The comeback kids
The Harvard team
Eestatic fans tore down the goal posts after Don Allard '83 led the Harvard football team to a Crimson series-high 45 points in The 99th Game last year at the Stadium. The 45-7 Harvard rout combined with Cornell's 31-0 shocker over Penn left the Crimson, the Quakers and the Big Green of Dartmouth in a three-way tie for the Ivy title.
Entering the final week of the season, this year's Crimson stands in far better shape than the 1982 team did. A Harvard victory in The 100th Game assures the Crimson at least a share of the league crown, and if Penn and Dartmouth tie in Philadelphia, Harvard would take home its first outright championship since 1975.
It's difficult to tell just how this year's team got where it is. Troubles started early and dogged the squad through the first half of the season. The first problem was replacing Allard, the dominating quarterback who set a new school record for single-season total offense, established a new school single-game passing standard and fell just 15 yards short of the all-time Harvard single-season passing yardage record.
Instead of an obvious replacement for Allard. Harvard Coach Joe Restic entered fall training camp with enough quarterbacks to field a softball team, none of them experienced, none of them a clear pick to lead the Crimson offense on an Ivy Title defense.
Halfway through the season, things hadn't improved. The Crimson had enough injuries to open up a hospital chain. Fourteen starters had missed action for medical reasons and a would-be starting quarterback was out for the season with a mysterious blood clot in his throwing arm. The 28-12 loss to Dartmouth half-way through the season left Harvard's title hopes in a mess, as the Big Green remained unbeaten in league games and the Crimson's Ivy mark dropped to 1-1-1.
Thus ended the first half of Harvard's 1983 season, five games marked by the fruitless search for a regular quarterback and the weekly lineup shuffles forced by a slew of injuries. Four weeks later, with just one game left on the agenda, the Crimson owns a share of the league lead and an outside shot at an outright title.
Did Restic think he'd be in this position after the Dartmouth debacle? "No way." says the Harvard coach. "We had so many problems at that point."
When Princeton visited town to open the season's second half. Restic got some answers. In his first start at quarterback, senior Greg Gizzi revived an offense that had produced just 15 points in its last two outings. The 5-ft., 10-in, 185-pounder completed 12 of 19 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown as Harvard nipped the Tigers, 28-26. He also ran for 87 yards on 17 carries, including a 47-yard touchdown off a broken play.
The third Crimson quarterback to try his hand at leading this year's team. Gizzi quickly secured the popular position. He hasn't thrown an interception in any of his four starts, and he constantly improves in play-calling, a difficult role for inexperienced quarter-backs in Restic's complicated multiflex offense.
Another good sign for Harvard has been the success of running back Steve Ernst. Ernst started the year as a wingback, then moved around in Restic's midseason, injury-forced backfield reshuffling. In the Dartmouth game. Ernst shifted to halfback in place of the injured Mark Vignali. Jim Fadule started at wingback to replace Ernst, and Chuck Colombo took the first snap from center because sophomore Brian White developed a blood clot in his arm the Thursday before the game. Starting fullback Robert Santiago didn't play because of a hamstring pull; several players tried unsuccessfully to fill his shoes.
Ernst was the only upbeat story on offense that day, picking up 102 yards on the ground. Against Princeton he switched to fullback, where he's been playing successfully ever since. The Dartmouth game was the first of three consecutive 100-yard games for the senior.
The Princeton game also marked the astonishing reappearance of linebacker. Andy Nolan, who bruised his thigh in a preseason scrimmage, then aggravated it in the opener with Columbia. "We thought that he was going to be out for the year," says Restic of the senior defender. "When you lose people like that you're gonna pay a price," he adds, explaining that Nolan's five-game absence from the defense robbed his squad of not just a great linebacker but also a defensive sparkplug.
Without the injuries to Nolan and several other key defenders, Restic claims. "The defense would have won the championship for us."
And even with the injuries, defense is the main reason the Crimson holds a good chance of a winning a share of the crown. In nine games. Harvard has yielded an average of just 13 points per outing. Since the return of Nolan and other defenders in the Princeton game the Crimson has shut down the powerful attacks of Brown, Holy Cross and Penn.
"Any week our defense is going to do the job," Gizzi says. "It's just a question of whether the offense will get the points."
Gizzi didn't even have to mention kicking a strong kicking game has become taken for granted in the Harvard football program. Punter and plackicker Jim Villanueva does both consistently, launching his punts for an average of 39-3 yards and connecting on field goal of up to 45 yards. Villanueva has booted a school record 27 field goals, and he has never missed at Harvard from inside 30 yards.
But Villanueva injured his thigh on a take field goal attempt in the Holy Cross game, and there's a chance it might keep him out of The Game. His understudy sophomore Rob Steinberg, followed Villanueva into Los Angeles' Palisades High School to Harvard, and he may very well follow Villanueva into the record books. Last week against Penn, Steinberg punted for a 46.8 yard average. Including a 59 yard boomer that is the longest Harvard punt this year
Steinberg's placekicking wasn't as successful as gusted winds foiled two of his four PAT attempts and a bad snap led to his 32-yard field goal attempt getting blocked.
It may only take one bad snap for Harvard's title hopes to get blocked. This is a team that left itself no margin for error that had to sweep its final four Ivy games and hope for some help. Brown's upset of Dertmouth supplied the help; now it's three down and one to go for the championship. "We've just gotta win." says Captain Joe Azelby. "That's all we can do."