Nov. 22, 2008
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - With an Ivy League title at stake in bitterly cold conditions and swirling wind, Yale and Harvard met in a defensive struggle Saturday afternoon at Harvard Stadium. An early touchdown and a late field goal by the Crimson proved to be the difference as Harvard prevailed, 10-0.
The flags above the stadium were whipping around in different directions throughout the game, making passing and kicking difficult as the wind gusted up to 30 miles an hour. The wind chill put the temperature near single digits, adding up to difficulty holding on to the ball for both teams.
"There wasn't going to be a lot of scoring that was going to happen out there today," said Jack Siedlecki, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "They did a good job versus the run. Obviously [because of the weather] it was a pretty one-dimensional day, where you could load up the front. I thought early in the game we got off to a decent start ... but we really didn't get a rhythm going on offense."
As the day started Yale was still in contention for a share of the Ivy League title. The Bulldogs needed a win, and a Columbia win over Brown, to get a piece of their 15th Ancient Eight crown. But the Elis quickly found themselves in a hole against Harvard, and the Lions fell behind the Bears as well. Neither score improved as the day wore on.
Harvard was pinned back at its own four when return man Adam Chrissis collided with his own teammate as he was catching the opening kickoff. The Crimson was able to overcome that and drive into Yale territory, but the Bulldog defense appeared to have Harvard stopped. On second-and-one from the Yale 33 senior linebacker Jay Pilkerton and senior defensive lineman Joe Hathaway dropped tailback Gino Gordon for a two-yard loss. Junior defensive lineman Matt Kelleher then tipped quarterback Chris Pizzotti's third-down pass incomplete, and the Crimson went back to punt.
The next play is one that will have Yale wondering about what might have been. Thomas Hull's punt hung up in the air, and sophomore return man Gio Christodoulou moved to get out of the way as the ball bounced down at the Yale 13 and Harvard's Derrick Barker grabbed it. But after the play ended, and as the Bulldog offense was preparing to go on the field, the field judge ruled that the ball had hit Yale and was therefore a fumble. Harvard maintained possession.
Did the ball hit Christodoulou?
"Not at all," Christodoulou said. "I was going to fair catch it. I stepped back, which I shouldn't have done, [but it didn't hit me]."
"I didn't see it hit anybody," added senior linebacker Bobby Abare.
Harvard ran the ball three times to get into the end zone, finishing with a four-yard run by Gordon that would wind up being the only touchdown of the day. It was also the first touchdown allowed by the Yale defense -- which entered the day leading the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision in scoring defense -- in more than 10 quarters.
"On a day like this, that was going to be a major factor -- scoring first, being in that comfort zone and being ahead," said Siedlecki.
The Crimson added to its edge by pulling off an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. The Harvard drive eventually ended with a missed field goal after senior defensive lineman Kyle Hawari stopped tailback Ben Jenkins after a one-yard run on fourth-and-five, but the net result of the various special teams plays was that Yale's offense did not touch the ball until there was 3:25 left in the first quarter. Harvard would finish with a near-20 minute edge in time of possession.
The Yale defense forced a three-and-out at the start of the second quarter when Hawari and junior defensive lineman Tom McCarthy brought down Gordon for a one-yard loss on third-and-eight. A short punt gave Yale great field position at the Harvard 36, but the drive stalled at the Harvard two and the Bulldogs missed a field goal attempt.
The Elis got their first turnover of the game two plays into the next Harvard drive, when receiver Matt Luft lost the ball after hauling in a long pass from a scrambling Pizzotti. Senior strong safety Larry Abare recovered at the Yale 41, but three plays later the Bulldogs fumbled it back to the Crimson at the Harvard 49.
Harvard drove to the Yale 11 in the waning seconds of the first half, but Hawari stuffed a Crimson run for a four-yard loss on third down and the Crimson missed a 32-yard field goal attempt, leaving the score at 7-0 heading into halftime.
The Bulldogs generated another turnover on Harvard's first possession of the second half. Pizzotti lost the ball as he drove into a pile of players, and it was not clear for several moments who had it. The officials waited to make the call as they cleared players off the pile, and eventually sophomore cornerback Adam Money emerged with the ball raised triumphantly in the air at the Harvard 41.
Yale got only three yards on the drive after the Money fumble recovery, however, and the Bulldogs had to punt. The Eli defense generated another big play when Hathaway and Hawari combined for an eight-yard sack, but Harvard was able to pin Yale at its own five with a punt that was downed by a sliding Matthew Hanson.
The Bulldogs could not get the first down, but junior punter/place kicker Tom Mante was able to boom a punt 43 yards out to midfield. Harvard drove from there to the Yale three to start the fourth quarter, but junior cornerback Paul Rice stopped a run for no gain on first down, and Hathaway then forced Pizzotti into an intentional grounding penalty that pushed the Crimson back to the 17. After a Gordon run got the ball to the five, Patrick Long came on for a 22-yard field goal that made it 10-0 with 13:39 to play.
A 30-yard kickoff return by Christodoulou gave Yale the ball at its own 35, but that drive was derailed right at the start when outside linebacker Conor Murphy sacked sophomore quarterback Brook Hart from the blind side for a 10-yard loss. That was one of three sacks on the day for the Crimson, which cost Yale a total of 35 yards.
"Their defensive front played great," Siedlecki said. "They have some great players."
The Yale defense came through with another three-and-out, as Hawari and Pilkerton stopped Gordon two yards shy on third down. A short punt set Yale up at the Harvard 47 with 10:29 to play, but linebacker Glenn Dorris brought down senior tailback Mike McLeod for a three-yard loss on third-and-two.
That wound up being the final time McLeod, Yale's all-time leading rusher, got the ball. He finished The Game with 62 yards on 21 carries, giving him 4,514 yards for his career -- fourth in Ivy League history.
"Mike was not 100 percent healthy all year," said Siedlecki. "But he's the best back we have. He ran hard every game and played hard every game. We just did not get it done for him."
Harvard ran five minutes off the clock with its next drive, but a 48-yard return by Christodoulou that got the ball to the eight with 3:20 to play gave Yale renewed hope. A short run and short completion by Hart, mixed in with a false start and an incompletion, left Yale facing fourth-and-goal from the nine. A pass interference call against the Crimson gave Yale the ball at the Harvard two with a fresh set of downs and 2:11 to play, but after strong safety Collin Zych knocked a potential touchdown catch out of the hands of junior H-back John Sheffield, Hart was sacked and lost the ball. The Crimson recovered and ran out the clock to seal the 10-0 win.
"The kids played their hearts out," Siedlecki said. "We had a couple of opportunities -- a couple of turnovers in their area, and then the last one on the punt return down to the eight-yard line. We still had a chance to put it in -- hey, onside kick, who knows? But they made the plays and we didn't."
In part because of the early lead, Harvard was able to keep the ball on the ground and avoid the effects of the wind. The Crimson finished with 58 rushing attempts. In addition to Gordon's 168 yards on 39 carries, Pizzotti added 74 yards on 16 carries.
"He's not fast, but he does a great job getting away from trouble and then finding receivers," Siedlecki said. "Today it was tough to find receivers, tough to throw the ball, so it became more running than throwing it down the field [for him]."
The Bulldogs finished with 90 yards of total offense.
"We never got anything going offensively," Siedlecki said. "It was the opposite of last week [when Yale scored on its first drive after a Princeton fumble and went on to shut out the Tigers 14-0]. They caught the break on the punt, went in and scored right away."
The win gives Harvard (9-1, 6-1 Ivy League) a share of its 13th Ivy League title. Brown (7-3, 6-1 Ivy League) beat Columbia 41-10 Saturday to also lay claim to the crown.
Yale (6-4, 4-3 Ivy League) winds up as the only team that beat Brown this season, part of a stretch of three straight wins after the Bulldogs lost two games by two points each midway through the season. Siedlecki pointed to the way Yale responded to those two losses as a tribute to the 35 seniors on the team, who leave with a 27-13 overall record in their four years.
"We lost two in a row by two points and were 3-3 just past the midpoint of the season," Siedlecki said. "That could have been a turning point either way. We went out and played three great football games in a row. That's a credit to our seniors and a credit to the leadership on this team. I'm proud of what they accomplished. We won the Ivy League title two years ago, and that wasn't expected, and we won nine games last year. With the adversity we faced [this year], guys stepped up and showed what type of players they are and what type of people they are."
Abare, the Yale captain who made 18 tackles in his final game for the Bulldogs, was emotional as he looked back on his career.
"I can't put it into words," Abare said. "Playing football and playing for Yale has been one of the greatest honors of my life."
Senior cornerback Casey Gerald, who had flown back from Texas and arrived in Boston shortly before 6:00 a.m. Saturday after interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship Friday night, helped put everything in perspective.
"Bobby is one of the most amazing guys I've ever come in contact with. I could say the same thing about the other guys in our class. This is definitely not the way we wanted to end our careers," said Gerald. "But this has been the greatest time of our lives and we'll cherish the good things that we did do for this program and make sure that the guys who are still here remember this and take it with them next year."
report by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity
video by Neil Horowitz '09, Yale Sports Publicity