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Extra Special
Austin Murphy
December 26, 2005
Look no further than the Harvard-Yale triple-overtime thriller for proof that the NCAA has gotten at least one thing right
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December 26, 2005

Extra Special

Look no further than the Harvard-Yale triple-overtime thriller for proof that the NCAA has gotten at least one thing right

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Moments before he made the play that will define his football career--and possibly land him a really good job in 2007-- Harvard defensive tackle Mike Berg found himself gazing to the west. The junior from Stamford, Conn., was studying the dying light over the rim of a packed Yale Bowl. "I remember thinking, Man, the sun went down a long time ago," he recalls. "What if this keeps going?"

Other schools may refer to their rivalry as the Game, but the MUTs (Masters of the Universe in Training) of Harvard and Yale have been going at it since 1875, giving them dibs on the title. While each school may send a graduate to the NFL once in a blue moon, this is, as a rule, the biggest game a Bulldog or a Crimson man will play. Neither university celebrates homecoming; the Ivy League turns up its nose at postseason play. This is their homecoming and bowl game rolled into one.

After two overtimes on Nov. 19, however, the 122nd edition of the Game was in danger of being called on account of darkness. Though both schools have vast endowments and storied football traditions-- Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg played for Yale; Harvard is credited with inventing the flying wedge--neither has a stadium with lights.

Resolution was just around the corner for the crowd of 53,213. On the first play of the third extra session, Harvard linebacker Matt Thomas climbed all over Yale quarterback Jeff Mroz, whose desperation pass was tipped by defensive end Desmond Bryant, then intercepted by a diving Berg. Taking over on the Elis' 25, the Crimson needed five plays--the last a two-yard touchdown plunge by Clifton Dawson--to end the first overtime game between the two schools and the first triple overtime in Ivy League history.

This epic ending served as a reminder that while it may have evolved into a sclerotic bureaucracy intent on butting in where it has no business, the NCAA sometimes gets it exactly right. When that august body decreed in 1989 that henceforth a winning record would be a prerequisite to play in a bowl game, ties became far less palatable throughout Division I-A. Borrowing from the lower divisions, I-A adopted the Kansas Plan, an overtime format in which each team gets a possession from the opponent's 25-yard line. This continues, the order of possession switching for each overtime, until someone comes out on top.

The real winners have been fans of college football, and not just because this format is superior to the pros'. In NFL sudden death a coin toss determines which team gets initial possession; all too often the team winning the flip wins the game on the first and only drive of overtime. The NCAA's version is not only fairer, but it's also, as Harvard coach Tim Murphy puts it, "better theater," with the alternating possessions creating a whipsawing of emotions and an escalating tension. Overtime certainly offered ample drama in 2005: Included among the 37 I-A games settled by the Kansas Plan was West Virginia's 46-44 triple-OT victory over Louisville and Michigan State's 44-41 win at Notre Dame.

Defeat deferred by alternating possessions is still defeat, and as such, no less bitter. Just ask Mroz, whose final play as a collegian was that tipped interception. Mroz was asked, Looking back, didn't you feel privileged to play in such a historic contest? "I don't look at it that way," he replied, still bummed three weeks after the Game. "I look at it as one of the worst losses ever." Not surprisingly, he is no fan of the Kansas Plan. "At least sudden death is more like game conditions," he says. "If you throw three incompletes in a game, you're not lining up for a field goal. You have to punt."

While Harvard missed a 37-yard field goal and threw an interception on its first two possessions, its defense forced turnover after turnover after turnover. On the first play of OT, Bryant forced a fumble, which sophomore cornerback Steve Williams pounced on. In the second overtime Mroz hit wideout D.J. Shooter at the 15, putting Yale in range for an easy game-winning field goal attempt. But as Shooter fought for extra yards, Harvard defensive end Brad Bagdis ripped the ball out.

That fumble was caught by Thomas, the linebacker who pressured Mroz into turnover number 3: Berg's acrobatic interception. Thomas, not surprisingly, is an ardent fan of the Kansas Plan. While it may exclude some special teams play, he says, "it does take more of a team effort. The defense has to hold its own, the offense has to produce. It's not just about winning a coin toss and kicking a field goal."

Dawson's touchdown made the final score 30-24, unleashing--sorry, 'Bama--a Crimson tide onto the field. So thick was the jubilant crush that it took the team 20 minutes to gather for its customary rendition of Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.

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