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Harvard 14, Yale 10

Game changers

4th-down plays key Harvard win

By Craig Larson
Globe Staff / November 22, 2009

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NEW HAVEN - Gino Gordon kept his legs churning, his hips moving, and body spinning, bouncing off or leaping over every blue jersey in his path, determined to break free and give Harvard a little life.

On the first series of the second half, his fourth-and-goal bid from the Yale 1 had been stuffed by a swarm of inspired, ferocious defenders.

But this call, with less than eight minutes remaining on the clock, was a rush of desperation, a fourth-and-4 try with the Crimson backed up on their 30 and trailing, 10-0, in front of an energized crowd of 52,692 at the Yale Bowl. Utilizing every inch of his rugged 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound frame, Gordon churned out 19 tough yards.

And literally saved Harvard.

A minute later, the Crimson, finally, were in the end zone after three quarters of missed opportunities and botched plays, quarterback Collier Winters connecting on a deep ball down the middle to Matt Luft for 41 yards. One series later, the junior delivered his best ball of a glorious November afternoon, a 32-yard laser down the left sideline to Chris Lorditch for a stunning lead for the first time in the 126th edition of the Harvard-Yale spectacle.

Three minutes of magic, two last-minute stops from a charged-up Crimson defense, and Harvard had pulled out a heart-stopping and rather improbable 14-10 victory over its fiercest rival, its third straight over the Bulldogs, and eighth win in the last nine meetings.

It was a thriller ultimately decided by one fourth-down call that worked (for Harvard) and another, a fourth-and-22 gamble from Yale first-year coach Tom Williams, that came up 7 yards short.

Gordon was bottled up, “but then he bounced it outside and then we had new life,’’ said a drained Harvard coach Tim Murphy, whose resilient Crimson (7-3, 6-1 Ivy) finished with seven-plus wins for an Ivy-record ninth straight season.

Yale captain Paul Rice also thought that the Bulldogs had bottled up Gordon (14 carries, team-leading 85 yards).

“I was sure that we were off the field, it was a play that we needed to make, and we didn’t,’’ said the 6-2, 235-pound middle linebacker, immense from start to finish with 11 tackles. A sentiment echoed by his coach.

“That’s the turning point in the game - if we make that play, we win,’’ summed up Williams, whose Bulldogs finished 4-6, 2-5 in the league.

His gutsy decision to go for the win on the next series, a fake punt on fourth and 22 from the Yale 25, is one he will not second-guess. Rice, the up man, pitched to John Powers, but Powers’s sprint up the left sideline for 15 yards fell 7 yards short.

“The fourth-down play was to win the football game. We’ve done it all year,’’ said Williams, noting that the Bulldogs had converted two other fake punts earlier this season, including one for their only touchdown against Lehigh. “We thought it would get us 22 yards and it came up [7 yards] short.

“The whole idea was to keep our foot on the pedal and not play scared.

“We were going to be aggressive. I am just sick for this senior class, because this is the best group of men that I have ever been around.’’

Winters (19 of 26, 211 yards) and Harvard went back to work and punched in the go-ahead score to Lorditch.

“It was unlike any other game I’ve ever been in,’’ said the junior wideout, who had five catches for a team-high 104 yards. “I mean, to score the game-winning touchdown in The Game, and a comeback win like that, it was something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

“It all happened so fast, it’s still settling in what happened. I made my break, I got inside the guy and I saw the ball come up, and I said, ‘Let’s go.’ You don’t really have time to think about it, it just happens.’’

Winters credited Lorditch and the rest of his receivers with hanging in there. “I felt that we were moving the ball, we had a few trips inside the red zone, but we had no points,’’ he said.

According to Murphy, Harvard was lucky to come out of the first half trailing only 10-0.

Yale had been unable to generate much of a ground attack all season, but the Bulldogs handed the ball to junior Alex Thomas (26 carries, 124 yards) seven times on their first series and marched down the field, taking a 3-0 lead on a 26-yard field goal by Alex Barnes. When the sure-handed Winters (11 carries, 51 yards) attempted to squeeze out a few extra yards on a keeper, the ball slipped out, Adam Money recovered, and the Bulldogs were back in business.

Yale drove 59 yards on six plays, with Ricky Reynolds plowing up the middle for a 3-yard score, and the 10-0 lead with 4:43 left in the first quarter.

The Crimson took the second-half kickoff from their 20 to the Yale 1, with Winters and Gordon stuffed on successive cracks. But the march was a confidence boost, according to Murphy.

“We got punched in the gut by not being able to punch it in,’’ he said. “We just have to finish. In the end, we finally did.

“The resilience that they showed, [the players] think I’m a little bit corny at times . . . but in the end, it’s about never giving up. That’s the type of kids that we recruit, and that’s what happened out there today.’’

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com