|Yale vs. Harvard
November 23, 1968
"Never in my lifetime will I ever see another ending like that one. It just doesn't happen." - John Yovicsin
OK, so I lied. The book doesn't start at 1970.
But you can't write a book documenting 100 of the greatest college football finishes unless you start with The Game.
Harvard-Yale 1968. The founding father of great finishes from the past three decades.
The Yale Elis (8-0) entered the finale of the 1968 season with a 16-game winning streak, hoping to capture their second straight Ivy League Championship with a win over arch-rival and undefeated Harvard (8-0). The Crimson, seeking their first ever outright Ivy title, boasted the nation's best scoring defense, allowing just 7.6 points per game.
But led by future NFL star running back Calvin Hill and record setting quarterback Brian Dowling, who hadn't lost a game he finished since 6th grade, Yale shocked Harvard in the first half. Dowling ran for one TD, threw to Hill for another (making Hill the all-time leading scorer at Yale), then threw to Del Marting for a third score. The Elis led 22-0 in the second quarter.
The highly anticipated 85th meeting between the two schools had turned into a rout even before halftime.
Harvard coach John Yovicsin, desperate to stir up his team's offense, benched quarterback George Lalich in favor of junior Frank Champi midway through the second quarter. Champi, a javelin thrower who started the season as a fourth string QB, had just five completions the entire season.
"He looked scared to death," recalled his offensive lineman and future Academy Award winning actor Tommy Lee Jones. "It all looked overwhelming to him." But the wide-eyed Champi quickly overcame his butterflies, drove the team 64 yards in 12 plays, and capped it off with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Freeman with 44 seconds remaining in the half. The Crimson botched the extra point. Yale took a 22-6 lead into the locker room.
Not a bad job by the nervous Champi. But not good enough to keep him in the game.
Yovicsin sent Lalich back on the field to start the second half, but the senior QB could muster nothing in three plays. Harvard punted back to Yale, but the Elis fumbled on the Yale 25. Harvard's Freeman recovered. Champi then re-entered for good. When Crimson fullback Gus Crim scored on a 1-yard TD run to cut the margin to 22-13, Harvard had hope.
But not for long.
Intent on placing an exclamation mark on his illustrious Yale career, Dowling marched the Elis down field on eight plays early in the fourth quarter. He scorched the Harvard defense with his fourth TD of the game, a 5-yard run off the right side to make the score 28-13 with 10:44 to play in the game.
Feeling no need to go for a two-point conversion, Yale coach Carmen Cozza elected to kick the extra point and the Elis had a nearly insurmountable 29-13 lead. "I just didn't figure it was possible for Harvard to come back. There was just no way it could have happened."
Indeed, the Yale defense held, and as Dowling marched the Elis toward another score, the Yale fans waved white handkerchiefs in Harvard Stadium screaming, "We're No.1, You're No.2".
With under four minutes to play, Yale wanted more. Dowling threw a screen pass to fullback Bob Levin who took it to the Harvard 14-yard line, but then fumbled. The Eli's sixth fumble of the game. Harvard's Steve Ranere recovered with 3:34 remaining, giving the Crimson the ball but hardly a chance, down by 16 points.
Champi did move Harvard to the Yale 38, where he faced third-and-18. Stepping up in the pocket, Champi was buried by two Yale linemen. But as he fell to the ground, the ball squirted out to his left where tackle Fritz Reed picked it up and rambled diagonally down field 25 yards to the Yale 15-yard line. "I think he was trying to lateral," recalled Reed, "and the ball came out on the ground. It was just lying there."
The ball started to take on a crimson color. Champi's arm suddenly appeared golden.
From the 15, Champi rolled right and zipped a completion to Freeman at the Yale 5. The sophomore split end turned and bulled his way into the end zone for the score. Yale 29, Harvard 19.
0:42 on the clock. Champi looked for Peter Varney on the 2-point conversion. The ball fell incomplete. But a flag flew. Yale was called for pass interference, giving the Crimson another chance. This time Crim barreled over for the two points and the score was 29-21.
Harvard Stadium shook. The Crimson tried the onside kick. Ken Thomas squibbed it across the 50-yard line where Yale's Brad Lee, an offensive guard, tried to pounce on it. But as he fell to the ground, another Yale defender tripped over Lee's helmet and the ball popped free at the Yale 49. Harvard's Bill Kelly recovered it.
Suddenly the impossible seemed plausible, if still improbable.
Harvard had the ball again. Dowling got anxious on the Yale sidelines and asked to play defense. "On the last series, I asked Carm if I could go in," remembered Dowling."As a quarterback, you should have a good idea of defenses. I had defensive experience in high school and had 32 interceptions."
Cozza kept Dowling on the sidelines. They watched as Champi ran around left end for 14 yards to the 35, before being tackled by Mike Bouscaren. Then another flag on Yale. Bouscaren was called for a face-mask penalty. The ball was moved to the Yale 20.
0:32 left. Champi tried Freeman in the end zone. Incomplete. Then he threw for running back Jimmy Reynolds. Incomplete again. 20 seconds remained.
Third down and ten. Champi and the Crimson surprised the Elis with a draw play to Crim who burst through a gaping hole to the Yale 6-yard line. Harvard quickly called timeout with 0:14 on the clock.
It was too ridiculous for the Harvard fans to hope for another Crimson touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie the game. Wasn't it? 16 points in 42 seconds? C'mon.
Champi looked to throw, but was sacked at the 8-yard line by Yale's Jim
Gallagher. The Crimson called their final timeout with three seconds left.
The Harvard substitute quarterback had one final chance.
CD Track 1 Ken Coleman, Harvard Football Radio Network
A play that lives forever in Ivy League folklore.
Champi took the snap, dropped back to the 15, pump faked twice, ran up to the 10, faked a throw to the left, then to the right, shook off a tackle, ran back to the 16, looked right, turned left, then just as he was pounded by a Yale defender, launched a toss to the left side of the end zone where running back Vic Gatto had sneaked open.
Champi described it his way. "I got hit. I thought someone was breathing down my neck. I scrambled. I threw off my wrong foot. Gatto was open for a moment. After that, I remember feeling a sense of inevitability. I thought, 'We've come this far.' I was very confident. It was inevitable."
"I just threw it in his general direction," he said.
Those fans who hadn't hyperventilated watching Champi dance around for almost ten seconds, saw Gatto, the first 2,000 yard rusher in Harvard history, playing with a bad left knee, gather in the touchdown pass as he fell backward in the end zone with no time remaining. Astoundingly, Harvard trailed 29-27.
Gatto was picked up by his teammates. Crimson fans stormed the field. Harvard had miraculously scored two touchdowns in the final 42 seconds. After a long delay to clear the field of fans, the Crimson would now go for the two-point conversion, a 29-29 tie, and a share of the Ivy League Title.
Could there be any doubt what would happen next? Yale was playing against fate.
It was almost anti-climactic. Champi rolled right, stopped, looked left, then threw to Pete Varney who ran a slant pattern from the left over the middle into the end zone. He had inside position. He had the ball. Harvard had the 29-29 tie. It certainly felt like a Crimson victory.
Hordes of Harvard faithful re-flooded the field, celebrating perhaps the most thrilling tie in the history of college football.
Yale 7 15 0 7 - 29
Harvard 0 6 7 16 - 29
YALE- Dowling 3 run (Bayless kick)
YALE- Hill 3 pass from Dowling (Bayless kick)
YALE- Marting 5 pass from Dowling (Marting pass from Dowling)
HARV- Freeman 15 pass from Champi (kick failed)
HARV- Crim 1 run (Szaro kick)
YALE- Dowling 5 run (Bayless kick)
HARV- Freeman 15 pass from Champi (Crim run)
HARV- Gatto 8 pass from Champi (Varney pass from Champi)
The two teams shared the Ivy League Title with identical 8-0-1 records, but it seemed that Harvard's piece of the pie was a little bigger. The headline of the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, read "Harvard beats Yale 29-29".
"I don't know who said 'A tie is like kissing your sister' but I'll take this game just the way it ended," said Yovicsin.
"It was almost like a nightmare, really," said Cozza." I don't know how else to explain it. We feel like we lost it, even though we didn't. Something like that won't happen again in 1,000 years."
Dowling was bitter. "I don't want to take anything away from Champi, but he fumbled once and his tackle ran 23 yards, and that facemask penalty wasn't any of his doing either. He didn't pull it out, his team did."
Champi was king for a day. The next year, two games into his senior season at Harvard, he quit football to concentrate on track.
Dowling, who passed up offers to play at Ohio State and Michigan and instead enrolled at Yale, finished his senior year holding both season and career records for most touchdowns, yards passing and total offense in his four years at Yale. After graduation, he spent a decade bouncing around numerous NFL teams as a backup quarterback in Minnesota, New England, Green Bay, Washington, and Los Angeles.
Carmen Cozza retired in 1996 after 10 Ivy League Championships and 32 years as head coach of the Elis.
[Heart Stoppers and Hail
100 of the Greatest College Football Finishes]