By Tom Lakin
Special to ESPNBoston.com
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Harvard football coach Tim Murphy stood Wednesday in the Dillon Field House and tried to put The Game into perspective.
"We could be 0-9 and have plenty of incentive to play Yale," the coach said to a room full of football coaches, gridiron club members and sports writers who needed no explanation regarding the historical significance of Harvard-Yale. "It's always a game that you don't necessarily have to say a whole lot about. The kids understand."
As Murphy spoke, he was flanked on either side by deep crimson walls bearing framed Harvard letterman sweaters and the names of past alumni etched in gold.
The history was palpable.
And there's no doubt that when these teams take the field on Saturday at the Yale Bowl in front of generations of frenzied fans, the mythos of this storied rivalry will be on full display.
It is, after all, the 126th installment of a tradition that began back in 1875 with a 4-0 Harvard win. In the years since that first meeting, the legend of The Game has grown. Perhaps best known is the 1968 contest in which Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to tie an undefeated and heavily favored Yale squad -- a result immortalized in The Harvard Crimson student newspaper by the famous headline "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29." It is the spirit of such long-ago battles that infuses each subsequent game with immediate and lasting significance.
"It's like a bowl game for us in terms of the tradition," Murphy said. "People often ask me, what does the rivalry mean to the kids? It means the same thing that it means to the kids at Michigan and Ohio State. It's every bit as intense. It's every bit as important. When we bring 50,000 people to the Yale Bowl and 30-plus thousand here, it's probably the event that emotionally ties people to the university every single year and it makes for a great and welcome thing on everyone's calendars." For senior defensive lineman and Harvard captain Carl Ehrlich, The Game is an annual reminder of what has come before and a chance to write another chapter in the saga.
"This game has a ton of significance," he said. "There's a ton of history behind the game and there's a lot of X's and O's that go into this week, a lot of practice and video, but I don't think that the historical aspect gets lost amid all that."
But for Ehrlich and his teammates, Saturday's game (kickoff is at noon) isn't just about history. A win over Yale gives 6-3 Harvard its ninth straight season with at least seven wins -- a league record -- and awards them an outside chance at a third consecutive Ivy League championship. The Crimson will need an unlikely upset by Cornell (2-7, 1-5 Ivy League) over Penn (7-2, 6-0) to clinch a shared title with the Quakers. It's a championship Harvard could have secured last weekend with a home victory over Penn, but the Crimson struggled against a solid Quakers defense and lost 17-7.
"We did not get it done," Murphy said of the disappointing loss. "Penn deserved to win. They were by far the most aggressive, physical and fast defense that we played all year.
"But our kids played hard. They played very well in the end. I'm very proud about how they handled a little bit of adversity and how resilient we were."
Harvard will need to draw on that same resilience this weekend as the team descends on a raucous and hostile Yale Bowl sure to feature a massive crowd armed with the kind of choreographed taunts only an age-old rivalry can boast.
But Ehrlich, for one, isn't worried about the animosity.
"It's awesome. We eat that up," he said. "We love that. I almost think that playing in the Yale Bowl sometimes is better because you get a bigger crowd and they pack them in there. I think there is a certain vengeful aspect of playing in front of a big crowd that's largely composed of another team's fans. It's an awesome atmosphere."
Harvard will have more than just an antagonistic environment to worry about. The Crimson will also have to contend with a stingy Yale defense that has held opponents to 16.9 points per game. Though the Bulldogs (4-5, 2-4) have struggled on offense this season, the intensity of the Harvard-Yale clash can be counted on to bring out the best in both teams, and Ehrlich knows better than to underestimate his opponent.
"Yale always has a lot of talent and they always play real hard," he said. "I think their record probably doesn't reflect how good of a team they are. And it's a big rivalry game, and when you're in a big rivalry game like this, you're always going to get a team's best shot. And when Yale plays their best, they can be as good as anybody in the league."
The Crimson offense is in good hands with junior quarterback Collier Winters and a strong rushing attack led by junior Gino Gordon and freshman Treavor Scales. The Crimson will have to rely heavily on this powerful offense (26.4 ppg) if they want to continue their recent dominance of the rivalry. Harvard has won seven of the last eight meetings and each of the last four at Yale, scoring at least 30 points in all four of those games. It is a run of superiority that first-year Yale coach Tom Williams hopes to end.
During his introductory news conference back in January, Williams didn't hesitate when stating the goals for his new team. First, he said, Yale would shoot for nothing less than an Ivy League championship each year.
"And second," he added, "we're going to beat Harvard."
You can bet Murphy spent this past week reminding his team of that proclamation. And, with the fate of the league championship ultimately resting with Penn, Murphy's players head into Saturday focused squarely on the task at hand: beating their ancient rival to cap off another successful season.
"The only destiny that we control now is trying to find a way to beat Yale," Murphy said. "For us, it's an opportunity to win our seventh game, which would give us a ninth straight year that we've had a minimum of seven wins. It's obviously an outside chance at the Ivy League championship, but most importantly, it's for pride. Pride for our team, our program and our school."
"And I think that's enough for any rivalry."