Football Looks To Exorcise Big Red Demons
In 1999, Harvard squandered a 13 point 4th-quarter lead in losing to Cornell 24-23. Last year, the Crimson improbably blew a 28-0 halftime advantage to the Big Red, falling 29-28 on a blocked Robbie Wright field goal in the final seconds.
This year, Harvard (3-0, 1-0 Ivy) will look to continue its undefeated season by finally exorcising these demons when it takes on the Big Red (0-3, 0-1) at 1:00 tomorrow in Ithaca, N.Y.
“Our biggest desire is to remain undefeated,” Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said. “But those two losses certainly has had an affect on how the kids feel coming into this game.”
Harvard enters the weekend 3-0 for the first time since the Ivy League championship season of 1987. A victory tomorrow would give the Crimson it’s first 4-0 start since 1980 (the team finished 7-3 that year). Harvard also received 12 votes in this week’s 1-AA national rankings, placing it 34th.
While Harvard has opened the season impressively, Cornell stumbled out of the gate, losing its first three games. The Big Red has been hampered by inconsistent play. After a season-opening 40-13 rout at the hands of Yale, Cornell competed well against two Patriot League powers, Colgate and No. 9 Lehigh, losing two each by three points. In those games, the Big Red alternated between periods of brilliance and mediocrity, scoring or surrendering points in bunches.
Still, last week’s narrow 38-35 defeat to Lehigh indicates that Cornell should be a formidable oppone nt, especially if it puts together a complete game.
“They’re starting to hit their stride offensively,” senior defensive end Marc Laborsky said. “They have a new coaching staff, and it’s just taken them a little bit of time to get used to the new system.”
Driving the Cornell offense is senior quarterback Ricky Rahne. Rahne, who already holds virtually every school passing record, tore up the Crimson in the second half of last year’s debacle, completing 22 of 36 passes for 343 yards and four touchdowns in the second half alone.
“Rahne is a minor legend in terms of leading comebacks late in the game,” Murphy said. “He’s a streaky player who has been more of a slow starter and a fast finisher.”
Rahne has struggled so far this year, however, as he ranks last among Ivy quarterbacks in passing efficiency. The loss of Joe Splendorio to graduation has created a huge void in Cornell’s receiving corps, which has clearly hurt the team’s passing game. This year Rahne has relied on speedy Keith Furgeson and Tim Herman to pick up the slack, with only limited success.
Laborsky said the team will depend on an effective pass rush to limit Rahne’s effectiveness.
“We’ve got to try to put more pressure on him with the defensive line,” Laborsky said. “We’ll also blitz him to keep him on his toes.”
A new coaching staff has attempted to restore some balance to Cornell’s offense, instituting a two-back system in an attempt to rejuvenate the running game. Still, the Big Red lack a star tailback, forcing them to rely on a “running-back-by -committee” approach. Cornell averages less than 100 yards per game on the ground, second worst in the league.
The team’s leading rusher, Evan Simmons, has gained only 124 yards this season, just eight more than Harvard quarterback Neil Rose.
But Cornell may not even need the ground game against Harvard. Last year the Big Red completely abandoned the run in the second half and tore up the Crimson through the air.
Although Harvard’s secondary has since improved, it sill showed signs of vulnerability this years against Brown and even Lafayette before rebounding with a strong performance last week against Northeastern.
“I’d definitely rather face a team that mostly runs the football,” Murphy said. “When you’re a one-dimensional team that can only run the football, you can score, but it’s very difficult to fight quickly or play when your back’s against the wall.”
Harvard’s defense will receive a boost from the return of defensive end Phil Scherrer, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury. Last year’s leading tackler, sophomore linebacker Dante Balestracci is also likely to play after injuring his ankle in the Brown game.
Harvard figures to move the ball effectively on offense against a nondescript Cornell defense, which has allowed at least 35 points in all three games this season.
Statistically, Harvard has met its goal of running a balanced offense—the Crimson has gained nearly as many yards on the ground as through the air.
Yet in recent games the Harvard running game has struggled to move the ball consistently.
“We need to step it up in the running game,” Murphy said. “We had a terrific first game, but we did not run the football the last two games the way we’re used to.”
Murphy attributed the problem mostly to a lack of execution, particularly on the offensive line. The absence of senior tailback Josh Staph as a complement to junior starting tailback Nick Palazzo has also hurt. Palazzo has struggled in a featured back role since Staph’s injury.
Although Staph, who injured his ankle versus Brown, is unlikely to play, the offense will welcome the return of senior center Jason Hove, out since the Lafayette game.
Harvard’s passing attack has continued its success from last year’s record-setting season. Rose leads the Ivy League in passing efficiency, and ranks in the top 10 nationally in that category. He will look primarily to junior wideout Carl Morris, who has caught more than twice as many passes (21) as the next leading Harvard receiver. Wideouts Dan Farley and Sam Taylor also figure to play a role in the passing game— each averages more than 18 yards per catch.
But the key to Harvard’s successful start year has been its ability to protect the football. After a turnover-plagued season last year, Harvard has only given up the football twice—leading the nation—and has yet to throw an interception.
“Protecting the ball has been our sole concern as an offense,” Murphy said. “If we take care of the football, everything else will take care of itself.”
Murphy said the dramatic decrease in turnovers is due to the team’s overall experience at quarterback and offensive line as well as an increased emphasis on ball security.
Harvard would also do well to emphasize playing two complete halves of football this weekend.
“They’ve got an unbelievable quarterback and they never give up,” Laborsky said. “If we get up on these guys, we can’t let down at all.”