Tenacious D: When the Breaks Beat the Boys
I have never seen anything like it before in my life.
The polarity of emotion was amazing. The change from exuberant celebration to stunned silence was riveting. You just had to be there to see one of the most gutwrenching losses in recent Harvard football history to fully understand.
"What can you say? It's just heartbreaking," said junior wide receiver Dan Farley. "I'm at a loss for words, but I don't know if I've ever felt that way before."
Many people left during halftime of Saturday's game, when the Crimson had a commanding 28-0 lead over the Big Red. The high-fiving was in full effect, the band was playing "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard" many more times than usual and the cheerleaders were getting quite a push-up workout. The excitement was contagious and talk of contending for the Ivy League crown rippled through Harvard Stadium.
For those of you who left at halftime, you missed an unbelievable ending to a great football game. For those of you who stayed to watch, many questions remain.
What went wrong? How could something like this happen? What was Harvard Coach Tim Murphy thinking?
Well, in all honesty, the transformation is hard to fathom. In the first half, Harvard amassed 400 offensive yards, scored four touchdowns, had 184 yards through the air from junior quarterback Neil Rose and 107 yards on the ground from sophomore tailback Nick Palazzo. It looked as though Harvard was en route to scoring 40 or more points for the third straight game.
In stark contrast, Cornell's offense was pathetic in the first half. Of the Big Red's seven first half drives, five were three-and-outs. When Cornell finally managed a first down on its third drive, it punted three plays later.
And then, the unthinkable happened--Cornell went from futility to fertility and Harvard seemed helpless to resist.
As in the first half, Cornell had seven offensive drives in the second half. Instead of five three-and-outs, however, the Big Red scored five times. Cornell junior quarterback Ricky Rahne broke out his first half slump and lit up the Crimson secondary for 342 yards and four touchdowns in the second half. Conversely, Harvard's offense was unable to move the ball as easily as it had in the first half. The Crimson had its only two turnovers in the second half and was forced to punt on every other possession before the final drive.
The turn-around was so complete and so sudden that no single explanation could account for the collapse of one team and the resurgence of the other.
What will be the verdict of the game film coaches and players will pour over this week? First, Cornell's eighth man in the box did not allow Harvard to run as much on first and second downs. Looking back, the Palazzo-Leiszler combination was the fuel of the offensive fire in the first half. Second, Rahne stepped up did a phenomenal job of exploiting the Crimson's more conservative and injury-riddled secondary in nickel coverage.
But there is something more intangible and just as important to Saturday's outcome that perhaps the game film won't capture. As hackneyed as the concept is, football truly is a game of inches and for some reason the bounces sometimes don't go your way.
What was fascinating about this particular game was the concentration of bounces favorable for one team in one half and for the other team in the other half.
In the first half and the first drive of the second half, Harvard was the benefactor of football's divine providence. A clear example would be on the first drive of the game, when Rose found Farley over the middle of the field for a huge gain. Farley was then stripped by Cornell cornerback Jimmy Vattes and the ball skipped all the way to the 2-yard line, where a fortuitous bounce left it in the lap of junior wide receiver Sam Taylor. The Crimson scored two plays later.
In the first drive of the second half, Rose threw into tight coverage and was nearly picked off by a Big Red linebacker. The ball, however, careened off the linebacker and perfectly into the hands of sophomore split end Carl Morris. After that fortunate play, though, all of the significant breaks went Cornell's way.
In what ended up being the game-winning drive, Cornell was faced with fourth down and five from the 48-yard line with just under three minutes to play. Rahne dropped back to pass and rifled the ball to wide receiver Tim Hermann, who scampered in for the devastating touchdown. The play was inches from being broken up, though, as a Crimson defender dove to deflect the ball and missed.
On the very next drive, there was another classic instance of the old adage. After Harvard's two-minute drill had worked wonderfully and Rose had gotten his team to the ten-yard line, the field goal unit came out. The crowd was on its feet and the tension in the stadium was palpable. The ball was snapped by Jason Hove, held by Kyle Cremarosa, kicked by Robbie Wright, and--for the second straight year-- blocked by Big Red wide receiver Joe Splendorio. As the ball sailed helplessly away from its intended destination, one side of the stadium erupted. The other was gripped by disbelief. It was quite a sight.
Regardless of the outcome and of the possible league implications, this game stands apart, as all great games do, as an incredible display of competitive desire, emotional drive, and fortuitous occurrences.
To loosely paraphrase famed coach Knute Rockne who in turn paraphrased famed player George Gipp, the breaks beat our boys Saturday, but they gave it all they had and the tried to win one for Harvard. And despite the outcome, those of us who were fortunate enough to see it take place should be impressed by the determination of both teams.
What a game.