The two squads enter the contest with nothing but pride on the line. Harvard (5-4, 3-3 Ivy) and Yale (5-4, 3-3) are far out of the running for an Ivy League title — even runner-up is out of the question.
For both teams, the title ramifications aren’t the important thing.
“To me it’s always about pride,” coach Tim Murphy said. “Pride in our program, pride in our team, pride in our school. I think pride is a very important thing. What we believe in, what we feel about our school, our team, the other guys in our program, it’s all about pride.”
Both teams look as though they’re peaking at the just the right moment. The Bulldogs’ season began atop the Ivy League Preseason Poll and then cratered a mere week later. In a disaster of a contest against Holy Cross, the New Haven squad gave up a 14-point lead to the home team in the fourth quarter, forcing an overtime that would eventually allow Holy Cross to capture the season’s inaugural contest.
Buffered from that loss by two wins was Yale’s 41-18 loss to Dartmouth — the same Big Green team the Crimson lost to by seven. The only other loss that sticks out on the Bulldogs’ ledger is a seven-point loss to a mediocre Columbia team — a Lions team Harvard beat by 34.
The Columbia contest may be the exception for the Yale football team. The match was the first start by junior quarterback Jimmy Check, who entered in the third quarter of the Penn game following starter Kurt Rawlings’ injury in the third quarter. Not able to score but managing to cling to the lead, Check earned the nod in the Columbia game. He hasn’t gotten the nod since.
Freshman Griffin O’Connor started the next contest for the Bulldogs. After a 436-yard, four-touchdown performance in the team’s victory over Brown, the rookie has cemented his place at the helm of the offense. In only two starts, O’Connor has been deadly, racking up 907 yards and seven touchdowns to his name. In the last two contests (against Brown and Princeton), Yale has averaged 44.5 points.
“As a freshman to step in facing the injuries — Kurt Rawlings getting injured — and then him earning that starting spot, [O’Connor] has stepped in impressively,” captain Zach Miller said. “We’re definitely game planning for him. He’s got a big arm, he can pose really well, so we’ll try to get some pressure on him and just kind of rattle him a little bit.”
Injuries have plagued the Bulldogs at more than just the quarterback position. In the same Penn tilt that Rawlings was injured, so too was sophomore running back Zane Dudek. The then-freshman scored once against Harvard last season but tallied a game high 64 yards on the grass.
The hole in the offense left by the sophomore has been filled by junior running back Alan Lamar. However, Lamar’s not so much filling a gap, as the offense has shifted to a more pass-heavy front with the introduction of O’Connor.
“Their depth is tremendous,” Murphy said. “Statistically [the injuries] may be an upgrade. It’s crazy. They’re a very deep, talented team. They play a lot of guys on both sides of the ball. They’ve got a lot of team speed. I think the strength of the team is they have another really great offensive line, and they’ve got two great receivers. The passing game for Yale is probably the best it’s been in 10 or 15 years.”
As with any successful quarterback, O’Connor has some weapons on the wings. Junior wideout Reed Klubnik is the most dangerous, standing just 88 yards away from a Bulldogs’ season-record in receiving yards with 1,052. The junior also boasts nine touchdowns and an average of 7.6 catches per game.
Harvard has its offensive weapons as well, its most prominent being sophomore back Aaron Shampklin. The second-year leads the Ivy League in rushing yards with a clean 1,000. His patient running allows holes to open, before his quickness pushes him cleanly through gaps. The back is averaging more than 100 yards per game.
Shampklin isn’t the only competent ball carrier. After suffering an earlier injury, 2017 first team All-Ivy League running back Charlie Booker has taken snaps in the backfield, as have two other sophomores: Devin Darrington and B.J. Watson. Together, the rotating group of four present a quartet that has yet to be substantially silenced.
A lot of the praise for the backfield is redirected to the big men up front.
“The offensive line is the most improved unit of our team,” Murphy said. “It’s a line of scrimmage game. It’s what’s up front that counts. Having an offensive line where you can run the football certainly makes it a lot easier to throw the ball. The three seniors all have become, through a lot of hard work, All-Ivy caliber guys. Tim O'Brien at left tackle, Ben Shoults at center, and Larry Allen Jr. at right guard. Those guys have played great football, really consistent football and it’s just made us a much better offensive football team.”
Saturday’s contest is shaping up to be a battle between the Bulldogs’ explosive offense and the Crimson’s proven defense.
Throughout the season, Harvard’s crown jewel has been its defense. However, while that unit leads the division and is fourth in the nation in third down defense, Yale’s offense paces the division — and is second in the nation — in third down conversions. The Crimson also tops the division in first downs prevented, while the Bulldogs have the sixth-highest yards per game in the FCS.
Above all else, though, this is The Game.
“We’re itching to play,” Miller said. “We’re itching to get on the field and I know they are too, but we’re excited to get a little revenge. They’ve had a pretty good season this year, not as good as last year but they’re a good team. They’re still the same Yale team, same attitude, and they’re going to come out with the exact same intensity as they always have. It’s going to be a great game.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @THC_CadePalmer.