PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- In a game where every tipped pass, fumble and break seemed to bounce Brown's way, it was the Ivy League championship that eventually bounced into the hands of the Big Green Saturday afternoon. Brown's desperation drive in the closing seconds of the game came up 10 yards short as time ran out, giving Dartmouth a 27-24 victory and its first Ivy League title since 1992.
The win gave Dartmouth its first outright title since 1991 and its fourth title of the 90s. Along with remaining undefeated at 9-0, the Big Green extended their unbeaten streak to 16 games, eclipsing the previous record of 15 games by the 1970 squad. The 1996 Ivy League champions still need a victory next week at Princeton to become the only Dartmouth team to ever have perfect 10-0 season.
"To be win the title at 9-0 with one game left in the season is just a great tribute to our players," Head Coach John Lyons said. "I think it's even more impressive when you realize that as the top team going into the season and throughout the year, teams were always trying to knock us off."
Quarterback Jon Aljancic '97 said, "It's just an amazing feeling for all the seniors on this team to be able to win such a great game and win the Ivy League title."
With visions of last year's title contest against Princeton, Dartmouth watched on the final drive of the game as Brown drove down the field to put itself in a position to either tie or win the game.
Faced with one final play from the Dartmouth 30-yard line with four seconds, the Bears opted to try and put the ball into the end zone rather than line up to attempt a game-tying 47-yard field goal. Bear quarterback Jason McCullough dropped back to pass but was unable to find an open receiver. He was forced to throw the ball over the middle to tight end Paul Choquette, who was met immediately by a host of Big Green defenders at the 10 yard line as time expired.
The stop came two plays after Brown came within inches of winning the game on a fly pattern to the right side of the end zone. McCullough, who tortured the Dartmouth secondary for 342 yards, seemed to have put Brown ahead when he found the Ivy League's leading receiver Sean Morey streaking open in the end zone for a touchdown and the win. However, the ball glanced off the fingertips of an outstretched Morey who had beaten Big Green cornerback Brad Jefferson '98 and fell harmlessly to the turf.
"When they took over on the last drive, I was just praying that we could keep them out of the end zone," linebacker Zach Walz '98 said. "Fortunately we were able to do that and get the victory."
Lyons said, "Until I saw the play on films I had no idea how close he [Morey] came to catching that ball. All I knew is that both he and Brad [Jefferson] laid out to make the play and the ball wound up on the turf."
Dartmouth had taken its slim lead by driving 79 yards in their final possession to set up Dave Regula's '98 game-winning 20-yard field goal to win the game. The Big Green used three big plays in the middle of the drive to get in scoring position. Aljancic's flare pass up the left sideline was hauled in by Zach Ellis '98 for a 26-yard gain. This was followed by two Aljancic runs that picked up an additional 27 yards to give the Big Green first and goal from the five yard line.
Brown's defense bore down though, stopping the Big Green and tail-back Greg Smith '97 at the goal line on third down from the one yard line. Faced with his biggest decision of the year, Lyons opted to send in Regula and kick the go-ahead field goal rather than go for the touchdown.
"I was thinking about going for it because I didn't know how far from the goal line we were but after talking to the coaches upstairs and realizing it was a long yard it was a pretty easy decision to kick the ball," Lyons said. "I knew that once we got the ball back at the beginning of the drive though that we would be able to move it down the field at get some points and hopefully run time off the clock so they wouldn't have time to come back."
The Big Green had gotten the ball back after Brown place-kicker Tom Routt's second missed field goal of the half ended a Bears' drive at the Dartmouth 20 yard line. McCullough, in perhaps the play of the day eluded, a Big Green blitz on third down and 27 running to his right heaved a 37-yard completion to Albert Lairson. The defense stepped up to stop the Bears, led by safety Lloyd Lee '98, who deflected two balls away from Morey on the drive.
The second half saw two scoring drives at the beginning of the third quarter before the two defenses really took control of the game. Trailing 17-10 at halftime, the Bears came out and used a bit of trickery in the form of a touchdown pass to a wide open McCullough from tail-back Marquis Jessie to bring the game to within 17-16, but Routt missed the extra point wide to the right.
With the ball for the first time in the second half, Dartmouth promptly responded by running the ball at the heart of the Bear defense. The Big Green offense drove down the field running the ball on every play of the drive, exposing the weakness of the Brown interior defense. Smith, who gained 139 yards on 32 carries, was the workhorse on most of the 11 plays before an Aljancic keeper around the left side gained 14 yards which coupled with a facemasking foul put the ball on the Brown doorstep. Aljancic capped the nearly seven minute drive with a one yard keeper to push the Dartmouth lead to 24-16.
"That was our best drive of the game if not of the season because we came out and set the tone offensively for the second half," Aljancic said. "When you can run the ball like that, there is no reason to do anything else. I thought of checking into passes a few times but decided they couldn't stop us running."
Any momentum the Big Green had though quickly subsided as Brown went on a march of its own to tie the score. Dartmouth seemed to have stopped the Bears, but a direct snap to Jessie on a fake punt gained 26 yards and kept the drive alive. After a 28-yard catch maneuvered Brown deep into Big Green territory, Choquette outleaped two Dartmouth defenders to haul in a 12-yard touchdown pass. On the two point conversion, defensive back Mike Ritter '98 tipped the ball away but Choquette showed great concentration by staying with the ball and grabbing it before it fell to the turf to tie the game.
Dartmouth took a 17-10 lead into halftime by scoring 10 unanswered points in the second quarter. A first down pass and a subsequent reverse to wide receiver Eric Morton '97 gave the Big Green a first and goal situation early in the second quarter.
Smith punched the ball in on a trap to the left side for the second time of the half to give Dartmouth a 14-10 lead. Lee's interception of McCullough on the ensuing serious led to a Regula 43-yard field goal. Brown was able to move the ball to the Dartmouth four yard line but a 21 yard-field goal attempt fell short as it hit the crossbar and bounced back.
"The offensive line really did a great job all game opening up holes and that made my job really easy because I was just following them and gaining good yardage," Smith said.
Smith's first touchdown of the game, a 12-yard scamper, opened the scoring seven minutes into the contest. The Bears wasted little time as they countered on their possession with a 37-yard field goal by Routt.
Brown then picked off Aljancic at the Dartmouth 33 yard line to give them great field position. McCullough responded by picking apart the Dartmouth defense before finding fullback Mike Wall with a beautiful screen in the right flat for a 21 yard touchdown.
Brown's offense proved to be as explosive as expected, gaining 484 total yards including a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher in Jessie. The Big Green seemed to blitz frequently and get hits on McCullough, and although he was able to make the plays, the hits seemed to affect him.
"We knew we weren't going to get to him on every play but we just wanted to knock him down and we were able to do that, I think we got a lot of good shots that wore him out which made a difference in the end," linebacker Zach Walz '97 said.
Even with the title safely back in Hanover, the Big Green isn't going to forget about their final contest at Princeton.
"We're all really happy with the title because that was one of our goals, but we still have a game next week at Princeton to become the first 10-0 team ever and to get revenge for the loss last year so we'll be ready to play," Smith said.