive backs have stepped up in more than just The Game. Harvard has allowed only two passing touchdowns in the last five weeks.
Yale talked a lot about missed opportunities and being undermanned after the game.
"We had opportunities," Siedlecki said. "We dropped a couple of [potentially] big plays."
The fact of the matter is the backfield blanketed the Yale wideouts on nearly every play, and more importantly, simply kept the Elis from making catches.
Yale gave up on the run early, so a struggling Harvard offense took a comfortable lead into the locker room due in great part to solid big game play out of the Crimson secondary.
"We've worked hard and proven ourselves as a secondary this year. We've showed people we're no weakness to the team," Jackson said.
Although official statistics credit the Crimson defensive backfield with only two pass breakups, Jackson, junior cornerback Derek Yankoff, senior safety Jeff Compas and sophomore safety Aron Natale provided defensive pressure on at least seven pass plays on the day--some in spectacular fashion.
Jackson's touchdown-saving breakup shortly after the half stalled a drive just out of field-goal range.
"[Jackson] made an absolutely incredible play on the scoreboard route in the third quarter," Siedlecki said.
Harvard corners are athletic and they have stayed with swift wideouts all year long. But at times they have struggled to pick up balls in the air, adjust and make plays on them. A season's worth of jump balls may have paid off yesterday.
"We've worked hard [on our coverage]," Jackson said. "We've played a lot of teams like Brown that really put the ball up. Yale pulled out all the stops, but [we did not] let them get behind us."
Yale looked much better in the second half, racking up 139 yards in the air, but that is mostly attributable to Murphy's decision to play a more passive defense and protect Harvard's precious lead.
"[Yale's second half ball movement] may have been a little conservativism on our part," Murphy said. "[We wanted to] make them drive the entire field rather and not get caught in man-to-man and have a defensive back slip and fall."
As a whole, though, The Game proved what this secondary can do and how far the coaches' trust in it has come.
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