It isn’t that the visitors are unfamiliar with the old concrete horseshoe next to the Charles, but after six years away, Yale’s football team may need to use a GPS to locate Harvard Stadium.
Not since the columned edifice was erected in 1903 has that much time passed since The Game was held in Allston. The 2018 contest was staged at Fenway Park and the 2020 date was scrubbed because of the COVID pandemic.
So Saturday’s 138th meeting will be a pleasant novelty for Harvard’s seniors after consecutive trips to New Haven.
“It’s very special in that this is the stadium where we do all of our practices, all of our conditioning, all of our training,” said captain Truman Jones. “So being able to play here on the biggest stage in front of people who we go to school with and are celebrated by, it’s like a thanksgiving experience for all of us to be able to share it with family and friends.”
Not that the Stadium has been much of a sanctum this autumn for the Crimson (6-3, 4-2 Ivy), who needed an overtime victory over Merrimack in their opener to avoid going winless in their first four home outings.
But after a resounding triumph at Penn last weekend, the Crimson find themselves in position to claim the piece of the league crown that eluded them last season.
If Harvard prevails over its archrival and Penn wins at Princeton, there will be an unprecedented four-way tie among that quartet.
“It’s out of our control,” said Jones. “All we can control is how well we prepare and how we play on Saturday.”
The hosts, who’ve dropped three of the last five encounters with Yale after winning nine straight and 14 of 15, will have their hands full with the Bulldogs (7-2, 5-1 Ivy). After losing at Penn, Yale has chewed up its last three opponents (Columbia, Brown, and unbeaten Princeton) while averaging 45 points per game.
“We were very inconsistent at the beginning of the season,” said coach Tony Reno, whose squad will win the Ivy title outright with a victory and a Princeton loss. “We were winning games but we weren’t playing up to the level that we could have. Over the last few weeks, the guys have continued to improve.”
The Bulldogs have done that by going back to basics.
“They’ve gone to their strengths — run the football and play great run defense,” observed Crimson coach Tim Murphy. “They’ve become a big, strong, relatively simple football team in the best possible context.”
While Harvard has the league’s top rusher in senior Aidan Borguet, who burned the Bulldogs for four long touchdowns (47, 59, 60, and 67 yards) in the 2019 game, Yale has the next three in quarterback Nolan Grooms (152 yards against Princeton) and running backs Tre Peterson and Joshua Pitsenberger.
“You’ve got to stop the run, and if you don’t, they’re going to be able to control the clock and control the game,” said Murphy. “It’s challenging because they have a quarterback who has tremendous improvisational skills. For Grooms, every run is a brand-new variation.”
Thus the task for the Crimson defense, which is the league’s best in stopping runners, holding Penn to 9 yards on the ground.
“It will take a dominant level like that again,” said Jones, the imposing end who anchors the front four. “It takes the whole defensive line to contract the pocket but not be out of position and out of control. "
To counter Yale’s running game, Harvard will augment Borguet with a diverse aerial game that passed Penn dizzy, with quarterback Charlie Dean completing 29 of 38 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns to nine receivers in a 37-14 beatdown.
“We jumped on them pretty good early and finished really well,” said Murphy.
That was the bounce-back the Crimson needed after losing to Columbia at home for the first time in 27 years.
“The message was to stay together, to continue working the right way,” said Jones. “No matter the result, we’re still working on an upward trajectory.”
Harvard managed to beat Penn despite losing Kym Wimberly, its acrobatic wideout, on his first catch. Wimberly, who’ll miss the finale, was the man who caught the jump-ball touchdown pass with 22 seconds to play in last year’s 34-31 victory at the Yale Bowl.
The Crimson, who drove 66 yards in 37 seconds with no timeouts, appeared to be doomed.
“We’ve been in difficult and stressful situations before in games that seemed hopeless,” said Jones. “Winning shows us that if we keep hopeful, then anything is possible.”
Yale was in a more desperate situation three years ago, down by two touchdowns with a minute and a half to play before rallying to win, 50-43, in double overtime.
“When you’re talking about top-level games in the Ivy League, you have to be ready to win it on the last play,” said Reno.
Princeton had that chance last weekend at the Bowl, driving to the 15-yard line in the final moments before the potential winning pass fell incomplete.
So a most volatile championship race comes down to the final Saturday with half of the Ancient Eight still in contention.
“Your goal is to be playing meaningful games in November,” said Yale captain Nick Gargiulo. “We’re excited that we’re playing a meaningful game in November and I would assume the same for the other three teams.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.