Saturday afternoon's loss has to make UMass Coach Bob Pickett question the reliability of his scouting reports.
Pickett was able to anticipate most of what he saw at Harvard Stadium. He knew that the Crimson had run all over Columbia the week before, and his men were ready for the Harvard backs, holding the home team to 31 yards on the ground.
UMass was hardly prepared for Donnie Allard's record-shattering 358-yard passing performance, but it didn't shock the coach: He had said very emphatically the week before that he was "extremely concerned about the Harvard quarterbacks."
Pickett was even aware that Garry Pearson, the Minutemen's All-American tailback, might have trouble in Cambridge. Realizing that the Harvard defense had limited Columbia to 61 yards rushing. Pickett made it clear that he intended to throw the ball whenever necessary.
"Our quarterbacks have a 67 percent completion average, and I have a lot of confidence in them. We plan to mix it up against Harvard. We won't hesitate to go to the pass," he said.
And who could blame Pickett for his approach? After losing cornerback Rocky Delgadillo and safety Peter Coppinger to graduation. Harvard's defensive secondary had become one of the Crimson's biggest question marks. And in the season opener the week before. Columbia quarterback John Witkowski brutalized the Harvard backfield, passing for 324 yards, 259 of which came in the second half.
So with a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, Minuteman quarterback Dean Pecevich had few qualms about putting the ball up on second and seven at the Harvard 42. But on-rushing Crimson safety Mike Dixon forced Pecevich to unload the ball in a hurry, and cornerback Chris Myers intercepted the pass intended for UMass tight end Gary Freker at the Harvard 28.
Myers returned the ball to his own 38, and one play later an Allard bomb to the UMass 38 that flanker Jim Garvey carried the rest of the way--Harvard had traveled 62 yards to even the score.
On the next UMass possession. Pecevich went to flanker Ron Mangarelli over the middle on first down, but Dixon broke up the pass. Then facing second and 10 at his own 44. Pecevich tried to go deep to Kevin Jackson at the Harvard 19. But Myers foiled the UMass quarterback again. Covering Jackson perfectly the whole way, the Crimson comerback picked up his second interception of the afternoon. This time, Allard guided his mates 81 yards in five plays to take the lead for good.
By the end of the third quarter, the Harvard defense had limited Pecevich to 65 yards, while sacking him four times. Pickett mercifully lifted his battle-weary QB and brought in back-up Barrett McGath at the start of the final period.
McGrath compiled an impressive 100 yards passing during his 15 minutes on the field, but the bulk of that yardage came on the Harvard secondary's only big breakdown of the afternoon--a 24-yard pass from the UMass 31 that Mangarelli carried another 45 yards for a TD.
Other than that, McGrath's performance was nearly as inadequate as Pecevich's, as Dixon equalled Myers' first-half performance by picking off two passes. The junior safety's second interception set up Harvard's final scoring drive and Allard's record-setting performance.
Pickett was shaking his head after the game. "Those interceptions really killed us," he said. "I think they scored their first three touchdowns after interceptions."
No one will ever confuse Pecevich or McGrath with Witkowski, but with its strong showing Saturday, the Crimson backfield erased a lot of pre-season (and post-Columbia) doubts.
Much of the credit for stopping the UMass passing attack should go to the Harvard pass rush. But as Myers pointed out: "I think this year's secondary is even better than the one we had last year. We seasoned ourselves a lot in the Columbia game since we saw two or three games worth of passing against them."
If Myers is correct, and this year's backfield does prove even better, it will be due in no small part to adjuster Louis Varsames.
A senior with two years experience. Varsames is the acknowledged leader in the secondary, and his play Saturday gave no indication that a hyperextend knee had kept him out of practice nearly all week.
After working out only on Thursday and Friday. Varsames decided he was healthy enough to play.
"It was a nice warm day, and the knee really didn't bother me while I was playing. The worst part was after the game," Varsames said.
Bob Pickett probably wished the Crimson adjuster had been a little more cautious, but he duly noted Varsames's aggressive play, saying. "I think No. 91 is an excellent player, and I don't mean any disrespect by not knowing his name."
After the UMass game, you can bet that most coaches will know about Varsames and his mates. The Columbia game, and maybe even Delgadillo and Coppinger, will be all but forgotten.