The Game is always special. Screaming fans pack the stadium. Alumni flock into town donning either crimson or blue. An electric atmosphere injects extra adrenaline into the players themselves. By the end of the day, everyone’s exhausted.
But the 2014 rendition of the annual battle between the Harvard and Yale football teams will have a heightened significance.
While the Crimson enters the contest with an undefeated record, the Bulldogs lurk just one game behind in the Ivy League standings.
Saturday’s showdown at Harvard Stadium thus represents an Ancient Eight championship game. If the Crimson (9-0, 6-0 Ivy) wins, coach Tim Murphy will earn his third undefeated season and the team will claim a sole conference title. If visiting Yale (8-1, 5-1) emerges with the victory, the two teams will share the Ivy crown.
In other words, the stakes could not be higher.
“We know that we’re clearly playing the best team on our schedule, as you watch the film,” Murphy said. “But I told the kids, we’re going to play loose and fast, fast and loose. We’re playing with house money.”
Recent history is firmly on the side of the Crimson, which has defeated the Bulldogs in seven consecutive matchups. Last season’s contest at the Yale Bowl was effectively over at halftime, as Harvard cruised to a 34-7 win. But this year’s blue-and-white is an entirely different squad.
Led by coach Tony Reno—a former Harvard assistant who took over in New Haven in 2012—Yale has marched to its best record through nine games in seven years. The team’s one loss came in a 38-31 decision against Dartmouth after surrendering a late lead.
The Bulldogs’ successes this year have largely been due to a high-powered offense, which ranks first in the Ivy League with 43 points per game. The Yale attack was on full display last Saturday against Princeton, as the Bulldogs paced their way to a 44-30 victory at home.
No one is more important to Yale’s game plan than senior running back Tyler Varga, who transferred after his freshman season at the University of Western Ontario. The back is far and away the Ivy League’s top rusher with an average of 144 yards per contest, and he has scored at least two touchdowns in seven games this season.
When Yale finds itself leading late in the second half, Varga has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to pick up first downs and run out the clock.
Harvard cannot afford to focus exclusively on Varga, though, as junior Morgan Roberts is a threat of his own at quarterback. The Clemson transfer ranks first in the Ancient Eight with 325 passing yards per game. His two main targets are seniors Grant Wallace and Deon Randall, the conference’s top two wideouts in terms of receiving yards.
“The two transfers [Varga and Roberts] are probably by far the best two players in our league,” Murphy said. “It’s amazing. They’re both NFL prospects.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs dominate nearly all of the conference’s offensive stat categories. But if anyone has the credentials to stop the Yale attack, it’s Harvard. The Crimson’s identity revolves around its stalwart defense, which ranks first in the FCS, surrendering just 11 points per game.
Under the leadership of captain Norman Hayes in the secondary, the Harvard defense has been a model of consistency, only giving up more than 20 points once. Senior defensive end Zack Hodges leads the Ivy League with 6.5 sacks, and junior linebackers Matt Koran and Jacob Lindsey top the squad with 55 tackles each.
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