Beating Yale year after year has its advantages, but Harvard defensive back Norman Hayes still felt as if he were missing something.
"The Game is The Game, but this game is a little more special for the seniors," he said this week as Harvard prepared to face Yale on Saturday for the 131st time. "It is our senior year, and playing for the outright championship — we all live for these matchups. It's a big-time game and a big-time circumstance."
Harvard has beaten Yale seven times in a row and in 12 of the last 13 years, temporarily draining much of the luster from one of college football's oldest rivalries. But this year, for the eighth time in the history of The Game, both teams are playing for a chance at the conference championship.
If Yale (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) wins, it would earn a share of its first Ivy title since 2006. Harvard (9-0, 6-0) has already clinched at least a tie for the conference championship, and a victory would give the Crimson the 17th undefeated season in school history and the third for coach Tim Murphy.
"There's still a lot left on a table," Murphy said after leading his team through a sub-freezing night practice at Harvard Stadium on Wednesday. "The chance at an outright championship, and the chance at potentially being the only perfect Division I season in the country, the way things are going. But the most important thing is really about pride."
With its eighth Ivy championship since 1997 already secured, Harvard would love to deprive Yale of a chance to share in the conference crown. A fifth straight Harvard senior class has a chance to graduate without ever losing to Yale; this one has outscored the Bulldogs 113-38.
Not since the '80s — the 1880s — has either team won The Game eight times in a row.
"In the past, this has been typically an easier game," senior defensive lineman Obum Obukwelu said. "They've had great players, a great coaching staff, but this year they're a powerful team."
Harvard players hope for The Game to be for more than just for pride, and now they've gotten their wish. Yale has improved dramatically since the 2012 team that went 2-8, winning five games last season and eight already this year.
"It's not a rivalry when you beat them 12 out of 13," Murphy said. "This is by far the best team we've played this year. They know this will be a huge challenge. And, therefore, it takes a big game and makes it an even better game."
So, did he like to watch his rivals struggle, or does he like it better this way?
"No comment," Murphy said with a smile.
Here are some other things to look for in the 131st edition of The Game:
FULL HOUSE: Yale sold out its allotment of 3,000 tickets to the 30,000-seat Harvard Stadium in less than two days, leaving about 100 students still waiting in line. "We weren't anticipating this level of demand," Jeremy Makins, the director of ticket sales told the Yale Daily News. "None of us have seen a line like this before." It's not just students: ESPN is bringing College GameDay to Harvard for the first time.
COACHING TREE: Anthony Reno, a former Harvard assistant, is in his third year at Yale and looking for his first win over the Crimson. He took over from Tom Williams, who went 0-3 in The Game. "This is the fourth Yale coach I've had a chance to go against," Murphy said. "This Yale team is probably as good as any of them."
ON THE LINE: There have been seven previous games since 1956, when the first Ivy League title was awarded, in which both teams had a chance at the championship entering The Game. Harvard leads those 4-2-1, including matchup of unbeaten teams in 1968 that led to the Harvard Crimson headline, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."
EXTRA POINTS: Yale leads the series 65-57-8. ... The only other time one school won eight in a row was from 1880-89 (there were no games in some years). Yale won in 1876 and '78 before the 1879 game ended in a tie, meaning the Elis were unbeaten in 11 straight matchups. And then the flying wedge was invented. ... Overall, Harvard has won 13 straight games, the longest active streak in FCS and second only to Florida State in all of Division I.