Undefeated Football Cruises to 26-6 Win
Harvard senior tailback Josh Staph rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown, and sophomore linebacker Dante Balestracci had a team-high 10 tackles as the Crimson held Cornell (0-4, 0-2 Ivy) to -3 net yards rushing and trounced the Big Red 26-6.
It was the first game for both players since each of them hurt their ankles in the Crimson’s season opener against Brown.
With the win, Harvard (4-0, 2-0 Ivy) has now gotten off to its best start since the 1980 season.
Senior quarterback Neil Rose turned in another efficient performance Saturday, completing 15-of-24 passes for 292 yards without an interception. It was Rose’s fourth game without getting picked off, and the Crimson’s third game of the year without committing an offensive turnover.
“The one thing we asked of our offense at the beginning of the year was to be a good team protecting the football,”said Murphy, whose team entered the weekend with the second-lowest turnover ratio in Division I-AA. “The kids have really bought into it and that’s the biggest difference in our offense.”
Rose’s steady play helped Harvard overcome the latest episode in the Robbie Wright saga. The sophomore placekicker missed two field goal attempts in the first half and botched an extra point.
Wright’s two field-goal misses—the first wide right, the second wide left—spoiled first-quarter drives of 70 and 69 yards.
The Harvard offense, though, was unfazed, plowing 80 yards on its next possession and capping the drive off with an 6-yard TD catch by sophomore tight end Matt Fratto.
Harvard’s running game—which featured both Staph and junior running back Nick Palazzo—figured prominently into the first-half game plan. Staph finished thehalf with 74 yards rushing, Palazzo with 45 as the Crimson ended the half ahead by a crooked 12-0 score.
But the 12-point edge edge was hardly safe against Cornell, who last season overcame a 28-point halftime deficit to post an improbable 29-28 win at Harvard Stadium.
There would be no miracle comeback on this day, however.
Cornell went three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half, as a third-down sack by Harvard senior defensive end Phil Scherrer—who was also playing in his first game back since injuring his ankle against Brown—forced Cornell to punt.
Harvard took the ensuing possession and required just four plays to go ahead 19-0. The scoring series featured back-to-back catches of 21 and 39 yards by junior split end Carl Morris and culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run by Palazzo.
“The thing I was most pleased with was the first series of the second half,” Murphy said of the 67-yard drive. “A 12-0 lead against this bunch is like 0-0, as we’ve seen in the past. To come out and get a big stop on defense... and get a nice controlled drive and stick it in [the end zone] obviously gave us momentum.”
Rose had little trouble picking apart the Big Red secondary, beginning with the very first drive of the day in which he connected on 3-of-6 passes for 60 yards. As usual, Rose’s favorite target was Morris. After being held in check by Northeastern’s double-coverage last weekend, Morris scorched the Big Red defense on Saturday, finishing with 157 yards receiving.
With seven catches Saturday, Morris moved into third place on Harvard’s all-time receptions list.
As Harvard’s offense flourished, Cornell was hard-pressed to respond. Even before Harvard’s third-quarter score put the Crimson ahead by 19, Cornell had abandoned any hope of establishing a running game.
Balestracci made sure of it.
The sophmore’s playing status for the Cornell game had been listed as doubtful last week, and Balestracci did not even practice on Thursday. The team did not make the decision to play him until game day.
Still, Cornell Coach Tim Pendergast said after Saturday’s game that he had expected Balestracci to play all along.
But if Cornell had indeed taken Balestracci into consideration while formulating its offensive game plan, it hardly showed.
Led by Balestracci’s menacing presence inside, Harvard limited the Big Red running backs to just 17 yards on the ground while forcing two fumbles.
“We had a great game plan... and put ourselves in the right position to play the run,” Balestraci said. “We take a lot of pride in shutting down the run. If a team can run on you, then they can pass on you. So we thought if we could do a good job shutting down the run, it would make it a lot easier on us.”
Desperate to catch up in a hurry, the Big Red rarely strayed from its four-receiver set in the second half. Cornell quarterback Ricky Rahne made 53 throws in the game, completing 31 passes to 14 different receivers. But the Big Red struggled to sustain any drive deep into Harvard territory due to the solid play of the Harvard secondary, anchored by senior Willie Alford, who finished with nine tackles.
“Our pass defense has at times been a little bit of an Achilles’ heel for us,” Murhpy said. “Right now, I feel that our pass defense is as strong as its best in a long time.”
The Harvard pass rush was also a force all game long, as the Crimson sacked Rahne six times for -41 yards.
After running just 17 plays in its first five possessions, Cornell threatened to get on the board in the second quarter, storming all the way as the Harvard 11-yard line. The drive stalled there, however, and a 35-yard field goal try was blocked by Balestracci.
Cornell also missed on a 49-yard attempt in the third quarter, as Big Red placekicker Peter Iverson’s kick fell shot and wide to the right. Cornell’s lone score of the game did not come until the 2:08 mark of the fourth quarter. By then, Staph had already scored on a 3-yard run to put Harvard up 26-0 and the Crimson was playing its second-string defense.
“This might have been as good a defensive effort we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Murhy said.
Earlier in the game, a big play on defense directly led to Harvard’s second score of the day. After catching a pass on first-and ten from the Cornell 15, Big Red tailback Brian Ulbrecht was hit hard by Laborsky at the 24, causing him to cough up the football. Laborsky pounced on the fumble, setting up the Harvard offense with excellent field position.
It took just two plays for Harvard to punch the ball into the end zone, as Palazzo caught a 16-yard pass from Rose in the flat and then took a handoff from eight yards out for the touchdown.
With Wright’s miss on the earlier PAT still fresh in Murphy’s mind, the Crimson opted for a two-point conversion. Rose, however, failed to score on a keeper.
Though Blewett took over the kicking duties on Saturday, Murphy said after the game that he had still not lost hope in Wright.
“I never give up on a kid,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be, that’s obvious. I think we work on [the kicking game] as hard as anyone in the country. I’ve got to believe we’re going to improve at it. We’re going to have to—there’s going to be a game that comes down to it.”