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UPDATED 11/21/10, 11:34 p.m.
There may not have been an Ivy title on the line, but for the seniors of the Harvard football team (7-3, 5-2 Ivy), there was still a lot at stake.
In front of a sold-out crowd at Harvard Stadium, the Crimson seniors completed their four-year sweep of archrival Yale (7-3, 5-2) on Saturday afternoon, coming from behind to top the Bulldogs, 28-21, in the 127th playing of The Game.
“It means everything,” captain Collin Zych said. “It’s a great thing, and the Harvard-Yale game’s a great rivalry. To come out on top in such an emotional, physical game four years in a row is a great accomplishment.”
But Yale looked to be the dominant team in the first half, limiting Harvard’s offensive output to just 71 yards in the opening two quarters.
Bulldog quarterback Patrick Witt picked apart the secondary early and converted a key fourth-and-inches play on his second drive with a quarterback sneak.
Yale junior Alex Thomas then ran the ball in from two yards out to make the score 7-0 with just under six minutes to play in the first.
But the Crimson found a bit of an offensive groove late in the first quarter.
Junior quarterback Collier Winters threw a lateral to classmate Adam Chrissis, who pitched the ball back to Winters on a flea-flicker.
The quarterback followed up with a perfect pass to senior Marco Iannuzzi, who pulled in the catch despite being surrounded by three Yale defenders and brought the ball up to the five-yard line.
“Well, you know, me and Collier, we’ve been playing catch for quite a few years now,” said Iannuzzi, who was making his first appearance since the Lafayette game in early October. “When I saw the open space and I knew I had the trail on me, I just sort of thought the way that Collier would be thinking: throw it to the open space. I made that move, and he read it just the same. So I really felt that we were on the same page there, and it was a perfect ball.”
Four plays later, senior Gino Gordon was in the endzone to knot the score at seven.
The Crimson seemed to seize momentum 10 minutes into the second quarter, when the Bulldogs chose to go for another fourth-and-one conversion.
Witt handed the ball off to Yale back Mordecai Cargill, who was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and pushed back for a loss, turning the ball over on downs.
But a monster sack of Winters on third down brought out the Harvard punt team and gave the Bulldogs the ball at midfield.
Yale took advantage of that good field position, putting together a quick drive to set up Thomas with a two-yard run into the endzone with 13 seconds to go, giving the Bulldogs the advantage, 14-7, heading into the break.
The Crimson struck right back, wasting no time in the second half to even the score.
Iannuzzi received the kickoff at the 16-yard line, starting right before cutting left to find a seam. The returner broke far left at the 35-yard line and sprinted untouched into the endzone for his second kickoff return touchdown of the season.
“We were able to make some plays on special teams, where we kind of faltered last week,” Zych said. “That’s what it takes to win big games. For the most part, it’s very physical, very emotional, and there’s those couple of plays in a game where you gain an advantage. And we were fortunate to be on the right side of those today.”
But all of this physicality took a sour turn with 9:41 left to play in the third quarter, when another injury momentarily felled a Crimson star.
Zych laid a hit on Bulldog tight end Chris Blohm, forcing an incompletion, but the helmet-to-helmet blow sent the captain to the sideline. The senior returned late in the quarter.
“Coming off the field, I didn’t know if they were going to let me play anymore, so I wanted my teammates to know that I was still in the game, and I was going to do everything I could to get us the victory,” Zych said. “I was just so happy when they gave me back my helmet.”
Harvard’s defensive line was also ferocious in the third period, finally besting the Yale offensive line on a mid-quarter series.
Senior Josué Ortiz first burst through for a huge sack of Witt and then rushed up with classmate Chuks Obi and got a hand on Greg Carlsen’s punt to give Harvard the ball at the Bulldog 23.
Gordon capitalized with his best drive of the day, using several shifty runs to set up his own two-yard touchdown carry, giving the Crimson its first lead of the day at 21-14.
“I think a lot of it was just emotion,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said of his team’s third-quarter performance. “The big swing on the kickoff return, the big swing on the blocked punt. I mean obviously it gave us tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and we made the most of very few plays...We needed to make big plays, because we weren’t getting many opportunities.”
The Crimson continued to ride its momentum, putting pressure on Witt and not allowing Yale to get into a rhythm on offense.
Special teams continued to plague the Bulldogs, as Carlsen let off a dud punt that junior Dan Minamide returned to the Yale 36-yard line with just over 10 minutes to play in the game.
But another big head-to-head hit—this one coming from Bulldog outside linebacker Jesse Reising on Gordon—put both seniors on the ground. Gordon got up and walked off the field under his own power, but Reising left the field on a stretcher.
“My understanding is that he’s fine,” Yale coach Tom Williams said after the game. “A precautionary measure to take him off the field on a stretcher, but when he left the field he had feeling in all his extremeties.”
Reising’s injury put a damper on the proceedings, and both teams committed a series of penalties in the plays immediately after the hit. The Crimson eventually settled down, though, and Winters found junior Alex Sarkisian from 12 yards out for the 28-14 lead.
Harvard made a huge stop on a fourth-and-nine conversion that came up inches short but immediately coughed up the momentum when sophomore Treavor Scales fumbled the ball on the first play of the offensive series.
Yale took over at the 19-yard line, and the Crimson defense—spurred by senior Ryan Burkhead’s third sack of the afternoon—seemed to have stopped the Bulldogs short when junior Alex Gedeon picked off Witt at the goal line.
But the interception was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty, and Thomas notched his third touchdown of the game with a one-yard run to the right to make it a one-score game with 3:15 to play.
Although Yale threatened in the waning minutes, an offensive pass interference call effectively killed the visitors’ final drive, and Harvard sealed its 28-21 victory with a stop on fourth and long.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Williams said. “We had expectations of winning the football game, and that’s why stats are misleading. You look at the stats, and we dominated in every area except on the scoreboard, but we did things that lose football games.”
The Bulldogs outgained the Crimson, 337 yards to 178, and had 19 first downs to Harvard’s 10. But the Crimson was a perfect three-of-three inside the red zone while holding Yale to three scores on seven chances inside the 20.
It was the fourth straight win in The Game for the Crimson, whose seniors graduate as the first class in Harvard history to go undefeated against Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth over four years.
“It’s just been a world of emotions this past week, knowing you’ve been doing something since you were eight or nine years old, and it’s finally coming to an end,” Burkhead said. “To go out the way I did is a dream come true, and I’ll always remember the end of my career, of this game today.”
—Staff writer Kate Leist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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