From the dawn of the twenty-first century until last fall, the football squads of Pennsylvania and Harvard ruled the Ivy League roost. Harvard earned league championships with an undefeated season in 2001 and another in 2004; Penn beat out the Crimson for the title in 2002 and 2003. Over the last five seasons the two teams have had a combined won-lost record of 53-7 against the rest of the league.
But the balance of power shifted in 2005. Penn, the preseason favorite, lost its last four games and finished sixth in the league. Brown, after an overtime loss to Harvard in September, went unbeaten the rest of the way and won the Ivy title outright for the first time. Harvard, having lost games to Cornell and Princeton, secured a second-place tie on the final Saturday of the season by outlasting Yale, 30-24, in a triple-overtime duel that will go down in both colleges’ history as a landmark event.
Harvard’s win, observed by 53,213 shivering souls at Yale Bowl, was its fifth consecutive victory in the 122-game series. Never has the Bulldog been kept at bay for so long. Never before had the two teams met in overtime, and no Ivy League draw since 1996, when the NCAA tiebreaker rule took effect, had ever required three overtime rounds to resolve.
THE FINAL STANDINGS
Over the past nine seasons, coach Tim Murphy’s Harvard teams have engaged in five overtime games and won four of them. “If there’s been one trait of this program, this team, we fight hard,” Murphy said after the Yale game. That Harvard had begun and ended the season with hard-fought overtime wins was a fact not lost on his hearers.
In the Ivy League opener against Brown, the Crimson defense yielded 16 unanswered points in the first quarter, but the offense, with sophomore Liam O’Hagan installed at quarterback, narrowed the margin to 19-14 at halftime. With Harvard still trailing, 32-25, record-breaking halfback Clifton Dawson ’07 scored his third touchdown of the day with 15 seconds to play. Sophomore kicker Matt Schindel’s extra point tied the score at 32-32, and in double overtime, Schindel’s 42-yard field goal gave Harvard a scintillating 38-35 win.
Then came bumps in the road: a 49-24 nonleague loss to Lehigh, and a 27-13 Ivy League loss at Cornell. Turnovers were the team’s undoing in both games, with Cornell making the most of three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
A resurgent Princeton squad was the next Ivy foe. After struggling for three periods, Harvard pulled ahead, 24-20, on a 52-yard scoring pass from O’Hagan to receiver Ryan Tyler ’06. The Crimson lead expired only 14 seconds later, when the Tigers scored again on cornerback Jay McCareins’s 93-yard kickoff return. Harvard hadn’t lost to Princeton since 1995, and the 27-24 defeat would prove painfully ill-timed, leaving the Crimson just one missed tackle shy of a shared Ivy title.
The team then played its best football of the season, winning its last four games by an aggregate score of 156-48. Increasingly effective from the shotgun formation, O’Hagan threw eight scoring passes in those games, while rushing for four touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions. Shaking off a hip injury, Dawson scored seven touchdowns and became a valuable receiver, catching 22 passes for 203 yards.
Unfazed by a preternaturally early snowstorm, the team buried Dartmouth, 42-14, erupting for 21 points in the first five minutes of the second half. Dawson turned in a bravura performance, returning the second-half kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown and breaking a series of tackles on a 32-yard burst for his third score of the day. At Columbia a week later, the offense ignited again, scoring 41 first-half points—a Harvard record—as a toothless Lion squad succumbed, 55-7.
Then came Pennsylvania, a perennial nemesis. But not this year. Already beaten by Brown and Princeton, the Quakers were held to a single first-quarter field goal as Harvard took a 23-point halftime lead and held on to win, 29-3. O’Hagan had his best game yet, throwing three touchdown passes to back Kelly Widman and scoring himself as the first half ended.
On to New Haven.
This year’s iteration of The Game had the requisite elements of an epic matchup. Jeff Mroz, Yale’s towering quarterback, ranked as the league’s top passer, just ahead of O’Hagan. Harvard had Dawson and the Ivies’ best rushing defense. Both teams were 4-2 in league play and were peaking. At Princeton a week earlier, Yale had scored twice in the game’s last 74 seconds to upend the Tigers, 21-14.
Harvard received the opening kickoff and drove 65 yards, missing an early score when Dawson fumbled the ball just short of the goal line. A 28-yard field goal by Matt Schindel put the Crimson in front less than two minutes later, but Yale took command in the second quarter, scoring touchdowns on end D. J. Shooter’s leaping catch of a 29-yard pass from Mroz and on Mroz’s one-yard dive on the final play of the half.
Ahead 14-3, Yale took the second-half kickoff and drove for another touchdown, this one on a five-yard rush by hard-running freshman back Mike McLeod. With a 21-3 lead, the Eli apparently had the game in hand: no Crimson team had ever trailed Yale by 18 points and gone on to win. But teams of the past rarely had weapons like Clifton Dawson. He and O’Hagan now combined on an 11-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by a 16-yard pass to Dawson. Harvard seemed poised to score again as the final quarter began, but O’Hagan lost control of the ball at Yale’s 12-yard line.
Then came a monumental defensive play. As Yale tried to mobilize for a game-clinching drive, Harvard reserve cornerback Steven Williams ’08 picked off an Eli pass at the line of scrimmage and raced into the end zone for an 18-yard score. Harvard failed to connect on a two-point conversion pass, and Yale, now up 21-16, padded its lead with a field goal after another O’Hagan fumble at midfield. Harvard then turned again to Dawson. Five jolting carries put the ball inside Yale’s 40-yard line, and two plays later, O’Hagan rifled a 22-yard pass to freshman receiver Alex Breaux in the end zone. O’Hagan himself slipped in for a two-point conversion, tying the score at 24-24 with three and a half minutes left in regulation.
Yale threatened once more in the game’s final minute, but with fourth down and a yard to go at the Harvard 43, linebacker Ryan Tully ’07 broke through to nail Eli ball-carrier Jordan Spence in the backfield.
On to overtime.
Lining up at the north end of the Bowl, now cloaked in semi-darkness, Yale was given the ball at the 25. Spence fumbled it on the first play from scrimmage, Steven Williams recovered, and Harvard took over. After three short gains by Dawson, Schindel’s 37-yard field goal try went wide.
Round two. Two carries by Dawson put Harvard on the 12-yard-line, but O’Hagan then floated a pass that was picked off at the goal line by Eli cornerback Andrew Butler. Yale’s turn. Mroz fired an eight-yard pass to D. J. Shooter, but defensive end Brad Bagdis ’08 stripped the ball away and linebacker Matt Thomas ’06 fell on it.
Round three. Thomas hit Mroz as he attempted to pass on Yale’s first play, and defensive tackle Mike Berg ’07 came up with a diving interception. In three overtime sessions, ferocious defense had limited Yale to four plays. Harvard’s ball. O’Hagan ran for two yards and then passed to Kelly Widman at the 8-yard line. Three rushes later Dawson was plowing into the end zone and Harvard, under cover of darkness, had hijacked The Game, 30-24.
Tidbits: At just under four hours, the game was the longest in Ivy League history. Harvard’s Bowl victory was the fifth in its last six visits to New Haven.…O’Hagan completed 22 of 35 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns; Dawson, who had 33 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown, was also the game’s leading pass-catcher, with 10 receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown.
For the record(s): With 105 yards rushing in the Penn game, Dawson became the first Harvard running back to post three 1,000-yard seasons. Jim Callinan ’82, Eion Hu ’97, and Chris Menick ’00 are the only other Crimson backs to have reached 1,000 yards in a single season.…Two weeks earlier, with 103 yards against Dartmouth, Dawson had eclipsed the career record of 3,330 yards rushing set by Menick in 1999.…Having finished the season with 266 career points, Dawson now holds the all-time Harvard scoring record. The old record of 215 points was set by Charlie Brickley ’15.…Dawson’s 42 career touchdowns are also a new Harvard record.
Triple threat: Dawson accounted for the team’s longest rushing play of the season (58 yards against Penn), its longest reception (52 yards against Lehigh); and its longest kickoff return (92 yards against Dartmouth).
Patriot act: In three non-Ivy games against Patriot League teams, Harvard came from behind to defeat Holy Cross, 31-21; lost to Lehigh, 49-24; and topped Lafayette, the eventual league co-champion, 24-17.…The Crimson led Lehigh, 17-14, early in the third period, but the Mountain Hawks forced five second-half turnovers and scored four unanswered touchdowns, turning a close game into an embarrassing rout. The loss ended a 13-game Harvard winning streak.…At Lafayette, O’Hagan threw three scoring passes, two of them to Kelly Widman, and the defense held the Leopard ground game to 43 yards rushing.
Ball hawk: Alternating at linebacker and safety, senior Robert Balkema emerged as a defensive star of high magnitude. In the 55-7 win at Columbia—in which the Lions were held to minus-14 yards rushing—he was credited with two quarterback sacks, two forced fumbles, and an eight-yard interception return for the team’s fourth touchdown.…With 38 tackles among them, Balkema and linebackers Thomas, Tully, and Adam Miller ’07 led the defense against Yale.
Postseason laurels: For the third year running, Clifton Dawson was a unanimous first-team all-Ivy selection. Matt Thomas, defensive tackle Mike Berg, and offensive linemen Will Johnson ’06 and Brian Lapham ’06 were other first-team choices.…Dawson received the Crocker Award as the team’s most valuable player.…Thomas, of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Currier House, will captain the 2006 squad. A government concentrator, he has been the team’s top defensive player for the past two seasons.
Bragging rights: Since the formalization of Ivy League play 50 years ago, Harvard now leads Yale, 26-23-1. The Crimson also has winning records against Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Penn. It’s even-up with Cornell and Princeton at 24-24-2.… Harvard has never before had a season in which it defeated both Ivy and Patriot League titlists.