For the first time in a long time, Harvard enters The Game as the underdog.
From 2007 to 2015, Crimson football ended its season on a positive note. The Yale matchup traditionally closes out each year, and during that nine-year period, Harvard prevailed in every single contest.
In 2016, however, the Bulldogs marched into Harvard Stadium and shocked the Crimson, 21-14. The upset snapped that nine-year winning run, and also denied the Crimson a chance to claim its fourth straight Ivy League title.
This year, there are much fewer implications. In effect, Yale (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) has already won the conference—another win, and it clinches the outright championship. Even with a loss, the Bulldogs still tie for the crown.
“It’s the best Yale team that we’ve seen in my 24 years, no question about it,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “They’re one play away from being undefeated. They don’t appear to have any weaknesses on film.”
The 52-17 shellacking against the Tigers was the turning point in the Crimson’s season. That loss seemed to demoralize the ranks, and it dropped the team to 1-2 in league competition. No team has won the conference with two or more losses since 1982.
However, with the possibility of a seven-way tie for first place still in play, Harvard had hope. Until Penn visited, that is. Last week, the Quakers dispatched the Crimson on its home turf, 23-6.
This set of nine games in 2017 has been a rollercoaster for Harvard football, to say the least. It began with losing on the road to Rhode Island, and more importantly, losing freshman Ben Abercrombie to a serious neck injury in that game. It saw the emergence of a potential star quarterback in a win over Dartmouth, and it overcame four interceptions to roar back against the Columbia Lions. However, it also enters The Game with an uncertain quarterback situation and the still-healing wounds of the Penn loss.
“When it’s the Yale game, it’s pretty easy [to rebound] just because one, you want to get the negative out and the positive in,” Murphy said. “Two, there’s no other game on our schedule that takes such complete focus or is as big a game.”
That is not to say that the fate of the 2017 Crimson rests upon the shoulders of just two of its players, however. Some of Harvard’s inconsistencies can be blamed on a rash of injuries that decimated the defensive starters, their backups, and the backups after them.
The Crimson remained in contention for as long as it did thanks to a lengthy list of contributors. Harvard’s pass rush has been effective all season long, despite losing D.J. Bailey to an injury. Juniors Richie Ryan and Bailey and seniors Alex White and Stone Hart jointly put up 15.5 sacks. The secondary appeared to improve on last year’s unit, and senior Tanner Lee paced that group with three interceptions. Captain Luke Hutton posted 73 tackles.
In the air, the quarterbacks have spread their passes around to a slew of targets. Shelton-Mosley paces the team in receptions (29) and yards (388), while senior halfback Ryan Antonellis and junior wideout Adam Scott have each hauled in over 200 yards worth of catches. Perhaps most surprising is the breakout season of Henry Taylor—the junior leads the team in receiving touchdowns with three, including a clutch 65-yard grab at Columbia.
On Saturday, Harvard has one last chance to put all these pieces together in New Haven. However, Yale will be hungry.
The last time the Bulldogs planted their flag on the peak of the Ivy League football mountaintop was 1980. Admittedly, Yale claimed shares of the championship in 1989 and 2006, but to reach the summit alone is a much sweeter accomplishment.
The Bulldogs’ only setback this season came in a 28-27 loss to Dartmouth, in which the Big Green took its first lead with under a minute left to play. However, Yale proved its ability to bounce back, in more ways than one, when it pulled off a come-from-behind win last week over Princeton, 35-31. The victory gave the team sole possession of first place.
“I see young talent,” junior linebacker Charlie Walker said. “I respect his game. He knows how to throw the ball, but I treat him like any other quarterback—with respect, but with the mentality that we’re going to crush him.”
However, much of the Bulldogs’ scoring success can be attributed to its fearsome offensive line.
“Once they grab onto you and start pushing, it’s over,” Walker said. “It’ll be the challenge of the year.”
The line has paved a wide path for running back Zane Dudek, and the rookie has obliged by tallying 1,069 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He leads the Ivy League in both categories, and his 179 receiving yards also give him the most all-purpose yards in the conference.
“It’s a combination of him being a really good athlete behind a really good offensive line, and on a team that also can throw,” Murphy said. “He has a great feel for where the hole’s going to be, he’s got great cutting ability, and he’s got great lower-body strength.”
Yale’s defensive front does a good job of terrorizing opponents as well. It has allowed just 78.3 rushing yards per contest, often flattening rushers as soon as they reach the line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs also lead the league with 33 sacks, 9.5 of which came from senior linebacker Matthew Oplinger.
Though technically this game does not mean as much as it usually does for Harvard, it is still The Game. And the team’s record will be the last thing on its mind as it heads into New Haven.
“I think in the Harvard-Yale game, you don’t leave anything on the table,” Murphy said. “Let’s put it that way.”
—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.