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A Guide to Football and Storied Traditions of Harvard-Yale

The Harvard offensive line waits for the whistle blow in the annual Harvard-Yale game on Nov. 19, 2022. The Bulldogs beat the Crimson in a tight 19-14 affair.
The Harvard offensive line waits for the whistle blow in the annual Harvard-Yale game on Nov. 19, 2022. The Bulldogs beat the Crimson in a tight 19-14 affair. By Christopher L. Li
By Aaron B. Shuchman, Crimson Staff Writer

A Brief History of the Harvard-Yale Game

The annual Harvard-Yale football game, often simply referred to as “The Game,” is the third-oldest college football rivalry in the United States. It is played each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving day, with the host site rotating each year between the Yale Bowl and Harvard Stadium. In many seasons, the outcome of The Game has decided the Ivy League champion, as it is played on the final weekend of the season.

As a rivalry nearly a century-and-a-half old played between two institutions founded more than three centuries ago, The Game is steeped in old traditions. After the pregame coin toss, where captains represent their teams at midfield, the team’s leaders then run back to the sideline to energize their squad and get them ready for kickoff. Yale’s Saybrook College is also famous for its “Saybrook Strip,” where Saybrook residents strip down to their underwear at the end of the third quarter.

Recent editions of The Game have built on this storied legacy with a number of memorable entries. The second half of the 2019 game was delayed for close to an hour after protestors stormed the field at the Yale Bowl demanding that Harvard and Yale divest from fossil fuels and refused to leave. In 2014, ESPN’s College GameDay pregame show paid a visit to Harvard Stadium for The Game, which Harvard won 31-24.

There is also a long history of pranks between Harvard, Yale, and occasionally MIT students. In 1961, The Crimson handed out parody editions of the Yale Daily News indicating that President John F. Kennedy ’40 would be attending the game. The president of The Crimson at the time, Robert Ellis Smith ’62, wore a mask of Kennedy and walked across the field surrounded by “Secret Service agents.” Furthermore in 1982, MIT students inflated a giant weather balloon near midfield, forcing a team of workers to hurriedly dismantle it. In 1983, members of the Yale marching band disguised themselves as members of the Harvard band and released several pigs onto the field. Years later in 2004, Yale students pretending to be a Harvard pep squad distributed placards to Harvard supporters that collectively formed the phrase “We Suck” when held aloft.

The Harvard and Yale football teams compete in the 138th playing of The Game on Nov. 19, 2022 in historic Harvard Stadium.
The Harvard and Yale football teams compete in the 138th playing of The Game on Nov. 19, 2022 in historic Harvard Stadium. By Julian J. Giordano

A Brief Guide to Football

Gameplay in football is structured in drives, which are structured in individual plays. At the start of the game, one team will receive the opening kickoff and start its first drive. It will have four downs, or plays, to cover the distance between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker, which resets the down counter. When a team reaches fourth down and has not gained a first down, there are three options: it may either punt by having its punter kick the ball to the opponent, attempt to kick a field goal through the uprights, or it may “go for it” and attempt to reach the first down line again, but if it fails, the other team receives the ball where the previous play began.

Teams can score in one of three ways. When a team is able to move the ball offensively far enough into the other team’s territory but is unable to reach the end zone, it may send its kicker out to try and kick the ball through the goalposts for a field goal, worth three points. If the offense is able to catch or run the ball into the end zone, it scores a touchdown, worth six points, and can either kick an extra point or attempt a one-shot two-point conversion. Defenses can also score, as they can return interceptions or fumbles for touchdowns. If they tackle the opposing offense in the end zone that the other team is defending, it can score a safety, worth two points.

On offense, teams employ two types of plays as part of their gameplan. The quarterback — the offense’s most important player — will receive the ball from the center, and will either hand the ball to a running back, attempt to throw the ball to a tight end or wide receiver, or keep the ball himself and run. When a pass is not caught, the next down begins at the same point on the field as the previous play. The defense will attempt to intercept or break up the quarterback’s passes, tackle the ball carrier, or tackle the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage for a sack.

There are several key positions that impact the course of the game. Quarterbacks are responsible for running the offense and throwing the ball to their wide receivers, who line up along the sidelines at the start of the play, and tight ends, who line up closer to the ball in the middle of the field. Running backs can take handoffs or catch passes from the quarterback. The offensive line, made up of tackles that protect the end of the offensive line, guards, who line up just inside of the tackles, and the center, who is in the middle of the line, are responsible for protecting the quarterback from pressure and creating space for running backs and wide receivers downfield.

On defense, the defensive line is composed of defensive tackles, who line up opposite the center and guards, and defensive ends, who line up opposite the tackles. The defensive line is responsible for bottling up the opposing team’s running game while also putting pressure on the quarterback. Behind the defensive line are the linebackers, who chase down ball carriers, rush the quarterback, and support coverage of wide receivers. Behind the linebackers is the secondary, made up of cornerbacks and safeties. Cornerbacks line up opposite wide receivers and attempt to intercept or disrupt passes, while safeties support cornerbacks in coverage and cover the deep part of the field.

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