November 18, 2006

IVY LEAGUE CHAMPIONS! Bulldogs Beat Harvard 34-13 to Claim Title

Nov. 18, 2006

 

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Behind a relentless defense and an opportunistic offense, the Yale Bulldogs claimed a share of the Ivy League championship with a 34-13 win over Harvard Saturday afternoon at Harvard Stadium. The win, Yale's first over the Crimson since 2000, caps a remarkable season and gives Yale its 14th Ivy title.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said senior wide receiver Chandler Henley, the team captain. "Last game, beat Harvard, win the Ivy League championship. I'm proud of this team."

The Bulldogs were in a virtual must-win situation after falling to Princeton last week at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field. That cost Yale a chance at the outright title and dropped the Elis into a first-place tie with the Tigers, who took care of business Saturday by beating Dartmouth 27-17 to claim a share of the crown with Yale.

"We had it in our grasp and we didn't capitalize," Henley said of last week's loss. "[Beating Harvard after the loss is] a tribute to the team. That's a tribute to these guys' will to win. I couldn't ask for anything better."

The Yale defense made a statement on the first two Crimson possessions, both of which went backwards. Junior middle guard Brandt Hollander put an end to the first one by forcing a scrambling Crimson quarterback Liam O'Hagan out of bounds 16 yards shy of a first down. On Harvard's second series the Bulldogs stuffed two straight runs by tailback Clifton Dawson. One was a five-yard loss on a Hollander tackle assisted by junior defensive lineman Jared Hamilton and one was a six-yard loss on an option toss that senior defensive end Brendan Sponheimer was in a perfect position to stop.

Dawson, who had become the Ivy League's all-time leading rusher last week against Penn and ended his career with 4,841 yards, would not emerge as a factor in this game. The Crimson tailback had run for 120 or more yards in each of his three previous outings against Yale, but ended with only 60 on this day.

"The biggest thing with Dawson is to not let him get started," said Jack Siedlecki, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "Once he gets past the line of scrimmage he is tough. He just kind of slips and slides. We made a lot of hits in the backfield, a lot of hits right at the line of scrimmage, and had a lot of people there. Obviously it was a good scheme and we were very aggressive."

The Bulldog offense took over at the Yale 49 after the Crimson punt and moved down the field quickly. A 20-yard pass to junior tight end Langston Johnson from junior quarterback Matt Polhemus got the Elis into Crimson territory. On the next play Henley drew a pass interference call to get Yale 15 yards, and five straight runs by sophomore tailback Mike McLeod after that got the ball into the end zone.

The touchdown came on third-and-goal from the one with 6:00 left in the first quarter. It gave McLeod a school-record 17 rushing touchdowns, breaking John Pagliaro's mark from 1976. McLeod's showdown with Dawson attracted attention because they were the top two rushers in the league entering the day, but McLeod did not focus on that or Dawson's Ivy League career rushing record as motivation.

"I don't go in with any stats in mind," McLeod said. "I just go in to win a football game."

Harvard did not get its first first down until there were three minutes left in the first quarter, and even then it was only by the nose of the ball. But after that the Crimson got a pass interference call and a 14-yard run by Dawson that got the ball deep into Yale territory. Dawson converted a fourth-and-one at the Yale four with a two-yard run, and two plays after that he was in the end zone from a yard out with his 20th touchdown of the year.

The Yale offense answered immediately. Buoyed by a 21-yard kickoff return from sophomore free safety Steven Santoro, Yale started at its own 36. Polhemus broke off a nine-yard run to get the drive started, and McLeod followed with a 14-yarder. A 14-yard completion to senior wide receiver D.J. Shooter got the ball to the Harvard 27, and McLeod took care of the rest. His 23-yard run up the middle included a beautiful bit of juking to get safety Doug Hewlett out of the picture. It ended with him breaking several tackles to get the ball to the four.

On the next play McLeod went off tackle and found the right side of the field so wide open he could walk into the end zone. Yale's re-shuffled offensive line included preseason all-America senior Ed McCarthy at right tackle and junior Jeff Monaco at right guard; junior center Nick Wachtler took his usual spot at center while senior Brett Crandall manned left guard and senior Jay Leybourn handled McCarthy's usual left tackle spot.

The Yale defense then produced another three-and-out, with sophomore cornerback Casey Gerald breaking up a long pass intended for wide receiver Corey Mazza on third-and-nine. Playing with his right hand in a cast, Gerald managed to get his left arm in front of Mazza to force the incompletion.

Gerald was just one of many young members of Yale's secondary who responded well after allowing Princeton 446 yards through the air last week.

"They really stepped up their play," said sophomore linebacker Bobby Abare. "They had a rough week last week and bounced back this week."

Junior place kicker Alan Kimball booted a 30-yard field goal 2:49 before halftime to increase Yale's lead to 10 points. The key plays on that drive were two third-down conversions -- one courtesy of Polhemus' feet (an 11-yard run) and one courtesy of his arm (a 21-yard toss under pressure to Henley).

Harvard's final drive of the half ended with Santoro picking off a pass at the Yale 17 and returning it all the way to the Crimson 41. A 21-yard pass to Johnson got the ball to the six, and three plays later Kimball nailed a 24-yard field goal. The Bulldogs went into the half up 20-7.

Any chance of Yale resting easy with that lead was probably eliminated last week, when a 28-14 lead against Princeton slipped away in the game's final 17 minutes and the Bulldogs suffered their only Ivy defeat of the year. Siedlecki noted that the way Yale turned the page on that loss 24 hours later was a key to this victory.

"It was an immediate bounce-back from the Princeton loss on Sunday," said Jack Siedlecki, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "That was very important because we got ourselves focused on Harvard and going in the right direction. We had a good week of practice. I think Chandler dealt with the psyche of the team [well] in terms of talking to the players."

The interception that gave Harvard the ball at the Yale 43 on the first drive of the second half could have portended the start of a Crimson comeback, but the Yale defense had none of it. Harvard faced a third-and-nine at the Yale 26 when O'Hagan, harried by Santoro, lost the ball. Senior linebacker Chris Barry pounced on it at the 35 to end the Harvard threat.

After a Yale punt, Harvard sent in Chris Pizzotti for O'Hagan. Junior defensive lineman Jared Hamilton tipped his second-down pass incomplete to leave Harvard facing a third-and-15 at its own 31. Abare then sacked Pizzotti for a seven-yard loss to force a punt.

After freshman punter Tom Mante pinned the Crimson back at the 10 with a beautiful punt near the end of the third quarter, the defense continued its dominant performance. After an incompletion on first down, junior defensive lineman Stephen Schmalhofer stopped Dawson for no gain on second down. Sophomore defensive lineman Bryan Kana then sacked Pizzotti back at the three-yard line, just missing a safety as the third quarter came to an end.

That forced a Crimson punt from the end zone, and with freshman cornerback Travis Henry in his face Matt Schindel punted the ball out of bounds at the Harvard eight -- just six yards past the line of scrimmage.

On the first play from there, McLeod took the ball in for a score that made it 27-7 Yale with 14:39 to play. It was McLeod's 20th touchdown of the year, making him the first non-senior in Ivy League history to reach that mark.

The Yale defense then iced the victory in dramatic fashion. Harvard's last good chance to get back in The Game came when Pizzotti, under heavy pressure from sophomore defensive lineman Joe Hathaway, overthrew a wide open Mazza down the right sideline on what could have been a long touchdown pass. Two plays later Dawson tried the middle of the field and, while reaching for an extra yard, was stripped of the ball by Barry. It came loose to Santoro, who had a wide-open field in front of him for a 38-yard touchdown return that made it 34-7 Yale.

"The things we talked about during the week -- turning them over, getting field position -- we did those things," said Siedlecki.

Santoro saw his performance as part of a statement by the Yale defense as a whole.

"We had to make up for last week," Santoro said. "We feel like we let the team down. There were a lot of fumbles last week that happened to bounce into Princeton's hands. They just happened to bounce into my hands this week. Defensively, we definitely wanted to prove a point today."

Harvard did tack on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Pizzotti to Mazza with 11:07 left, but it was not enough to ignite a comeback. The Crimson's next possession ended at the Harvard 46 with Pizzotti pressured by Hollander into throwing an incompletion on fourth-and-seven.

The Yale offense took over and ran down the clock with McLeod and senior fullback Taylor Craig. McLeod finished the year with 1,364 yards, second only to Rich Diana (1,442 in 1981) on Yale's single-season list.

Harvard did get the ball back at its own 14 with 1:42 to play, but sophomore strong safety Larry Abare grabbed a tipped ball for an interception at the Yale 29 with 13 seconds left. He would finish with the team lead in tackles (3-5-8), while his brother Bobby added five (3-2-5). Seven times in Yale's final eight games, the team's leading tackler was an Abare.

"I've got to give a lot of credit to [defensive coordinator] Rick Flanders today," Bobby Abare said. "He put in a great game plan. Right from the get-go, we came after them the whole day ... We mixed it up with the blitzes, coming off the weak side and the strong side."

With the clock winding down, the Yale offense did not even need to come out to take a knee. The Bulldogs and their fans rushed the field to start the celebration as the last seconds ticked off.

This was just the second time in the last 16 games Harvard's offense had been held to less than 24 points. It was also Yale's largest margin of victory over the Crimson since a 28-0 win in 1981, and the largest margin of victory for Yale at Harvard Stadium since 1960 (39-6). Yale won Ivy League championships in both of those years.

"The biggest thing is our kids just played so hard for 60 minutes -- both sides of the ball and on special teams," Siedlecki said.

For Henley and his fellow seniors, snapping the losing streak to Yale's archrival was just a small part of what made Saturday so satisfying.

"We had to win to win a championship," Henley said. "It makes it that much sweeter that it is Harvard, though. We went out and we achieved our goal."

report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity