Junior Neil Rose should start at quarterback next week.
On Saturday, the honor went to sophomore Barry Wahlberg, whom Harvard football Coach Tim Murphy rewarded for his good performance in practice. Next Saturday, Rose should be rewarded for his better performance when it counted.
The numbers don't lie: In two-and-a-half quarters Wahlberg threw almost as many interceptions as completions, going 4-of-16 with 3 INTs for 54 yards. Rose, meanwhile, was a much tidier 7-of-9 for 78 yards and no interceptions.
"Barry really struggled today," Murphy said. "Everyone who has watched this kid sees that he's got a gun of an arm, but he really struggled."
The scant times Wahlberg successfully found a receiver, he did offer glimpses of his prodigious talent. Three of his four completions occurred on one drive early in the second quarter, in which he hit passes of 19, 18 and 15 yards. On third-and-9 from the 50-yard line, he drilled a pass in stride to sophomore wideout Carl Morris at the 33, which Morris then took another five yards.
The Crimson had to settle for a field goal on the drive, yet it was enough to offer proof that Wahlberg, making his first varsity appearance, has the tools to play at this level.
But for the rest of the game, Wahlberg simply looked uncomfortable in the pocket. He struggled to make reads and had difficulty surveying more than one passing option. Often on a snap, he would look directly at one side of the field and if the primary receiver was not open he didn't know what to do with the ball.
Blame it in part on jitters, part on inexperience, but for Harvard his poor decision-making must bear the brunt of the blame for the 27-25 loss to Holy Cross.
"We didn't need the offense to win the game for us," Murphy said. "We needed it not to self-destruct."
On the next drive after the field goal, Harvard went three-and-out--on three incomplete passes. Each play involved a slight misread. The first two downs, Wahlberg led his receivers a little too far to make a proper catch. On third down, Wahlberg took too long to find wide open sophomore receiver Kyle Cremerosa at the 40-yard line. By the time he made the throw, the Crusaders were mounting pressure and the pass was well off the mark.
Wahlberg's critical errors, though, didn't happen until the third quarter. Setting back at his own 20, he felt the oncoming Holy Cross pass rush instinctively went to his short, safe option. However, his dump-off pass went straight into the hands of Crusader linebacker Luke Sinkhorn, who then went right into the end zone.
Wahlberg's third interception finally knocked him out of the game. A shanked punt had given Harvard great field position at the Holy Cross 34. Two rushes had brought Harvard into the red zone. The runs set up the play action, but Wahlberg forced the issue and his pass was batted straight up into the arms of defensive end Ben Berger. Harvard was only down 20-18 at that point and was well within field goal range.
"[Wahlberg] seemed like he was a little nervous," Sinkhorn said. "We were giving him pressure, moving him around and stemming him a lot. It seemed like he couldn't handle it that well."
While Wahlberg, given more time behind the center, certainly will improve and perhaps flourish, after one game Rose is the more polished quarterback.
It didn't seem that way at first. Rose's second offensive series consisted of one play--fumbling the snap right after a Crusader turnover put the Crimson at the 20 yard line. Still down 20-18, Harvard could've seized the lead and the momentum with at least a field goal.
Rose immediately recovered, however. On his next series, he marched Harvard down the field, completing three passes and receiving a big assist on a wild reverse-pass executed by Morris to Cremerosa for 38 yards.
Though the drive stalled in the red zone, Rose clearly had poise in the pocket. On third-and-6 from the Holy Cross 18, he hit sophomore Dan Farley on a three-yard out pattern. Farley fell short of the first down, but he was the third or fourth option and Rose had the presence to try and make something happen, and at least give the field goal kicker a chance.
Harvard, down 27-18 needed two scores anyway at this point. However, sophomore placekicker Anders Blewett, (a most unfortunate name for a kicker), missed the 32-yarder wide left.
Rose, undaunted, really opened some eyes with his next drive. He started by hitting Farley with a beautiful 17-yard pass over the middle. Rose also connected on sharp strikes of 15, 17 and 11 yards. On the last, he stepped up in the pocket and found Cremerosa on a slant across the field at the 7-yard line.
Harvard banged the ball into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the one-inch line. Rose had given the Crimson a chance to win the game, but he never got the ball back.
The real strength of the Crimson offense is its wide receivers. Rose's poise in the pocket began to unleash their potential.
"To Neil's credit even though he hadn't had a great week of practice, he came in very cool and confident and that's the key to our offense," Murphy said.
Quarterback was a wide-open position for the Crimson in the preseason. With all but fifth-stringer J.C. Harrington spending time on the injury list, nobody has had the chance to really practice and adapt to running the offense. This was the first significant action both of these players had received.
Too much can be made about one start. Many of Wahlberg's mental errors will abate with more experience. Murphy is not going to--nor should he--hand over the starting job to someone after an opening day performance against a team who had already played this year.
But score round one to Rose. Let's see what he can do against Brown.