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Yale quarterback put in his place

Transfer from Nebraska the right move for Witt

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt went from the football-crazed Big 12 Conference to the Ivy League, where athletics take a back seat to academics. Yale quarterback Patrick Witt went from the football-crazed Big 12 Conference to the Ivy League, where athletics take a back seat to academics. (Yale University via Bloomberg
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By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 19, 2009

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NEW HAVEN - Patrick Witt knew he wasn’t in Lincoln anymore when a fellow student at his Yale residential college asked if he was going to sign up for the tailgate before the Lafayette game.

“Actually, I’m on the team,’’ Witt told him. “As much as I’d like to be at the tailgate, I’ll be unable to attend.’’

That was part of Witt’s metamorphosis from Cornhusker to Bulldog, which Yale people will tell you is a significant evolutionary upgrade. At Nebraska, where Witt played last year, everyone knew who the quarterback was and could critique every snap he’d taken. Here Witt is a student who happens to play football, which was a major reason why he transferred last spring.

Last week Witt had a rough game at Princeton, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble as the underdog Tigers hung a 24-17 defeat on the team they most love to hate. If he’d had that kind of a day with Nebraska, Witt likely would have been hanged in effigy across the state.

“If you had a bad game, you feel like a pariah on campus,’’ he says. “Everyone shuns you. I appreciate not having that here.’’

Witt probably could walk down York Street with his helmet on and not be recognized, which he finds refreshing.

“I go out and not have my best day and maybe lose the game, and half the people on campus either weren’t there or don’t care, so I don’t feel that tremendous burden,’’ he says. “At the same time, if I had a great game and we have a huge win, not everyone knows. So it’s a tradeoff.’’

More people will care on Saturday when the Bulldogs take on archrival Harvard at Yale Bowl in the 126th rendition of The Game. Yale hasn’t beaten the Crimson here since 1999, has lost seven of their last eight meetings, and hasn’t managed an offensive touchdown in two years.

“It would atone for a lot of disappointments this year,’’ says Witt, whose teammates will avoid their first losing season in four years with a victory. “This game would go a long way for this program and send the seniors out on a high note. We definitely want to reverse that trend. It would be big for pride and setting up the team for next year.’’

If Witt still were at Nebraska, he’d be playing against Kansas State this weekend with a trip to the Big 12 championship on the line and a bowl trip already assured. What made it easier to transfer to Yale is that he’d already had a taste of the national scene, including a Gator Bowl triumph over Clemson.

“The fact that I can say that I’ve done that, that I’ve played at that level, I know I’m not missing out on anything,’’ he says. “It was almost like getting to check off some boxes on life’s to-do list.’’

Coming out of high school in Wylie, Texas, Witt had a dozen scholarship offers from schools ranging from Oklahoma to Wisconsin to South Carolina. The choice was big-time football or big-time academics at Harvard, where older brother Jeff was a quarterback.

“It came down to whether I was going to go Ivy League or maybe blaze my own path,’’ Witt says. “At the time, I felt I wanted to do my own thing.’’

So he went to Lincoln, redshirted for a year, then backed up senior Joe Ganz last season, playing in five games. Witt would have been a contender for the starting job this time but he wanted a more balanced undergraduate experience.

“I didn’t want to be just a football player,’’ he says. “I didn’t want that to be my identity.’’

Harvard wasn’t accepting transfer students, so Witt settled on Yale. He’d visited his brother frequently in Cambridge and had seen a game at the Bowl.

“I know that Yale and Harvard are different, but at the same time they’re very similar,’’ Witt says. “So I knew I would have a similar experience to Jeff’s. He loved it there and I was confident that I would love it here, too. It’s exactly what I hoped it would be.’’

His Nebraska coaches and teammates were understanding when Witt informed them that he’d be transferring. Had he been headed for Texas Tech or Missouri, they might not have been as gracious.

“If I were transferring to a rival school in the Big 12, obviously there would be some bad blood there, but Yale speaks for itself,’’ Witt says. “I can’t say I had any negative feedback. The kind words that people said as I was leaving - they were sad to see me go but at the same time they wished me the best.’’

Since Witt was transferring to a Championship Subdivision program, he was eligible to play immediately. That didn’t mean that his big-time credentials guaranteed he’d be the starter, as his new coach made clear at their first meeting.

“I told him our whole deal would be competition,’’ says Tom Williams, who had just taken over the head position. “We’re not going to give anyone a job. Even if you’re coming from the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re going to have to earn it.’’

The Bulldogs already had three veteran quarterbacks - junior Brook Hart, who had started the final five games in 2008, senior Rich Scudellari, and sophomore Bryan Farris - plus three incoming freshmen. That was fine with Witt, who just wanted to play. As it was, he had plenty on his plate simply making the adjustment from Nebraska (where Memorial Stadium is the third-largest populated area in the state on Saturdays) to Yale, with its Gothic towers and secret societies.

Spending last summer on campus was a decided help.

“By the time school rolled around, everything was familiar to me,’’ says Witt, who had had a more abrupt transition in high school when his parents, both airline captains, moved the family from Georgia to Texas. “I wasn’t running around trying to juggle everything and it allowed me to meet a lot of guys on the team.’’

By the opener against Georgetown, Witt was calling signals for them. Nebraska had run a West Coast offense, so Yale’s system wasn’t difficult to learn. But since the Bulldogs had lost all but one of their starting linemen plus star tailback Mike McLeod, Witt immediately found himself on the hot seat.

After Yale lost consecutive games to Cornell and Lafayette, Hart took over for the next four. But when Witt came off the bench to rally the squad to victory over Columbia, he got the starting assignment back and has had it since.

If Witt is under center again Saturday, he’ll be the fifth Yale quarterback in six years to face Harvard, which has been having its best run against Yale since its glory days of the early ’20s and has won six of the last seven meetings here.

Unlike the last game here two years ago, when the Bulldogs watched an unbeaten season vanish in a 37-6 beatdown, this group has nothing to lose.

“Taking the shackles off and being able to play free, it’ll allow us to take some shots and play without fear,’’ figures Witt.

Win or lose, the season will be over by dusk. Here, the postseason means exams. That’s one eternal difference between Nebraska and Yale. In November, the Cornhuskers don’t know who their bowl opponent will be. The Bulldogs always know. That hasn’t changed since the 19th century.

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