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For Yale, a football resurgence requires finally beating Harvard

Yale coach Tony Reno’s team believes in itself, a reason it went from 2-8 a year ago to 5-4.

gregory payan/associated press

Yale coach Tony Reno’s team believes in itself, a reason it went from 2-8 a year ago to 5-4.

NEW HAVEN — Their record is demonstrably better than last year’s. The culture has changed, too.

“We’ve got a football team now,” says Yale coach Tony Reno. “We’ve got a football team that believes in the things that make it a true football family, where you play tough, physical football, you handle adversity well, play for each other, play for Yale. That’s why we’ve been able to go from 2-8 to 5-4. Because this team really believes in itself.”

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After dropping to the bottom of the Ivy League last season, the Bulldogs are growling again. But until they beat archrival Harvard, the Old Blues who still bow their heads at the mention of Brian Dowling won’t truly believe that fortune has turned for the better at Walter Camp’s old school. Thus, the challenge for the hosts on Saturday when they take on the Crimson’s high-octane varsity at the Bowl for the 130th time.

The Bulldogs have lost six meetings in a row to Harvard and 11 of the last 12, their most barren span since the schools first met in 1875. They’ve also dropped their last six encounters at the Bowl, where they’ll be playing their 600th game this weekend. Should Yale win, and it came close in the Stadium last time, it’ll be an undeniable validation that a once-dominant program finally has turned the corner.

As usual, it’ll be a daunting challenge. Harvard, which is one play from a perfect season, will collect a share of the league title with a victory and a Dartmouth upset of Princeton at Hanover. And Yale, which has lost four of its last six outings, is coming off a 59-23 mauling from the Tigers, its worst defeat in the series since 1958. “We obviously had a tough go of it last week,” acknowledged Reno, whose squad conceded 31 points in the first half.

This hasn’t been the season the Bulldogs were hoping for when they went 3-0 for their best start in half a dozen years, which included a two-touchdown road triumph over a ranked Cal Poly squad. But injuries to what Reno calls his “three-headed monster” — quarterback Hank Furman, tailback Tyler Varga, and receiver Chris Smith — have knocked the offense off kilter (all three players will be game-time decisions) and put the pressure on a defense that starts four freshmen, three of them in the secondary, and has nine in the two-deep. “We’re a team that has a very, very small window for success,” reckons Reno.

The window figures to be decidedly bigger next year. What was most important this season was establishing some bedrock givens about what it means to play football for Yale. “It started with Coach Reno,” says captain Beau Palin, who plays defensive end. “And then we had a core group of guys who really bought in and demanded everyone else to be a part of our mission. And if they weren’t going to be, they were going to be outcasted.”

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What the Bulldogs want to create is what they’ve had up at Cambridge for more than a dozen years, a team that perennially contends for the Ivy crown and that wins the rivalry games. “Tim [Murphy] has done a great job of building that with his program,” says Reno, who was a Harvard assistant before he took the Yale job before last season.

The key to sustained success is stability. Harvard has had only three coaches (John Yovicsin, Joe Restic, Murphy) since 1956. “Stability is paramount,” says Reno, who was Yale’s third coach in five years when he arrived in January of last year. Stability brings consistency of results and consistency of expectation. If Harvard has been on an historic spree against Yale, it may be because its players don’t know what it is to lose The Game. Every Crimson senior class since 1979 has beaten Yale at least once.

That still is the benchmark when they gather at the tables down at Mory’s. What was true in the 19th century still is true for the alums — beating Princeton and Harvard makes or breaks a season. “Whenever we won the Big Three, they thought we were undefeated,” recalls Carm Cozza, who in his 32 years as coach was 22-10 against Princeton and 16-15-1 against Harvard. “It was unreal.”

Not that Yale hasn’t come close over the past dozen years. While there have been several unsightly defeats — 35-3 in 2004, 37-6 in 2007 when Yale was unbeaten, and 45-7 two years ago in Tom Williams’s finale, there were multiple winnable contests. The Bulldogs led the Crimson’s unbeaten bunch by five points with less than eight minutes to play in 2001. They had an 18-point lead in the third quarter of their 2005 date at the Bowl and lost in triple overtime. In 2008, they missed a chip-shot field goal and missed a wide-open tight end in the end zone in the waning minutes. In 2009, they had a 10-7 lead with less than three minutes to play when Williams gambled on fourth and 22 from the 25 and watched Harvard come back to win.

Last year at the Stadium, the Bulldogs led by four points with five minutes to play and gave up two touchdowns, including a 63-yard backbreaker by speedster Treavor Scales just after a Harvard fumble that easily might have gone the visitors’ way. “There were a lot of bounces going this way or that way,” says Palin. “It could have happened, but bottom line is we didn’t really do our job.”

This time, the Bulldogs are determined to execute their to-do list and walk off their turf with no regrets. “It’s the pinnacle of our athletic careers,” says Palin, whose brother Drew also played in The Game for Yale. “It’s truly an honor and a privilege to be part of the game so rich in tradition.” It’s even better if you win it. T.A.D. Jones told his Bulldogs that 90 years ago.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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