The Game

The disaster of ’07

Ben Reiter ’02 is a writer-reporter at Sports Illustrated.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

The Harvard line—and a broken toe—stopped Mike McLeod '09 (28) and Yale football coach Jack Siedlecki's hope for a perfect season. View full image

Running back Mike McLeod ’09 could only patrol the sidelines and watch his Yale football teammates practice on the Tuesday before the 124th edition of The Game. McLeod had grown up in New Britain, 40 minutes up I-91 from New Haven, and passed on chances to play for Penn State or Notre Dame to display at the Yale Bowl the talents that made him Connecticut's 2004 High School Player of the Year. Already this fall, as a junior, he had produced what was probably the finest season by any running back in Yale's history: he had smashed the school record for rushing yards in a game and had set single-season and career marks for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. McLeod knew that he would be called upon four days later to lead the Bulldogs to a victory over Harvard that would give them their first perfect season since 1960, and their first outright Ivy League title since 1980.

On that Tuesday, though, the 5' 11", 200-pound McLeod wore a hooded sweatshirt beneath his number 28 jersey instead of pads, and a bulky protective walking boot instead of a cleat on his right foot, because records weren't all that he had broken this fall. On October 20, near the end of the first half at Penn's Franklin Field, McLeod took an awkward step during a four-yard run. "The turf just didn't give, and I felt a pop in my toe," he says. "My body fell over, but it was still planted in the ground." He had fractured a bone in his right big toe.

As left tackle Darius Dale ’09 watched his teammate ice the toe during halftime that day, he envisioned not only the game but the whole season slipping away. "I was scared. I was like, we might have lost our guy," Dale recalls. He begins to smile. "He hardly missed a play."

McLeod had played three and a half games since then, all of them through pain that made him feel as if "there are sharp knives in my foot." He scored seven touchdowns in those seven halves -- only one other Ivy League back accumulated more all fall. At the Tuesday practice, he vowed that he had one more stirring performance left in him. "We've been able to run the ball in every game so far," he said. "That's what needs to happen, and that's what's going to happen."

Judging from the throngs that materialized at the Bowl the following Saturday, Yale fans felt equally confident. Cars idled for an unprecedented hour and a half in the line to enter the overfilled parking lots. The recently renovated Bowl held 57,248 fans, its largest crowd in 18 years. Thousands more celebrated outside at the tailgates, where smoke from dozens of barbeques rose up from what seemed to be farther back in Lot D than ever before.

Few in attendance knew how painful McLeod's injury was -- he and his coaches had rarely spoken of it, and had never revealed its severity -- and few viewed Harvard as a serious roadblock to Yale's march on history. During the run-up to The Game, the talk on the Yale campus had focused on whether rules should be changed to allow Yale to advance to the Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs, in which the Ivy League currently forbids its teams to participate.

Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki, however, had insisted that the Crimson weren't to be taken lightly. Harvard might also have been 9-0, he pointed out, if not for a final-minute Hail Mary pass by Holy Cross and a final-minute fumble return for a touchdown by Lehigh. In addition, while Yale's rushing attack topped the Ivy League at 287 yards per game, Harvard's run defense had allowed only 79.4 yards per game and ranked as the league's stingiest. Said Siedlecki, "The immovable object and the irresistible force -- that's what it is."

It became clear early on in The Game that while Harvard's defense was as immovable as ever, the running game led by McLeod had suddenly become resistible. Twenty times McLeod plowed ahead, the pain in his toe intensifying with each carry. Twenty times, the Crimson held strong. McLeod gained just 50 yards, his lowest total of the season, and saw his league-record touchdown streak -- 18 straight games -- snapped. By the middle of the third quarter, when McLeod admitted to his coaches that he couldn't go on ("I could not run," he said later), the result of the game was no longer in doubt. Harvard led 30-0, on its way to a 37-6 blowout. Only an 87-yard punt return by Gio Christodoulou ’11 with 4:15 remaining saved Yale from its second shutout at Harvard's hands in 30 years.

If the outcome had hinged entirely on Harvard's containing a single hobbled running back, disappointed Elis could have consoled themselves with what might have been if only McLeod hadn't taken that fateful step against Penn. In truth, though, the loss was far less simple, and more complete. Yale's defense, anchored by the team's captain, All-Ivy defensive tackle Brandt Hollander ’08, had through its first nine games allowed just 11.11 points per game, the fewest of any team in the nation. And yet, just 68 seconds into the first quarter, senior Crimson quarterback Chris Pizzotti connected with receiver Matt Luft for a 40-yard touchdown, shocking the Yale side of the crowd into a silence from which it never emerged. Pizzotti went on to throw three more touchdown passes. It was his best-ever performance.

"We didn't have a lot of success doing anything today," lamented Hollander afterwards. Neither did Bulldog quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08. Polhemus had played a supporting role to McLeod the past two seasons and was rarely asked to throw the ball -- a tactic that largely succeeded, as he won 17 of his 20 career starts. In 2007, he ranked last among Ivy League quarterbacks in passing attempts (174) and passing yards (106.0 per game). He did most of his damage with his legs. But Harvard's run defense forced Polhemus to throw the ball, and he completed a dreadful 2 of 18 passes for 29 yards -- with two interceptions -- in the final game of his college career.

Even after it became obvious that Polhemus had no answer for Harvard's heavy pressure, Siedlecki said, he never came close to pulling his quarterback. "Even if I felt that way, I wouldn't have done it," said Siedlecki. "He's been our starting quarterback for two years, and has been an absolutely great player. You don't do that in a game like this. You just don't."

Admirable loyalty, but not much comfort to the tens of thousands who had trekked to New Haven to see The Game. Everything that had worked so well for the Bulldogs in the season's first nine games suddenly stopped working when it mattered most. The memory of 1968, when Harvard had destroyed Yale's unblemished season with a 29-29 tie, was bitterer than ever. Elis who had fully expected to rush the field after the final whistle quietly filed out of tunnels that seemed somehow longer and darker than usual, and Yale's players and coaches were left to repeat variations of the same somber refrain. "They really outplayed us today," said Siedlecki. "You can't say more than that."

Two days after The Game, McLeod became the first Bulldog in two decades to be named Ivy League Player of the Year. He will be back, at full strength, to lead Yale against Georgetown at the Bowl next September 20. This year's seniors -- Hollander and Polhemus among them -- won't be with him, but he will be joined by at least 12 returning starters, including linebacker Bobby Abare ’09, the tackling machine who will be gunning for his third straight All-Ivy selection. "The seniors will be able to look back and say, hey, we won 17 games and an Ivy League championship in our last two years -- they've got a lot to be proud of," said Siedlecki. "The guys who are coming back? They'll remember this game. It'll be a big motivating factor in the off-season."

But none of that had mattered in the stunned quiet of the Yale locker room after The Game, as Saturday afternoon turned into evening and McLeod and his teammates packed their belongings into garbage bags to take home for the winter. McLeod's bare, swollen right foot told part of the story. The devastated look on his face told the rest.  

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