GAMES OF THE YEAR: Harvard-Michigan Men's Basketball
It was a most unlikely blowout.
By all accounts, the 124th edition of The Game should have been a closely-fought affair. For the first time since 1968’s famous 29-29 Harvard victory, both teams entered with perfect 6-0 Ivy records, and Yale was an immaculate 9-0 overall. The Bulldogs had spent the season dominating Ivy opponents, winning every league contest save one by double-digit margins, never allowing more than 17 points in regulation and becoming the first team to score 50 or more points twice in a single Ivy campaign. Yale running back Mike McLeod, despite a nagging toe injury, was averaging 174.3 yards and over three touchdowns per game. And, to top it off, the Bulldogs were playing in front of the home crowd in their bid for their first unbeaten and untied season since 1960.
The Crimson, meanwhile, had seemingly won with smoke and mirrors after a 1-2 start that featured two losses in the final 30 seconds. Harvard had eked out a pair of close wins over Brown and Dartmouth and had even struggled with lowly Columbia before pulling away.
The result, a 37-6 Crimson blowout in which McLeod was held to just 50 yards rushing, was as stunning as it was enjoyable.
“We dreamed we’d get this result; we didn’t dream we’d get this kind of dominance,” head coach Tim Murphy said afterwards. “There’s no question our kids believed they were going to win today, but I’m not sure we saw exactly this coming.”
What they didn’t see coming was a game that was essentially over by halftime. The Bulldogs’ secondary, ranked first in the nation in pass efficiency defense, wilted under the steady assault of senior quarterback Chris Pizzotti and his receivers. On the game’s opening drive, Pizzotti hit sophomore Matt Luft for a 40-yard touchdown strike that gave the Crimson a 7-0 lead and instant momentum just 1:08 into the contest.
“Anytime you come out, especially in a big game, and set the tone early, and make a big play, it really is a big emotional boost for our team and tough for them, especially when they had a great defense all year,” Pizzotti said afterwards.
After a pair of punts, Harvard struck on three consecutive drives with a 33-yard pass from Pizzotti to Luft, a one-yard plunge by sophomore Cheng Ho, and a 15-yard screen pass to sophomore Mike Cook after a failed fake punt by the Bulldogs. Only a fourth-down stop of a Pizzotti sneak at the goal line on the final play of the first half left Yale with anything to play for at halftime, trailing 27-0.
While the offense was throwing the ball all over the field—Pizzotti finished the first half 17-for-27 for 244 yards—the defense completely manhandled the Bulldog offense. With McLeod shut down, Yale was forced to turn to the passing game. Averaging just 116.2 yards per game passing coming in, the Bulldogs were woefully unprepared for the air-based attack. Yale quarterback Matt Polhemus, under relentless pressure from the Crimson defense, finished 2-for-18 for just 29 yards and two interceptions while being sacked twice.
“We were very confident that we would go in a stop the run,” junior cornerback Andrew Berry said. “That’s been a strong suit of our defense over the last three years. We knew they hadn’t been challenged to throw the football. We were going to commit nine guys to the run and have [senior cornerback] Steve [Williams] and me challenge their receivers.”
Harvard managed to run the score to 37-0 on a Patrick Long field goal and a short touchdown toss from Pizzotti to junior tight end Jason Miller, but Yale finally broke through with an 87-yard punt return by Gio Christodoulou with 4:15 to play, an irrelevant score that took place in front of a rapidly emptying stadium.
The win sealed Harvard’s third Ivy crown in the last seven seasons and denied the Bulldogs their second consecutive title, and the students rushed the field to celebrate, just as they had two years after the Crimson’s triple-overtime 30-24 win. This one, however, carried greater stakes and greater surprise.
“I don’t think anyone went into the game expecting it would be that lopsided,” Berry said.
A most unlikely blowout indeed.
—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.