November 21, 2009

Harvard’s Late Comeback Decides The Game, 14-10

Crimson Scores Twice in Final 6:46 for Win

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Harvard quarterback Collier Winters' 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Lorditch with 1:32 remaining capped a late comeback for Harvard and gave the Crimson a 14-10 win in the 126th edition of The Game Saturday afternoon at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field. The Crimson scored twice in the final 6:46 after being kept off the scoreboard on their first seven drives of The Game by the Yale defense, including a goal-line stand by the Bulldogs in the third quarter.

The game-winning touchdown came three plays after the Bulldogs attempted to catch Harvard off-guard by running a fake punt on fourth-and-22 from the Yale 25. Senior linebacker Paul Rice, who had been a part of two successful runs on fake punts earlier in the season, took the snap from center and pitched it to freshman safety John Powers, who took off down the left sideline. But Harvard defensive back Anthony Spadafino upended Powers seven yards shy of the first down.

"We were playing to win the football game," said Tom Williams, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "We had set that play up all year, and felt it was worth 22 yards ... The whole idea was to keep our foot on the pedal and not play scared."

Rice, Yale's captain, echoed Williams' confidence.

"I agree with coach; you play to win the football game," Rice said. "I was the guy calling the play [in the huddle] and I fully expected us to get a first down. Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way."

Those frustrating final minutes of The Game obscured what was otherwise one of the Bulldogs' best efforts of the season. Yale's no-huddle offense had Harvard back on its heels at the start of The Game, and the Elis were up 10-0 after their first two possessions. The key play of the first drive was a four-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Patrick Witt to senior H-back John Sheffield that converted a third-and-three from the Yale 38. Sophomore tailback Alex Thomas added seven carries for 35 yards to help get the ball to the Harvard, where junior placekicker Alex Barnes booted a 26-yarder.

Thomas would finish the day with 124 yards, by far his best day as a Bulldog and also the most yards by a Yale tailback since Mike McLeod '09 ran for 138 in a 14-0 win over Princeton last year. Along with senior tailback Rodney Reynolds, who contributed 35 yards on 11 carries, Thomas helped catch the Crimson by surprise.

"We didn't think they were going to run, but they came right at us," said Harvard defensive lineman Carl Ehrlich. "They had us on our heels for a long time."

The Yale defense helped in that effort. On the Harvard drive after the field goal, senior linebacker Tim Handlon knocked the ball out of Winters' hands after a nine-yard run and it wound up in the hands of junior cornerback Adam Money at the Yale 41. The Yale offense took immediate advantage of that play, as Witt hit junior fullback Shane Bannon for a 21-yard gain off play action on first down. A pass interference call and a 15-yard run by Thomas helped get the ball to the Harvard three, and on third-and-goal from there Reynolds punched it in to make it 10-0 Yale at 4:43 of the first. It was Reynolds' first career touchdown.

The Crimson's lone threat of the first quarter came when Winters hit receiver Chris Lorditch for a 46-yard gain to the Yale 23. But after a pair of short gains Rice came through with a tackle for loss on third down, and on fourth down Winters rolled left but was forced to attempt a deep pass down the sideline that was overthrown. The Yale offense took over at the Eli 24.

That Eli drive ended with a punt, but it was a good one -- 69 yards by senior punter/placekicker Tom Mante for a touchback. The Cantabs were able to drive to the Yale 15, but a five-yard tackle for loss on first down by sophomore defensive lineman Jake Stoller stopped them in their tracks. When Harvard faced a fourth-and-eight at the Yale 13 the Crimson tried a fake field goal, but senior strong safety Larry Abare, playing with a cast on his right hand, knocked away the pass attempted by holder Matt Simpson.

Abare, who had broken his arm five weeks earlier at Lehigh, had just been cleared to play this past Monday. He was Yale's leading tackler at the time of his injury, so it was no surprise to see the Bulldog defense return to its usual dominance with him back in the lineup.

"Definitely, seeing No. 32 out there was a huge emotional boost for us," said Rice. "He made some big hits. Playing with Larry has been one of my favorite things about playing football for Yale. You won't find a more intense, reliable player. Words can't explain how I feel."

Yale (4-6, 2-5 Ivy League) drove to the Harvard 27 after that play, but an attempt to convert a fourth-and-inches came up short after the Bulldogs had to recover their own fumble. Still, the Yale defense forced a three-and-out for the Crimson. The offense got the ball back with 12 seconds left and a 21-yard completion from Witt to junior wide receiver Jordan Forney enabled the Bulldogs to try a 62-yard field goal by Mante (who had hit from 54 yards earlier in the year) on the final play of the half, but that one came up short. The score was 10-0 Yale at halftime.

The first turning point of the second half came at the end of Harvard's first drive. The Crimson drove to the Yale two, but on second down from there Rice and sophomore free safety Geoff Dunham combined to bring down tailback Gino Gordon inches short of the goal line. On third down Handlon pushed Winters even further back when he tried to keep the ball up the middle. Harvard decided to go for it on fourth and goal from the one, but Rice and senior outside linebacker Travis Henry led a pack of Bulldogs that swallowed up Gordon as he attempted to take the handoff right.

"Over my four years here, goal-line defense is something we've prided ourselves on," Rice said. "That play in particular was just a great momentum shift for us. It was clear he wasn't even close to the goal line."

The third quarter ended with the score still 10-0 Yale and the Bulldogs facing a fourth-and-one at the Harvard 25. Reynolds got the ball and went right, staying on his feet as long as he could as the line closed in around him. The officials brought out the chains to measure and took a long look at the ball before finally, dramatically, signaling a first down for Yale. The Elis then got to the Harvard 10, but missed on a 27-yard field goal attempt from there on the sixth play of the fourth quarter.

The big play of Harvard's first drive of the fourth quarter was a huge hit from Henry that popped the ball loose from tailback Treavor Scales. The Crimson recovered, but the 11-yard loss left them facing a third-and-14 that they could not convert. The punt set up the Yale offense at the Eli 46, but the Bulldogs had to punt after three plays.

Harvard (7-3, 6-1 Ivy League) crept closer on a big play from the Yale 41 on the ensuing drive, which also featured a 19-yard fourth-and-four conversion run by Gordon from the Harvard 30. The snap on the touchdown pass rolled along the ground but still went right to Winters, who stayed poised and waited for the play to develop. He finally lofted one deep down the middle of the field, hitting wide receiver Matt Luft in stride for the touchdown the made the score 10-7 Yale with 6:46 left.

That set up the Yale drive that ended with the fake punt. The Bulldogs were left facing the fourth-and-22 after a holding penalty negated a long gain by Thomas and the Crimson defense came up with its second sack of the game.

Even after the second Harvard touchdown the Bulldogs had a chance to win The Game, starting a drive at their own 20 with 1:32 to play. But three plays in linebacker Jon Takamura's interception at the Harvard 39 ended Yale's comeback hopes. The Crimson offense was not able to run out the clock, since Yale used all of its timeouts to keep that from happening. But the Harvard punt left Yale at its own eight with 25 seconds to play. After another sack and a spike, Witt hit junior wide receiver Peter Balsam for 12 yards and he lateraled to Sheffield for another six, but Sheffield was stopped at the Yale 22 as time expired and his attempted lateral wound up in Harvard's possession.

This represented a tough final game for Yale's seniors, who were honored on the field before The Game. Williams made a point of saluting them for the role they played in his first season as head coach.

"I'm sick because our senior class has been the best group of men," Williams said. "They've given us, as a new staff, everything we've asked ... Our team was desperate to give them the victory, and we didn't. Still, I'll take this group of men any day of the week, and we'll be back. I promise you."

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

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