FOOTBALL FINISHES DISAPPOINTING 4-6
For once, the problem for the Harvard football team in 1998 wasn't a lack of respect. It was the inability to live up to billing.
Probably out of respect for its amazing 9-1 (7-0 Ivy) 1997 season, the Crimson began the year as the favorite in the preseason media poll, with 11 of 16 first-place votes.
But injuries, offensive ineffectiveness and the struggle to replace the defensive line that had led the Crimson to the Ivy championship resulted in a disappointing 4-6 season. Furthermore, midway through the season, competition between juniors Rich Linden and Brad Wilford planted the seeds of a quarterback controversy.
"I don't think there's any question we probably have more competition than we saw a year ago," said Harvard Coach Tim Murphy after the Spring Game May 8. "A year ago, Rich was the clear starter, but Brad has improved and developed to the point where it is now legitimately a competition that won't be decided until a week or week-and-a-half before the opener."
Harvard finished sixth in the league with a 3-4 record, but with two weeks left, it controlled its own fate.
The year was a roller coaster that began with a shocking 24-0 loss at Columbia, but entering Week Nine, the Crimson was 3-2 in the Ivy and had the opportunity to secure a tie for the title by beating Penn and Yale. Two losses ended those repeat dreams.
Harvard traveled to New York for its traditional season opener with Columbia (4-6, 3-4 Ivy) expecting to get the season off to a good start.
Instead, it ran into a defensive unit that dominated the Crimson's offensive line, allowing only 169 total yards and forcing four turnovers.
It was Harvard's first shutout loss since 1994, and Linden only had 60 passing yards despite completing 10-of-17.
"I hate to steal Ray Tellier's line from last year, but at least no one got killed," Murphy said. "We got beat up in the trenches. Last year, that was our strength."
The Lions put consistent pressure on Linden, and junior running back Chris Menick only mustered 42 yards on 13 carries. In 1997, Menick rushed for a school-record 1,267 yards.
Harvard's defensive line was porous, surrendering 196 rushing yards.
The next week, on the road against Colgate, probably the best team on Harvard's schedule, the Crimson dropped a 34-14 contest despite forcing seven turnovers.
Four Harvard drives started in Red Raider territory, but the two touchdowns were not enough to counter Colgate's dominant freeze-option attack.
Quarterback Ryan Vena passed for 245 yards and three touchdowns and carried for 80 more yards. Flanker Corey Hill caught seven passes for 131 yards and two of Vena's touchdown tosses.
"I'll be surprised if we play a better team all year," Murphy said.
However, Harvard only trailed 20-14 at the start of the fourth quarter. Linden threw two costly fourth-quarter interceptions. The Crimson was also hampered by the loss of Menick, who broke his left thumb and hurt his ankle in practice the preceding week.
Harvard tried to recover in its home opener against Lehigh, but it suffered one of the most painful losses of the season.
The Crimson blew a 17-0 lead to the Mountain Hawks, who scored 21 unanswered points to win the game.
After getting a 26-yard field goal from junior kicker Jonathan Patton and a three-yard touchdown run by Linden, Harvard appeared to have an impregnable lead when senior safety Derek Yankoff returned an interception 64 yards for a touchdown.
Lehigh scored on its next possession, however, as quarterback Phil Stambaugh threw a 17-yard strike for a touchdown. A rushing touchdown in the third quarter brought the Mountain Hawks within three.
Lehigh won the game with a 16-play, 91-yard fourth quarter march that ended with a five-yard Ron Jean touchdown.
After Harvard's hot start, Lehigh dominated by throwing for 328 yards to Harvard's 113 and gaining an average of 5.8 yards a play.
Menick committed a costly drive-killing personal foul in Lehigh territory late in the game.
At 0-3, Harvard was reeling. But over the next month, the Crimson showed enough character to make itself a legitimate contender for the Ivy championship.
Menick led the way for Harvard's struggling offense with a 39-carry, 176-yard performance against Cornell on a rainy day at The Stadium. He moved into third place on the school's career rushing list with that performance.
Harvard's defense held quarterback Mike Hood to 9-of-22 passing and forced four turnovers. The key was a pickoff by senior corner Glenn Jackson, who caught a pass tipped by junior safety Aron Natale and returned it up the left sideline for a touchdown and 16-6 lead. Harvard went on to win 19-12.
The Crimson tried to run more than usual because of the bad weather, and the benefit may have been psychological as well as strategic.
"In all honesty, the conditions gave us an opportunity to find a little bit of our identity, because we hadn't played as aggressive, as physical and as tough as I would like us to in the first couple of games," Murphy said.
The next week, at home against Holy Cross, Menick's redemption resulted in a 20-14 overtime win.
Menick scored Harvard's first two touchdowns, but his fumble on the Crusaders' 11-yard line was returned to the Harvard 11 and set up a late Holy Cross equalizer.
Regulation ended with the score tied 14-14 after Holy Cross elected to try a Hail Mary instead of a long field goal attempt. Menick got the chance to make amends.
Harvard won the overtime coin toss and decided to go second. (In college football, each team is guaranteed at least one possession in overtime.) Holy Cross tried a trick play that failed, then threw incomplete, then ran for two yards. A 40-yard field goal attempt missed wide right, so the Crimson only needed a field goal to win.
Harvard showed faith in Menick, feeding him the ball three straight times. The first two carries resulted in nine yards. The last went for 16 yards and the winning touchdown.
"Initially, I felt like punching myself in the face," Menick said. "I felt so guilty for the defense, that they had to come out. They were probably pissed off or whatever. They played so great, and I just tried to forget it. I knew I was going to get another chance."
Murphy pulled the still-struggling Linden at halftime after a 5-of-10, 50-yard performance. Wilford energized the team with 10-of-16 passing for 98 yards and a touchdown. Wilford played in spots throughout the rest of the season.
At 2-3, the team appeared to have another lease on life, and the streak continued the next week against league-leading Princeton (5-5, 4-3).
Harvard broke in brand-new Princeton Stadium in grand fashion, as a Menick halfback pass that went for a 41-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winner in a 23-22 contest. Sophomore Josh Wilske adjusted nicely to the ball in the air as he dragged a defender into the endzone.
Menick had moved up to second on the Crimson all-time rushing list with 19 carries for 56 yards, but his arm was the difference-maker that Saturday.
"Actually, we just put that [halfback option] in this week because we anticipated they would come in hard and blitz a lot, and it's exactly what they did," Menick said. "As soon as the pitch came out, I had my eyes on Wilske."
Despite a statistical deficit--Princeton had 114 more yards and 16:40 more time of possession--Harvard found a way to win.
"You look at the statistics and so on, but we're a point short," Princeton Coach Steve Tosches said.
Harvard won its fourth straight by putting a Halloween fright in Dartmouth (2-8, 1-6) at Hanover, N.H., 20-7. Harvard's defense dominated, holding the Big Green to 225 yards, only 50 on the ground. The Crimson racked up seven sacks and three takeaways.
Menick ran 31 times for 104 yards to record his fourth-straight 100-yard game. Linden completed 13-of-24 for 181 yards in one of his best games of the season.
At halftime, Dartmouth had 24 rushing yards on 22 attempts and only 83 total yards. In the third quarter, the Big Green gained 12 yards on 15 plays.
"We're becoming a very, very solid football team," Murphy said at the time.
After the dismal start, Harvard was now 4-3, 3-1 and in a three-way tie for first with Penn and Princeton.
Traditional nemesis Brown (7-3, 5-2) came to Cambridge the following week, however, and blew out the Crimson, 27-6.
The Bears broke open a 7-6 game by scoring 20 points on 218 yards in the second half while shutting out the Crimson and allowing only 55 yards.
"They just wore us down and made the big plays when they had to on third-and-long and fourth-and-long," Murphy said.
On the first play of the third quarter, a Brown blitzer knocked the ball away from Linden. The Bears' offense went 16 yards for the touchdown and a 13-6 lead.
The damaged title hopes disappeared the following week as Penn (8-2, 6-1) clinched a share of the Ivies with a 41-10 pasting of the Crimson.
Quarterback Matt Rader threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns, and tailback Jim Finn--who would become the last player taken in the 1999 NFL Draft--ran for 106 yards and three scores.
"They beat the hell out of us and deserve to be champions," Murphy said.
With its repeat hopes dashed, the only thing that left to save the season would be a win at home in The Game.
Yale (6-4, 5-2) scored the last nine points to win, 9-7, in an emotionally devastating contest.
Harvard led 7-0 after Linden ran for a score in the third, but with 9:33 left in the fourth, Yale mounted a drive to start its comeback.
The Bulldogs advanced the ball with four completions from quarterback Joe Walland to tight end Brian Scharf for first downs. Walland then finished the drive off with a nine-yard touchdown pass to fullback Derek Bentley.
But senior Joe Weidle flew in from the right side to block the point-after attempt of kicker Mike Murawczyk. With 5:33 left, Harvard held on to a one-point lead.
Junior Damon Jones did not stay in bounds on the kick-off, so Harvard took over at its own 8-yard line. After two Menick plunges, Linden scrambled wide right. In the way was Yale corner Ben Blake. Linden lost the battle, and Harvard lost the war.
Linden put his head down, and Blake put his head on the ball. Yale recovered at the Harvard 15.
Harvard's defense continued to play well--the Bulldogs only had eight first downs and 176 net yards to Harvard's 18 and 273--and forced a 27-yard field goal attempt.
Given a second chance, Murawczyk converted. As the ball disappeared through the uprights, so did Harvard's chance to salvage a .500 season. The loss also left a bitter taste in the Crimson's mouth.
"This is one of the toughest defeats of my career," Murphy said. "It was like being in a nightmare."
After the glory of 1997, the question for 1998 was whether the program had acquired enough talent and enough of a winning attitude to stay strong in 1998.
Although the team showed character in rallying, it did so against inferior opponents. The three best teams in the league beat the Crimson in the last three weeks of the season.
Questions that were not answered satisfactorily in 1998 still remain for next season, as well as the new, openly acknowledged quarterback controversy.
In the spring game, Linden played with the first-team offense for the first half then Wilford took over for the second as planned. Wilford was more impressive and showed great arm strength.
"Every coach's goal is to have a clear number one," Murphy said. "It will be more of a competition than it's been. Because of that, hopefully the cream will rise to the top."
Last year, the offensive line had problems protecting the quarterback, and Linden took a beating. He had two surgeries during the off-season.
"I really think that even we lost four starters and three other kids to career-ending injuries [this spring], this group has a chance to be a more athletic group than last year," Murphy said. "They'll need all 28 practices to get experience to be tough and seasoned."
At running back, Menick will have some competition. Although Damon Jones has quit in part because of a persistent groin injury, Murphy said Harvard is in an "enviable position."
Troy Jones is coming back for a fifth year, and freshman Jared Lewis played well in the Spring Game. Sophomore Chuck Nwokocha, last year's No. 2, also returns.
Unlike the 2-8 season of 1995 or the 4-6 season of 1996, Harvard's 4-6 year was even more bitter because it did not beat Yale and because of high expectations.
After failing to live up to its status as favorites, Harvard will have to go back to the mentality with which it is most familiar: the underdog.
RECORD: 4-6, 3-4 Ivy
COACH: Tim Murphy
CAPTAIN: Brendan Bibro
KEY PLAYERS: Rich Linden (117-for-228, 1,180 yards passing, 3 TDs/8 INTs), Chris Menick (186 carries, 768 yards, 4 TDs), Isaiah Kacyvenski (112 tackles), Terence Patterson (39 receptions, 353 yards), Josh Wilske (26 receptions, 334 yards)