“This is the biggest game we’ve ever played,” Harvard senior quarterback Neil Rose said. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever been involved with.”
The game marks the first time two undefeated Ivy teams have faced each other this late in the year since 1968. That year, Harvard crushed previously undefeated Yale, 29-29, in one of the most memorable games in college football history.
Harvard (7-0, 5-0 Ivy) enters the game ranked No. 24 in the I-AA national rankings, the first time it has appeared in the poll since its inception in 1993. Penn (7-0, 5-0) is currently ranked No. 19.
With a victory, Harvard would claim at least a share of their first league title since 1997. A win over Yale next week would then give the Crimson the title outright and its first perfect season since 1913.
“This year it’s all coming together,” senior defensive back Andy Fried said. “The intensity’s there, and there’s something special in the air with this team.”
Harvard has already sold more than 10,000 tickets for the game, as of yesterday. Saturday’s crowd is expected to be the largest at Harvard Stadium for a non-Harvard-Yale game since 1987.
While no one at Harvard has participated in a game of this magnitude, Penn has been no stranger to big games under Coach Al Bagnoli. Under him, the Quakers beat Cornell last year in a game that determined the league championship, and Penn prevailed in the last late-season meeting of unbeaten Ivy teams, defeating Princeton 30-14 in 1993.
In all, Bagnoli has guided the Quakers to four Ivy titles in the last eight years.
Penn edged Harvard last year, 36-35, in a crucial, thrilling game that cost the Crimson any chance at the league title. Trailing 35-27 late in the fourth quarter, the Quakers staged a furious comeback behind quarterback Gavin Hoffman, scoring a field goal and touchdown to take a 36-35 lead.
Harvard had a chance to win as time expired, but kicker Robbie Wright’s field goal sailed wide left.
The Crimson turned the ball over five times in that game, preventing what easily could have been a victory.
“We beat ourselves last year,” Fried said.
This year’s Penn squad has been even more impressive than last season’s championship team.
The Quaker offense now features a powerful running game, but the real improvement has been to the dominating Penn defense, one of the best in the nation.
“They have the best defense I have seen in the Ivy League since arriving here in 1994,” Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said.
Led by a stifling front line, Penn has the top rushing defense in the country, allowing just 43.4 yards per game and a miniscule 1.6 yards per carry.
Opponents have abandoned the ground game early against Penn, throwing the ball more than 40 times a game. While the Quaker secondary has surrendered a lot of yards, they lead the conference in pass efficiency defense.
Penn’s ability to stop the run enables it to place several defenders in coverage, limiting the opposition’s ability to create big plays through the air.
Penn’s defense features five reigning All-Ivy selections, led by defensive linemen and brothers Ed and John Galan, both first team All-Ivy picks last year. John Galan leads the team with 40 tackles (16 for a loss) and seven sacks. A third defensive linemen, Chris Pennington, has been no less impressive, posting 6.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. Penn has 22 sacks in its last three games alone.
All told, the Quakers lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing less than nine points per game.
Penn’s defense showed signs of mortality last week against Princeton, especially in the first half. Princeton gained 141 yards on the ground against the Quakers, and it had a chance to take a 10-point lead in the game before being stopped by Penn on a goal-line stand.
Despite the formidable task facing the Crimson offense, Rose said Harvard should have success moving the ball.
“They haven’t played a team that can run the ball as well as us,” Rose said. “We hope to establish the run early and throughout the game.”
Harvard leads the league in rushing, averaging close to 200 yards per game. The attack is paced by speedy junior Nick Palazzo and senior Josh Staph, who emerged from deep down the depth chart to fulfill a big-back role for the Crimson.
Hampered by an ankle injury throughout this season, Staph should be as healthy this weekend as he has been since the season opener, when he gained 152 yards and scored three touchdowns against Brown.
While Harvard will likely have to run the ball at least somewhat to keep Penn off-balance, it will look to its passing game to score points. Rose has been outstanding this season when healthy and is fifth in the nation in passing efficiency.
Rose has thrown for eight touchdowns against just three interceptions this season. All three picks came against Princeton, after Rose had been hurt earlier in the game.
Rose left last week’s contest against Columbia early with a stinger, but Murphy said he will be fine for tomorrow’s game.
Harvard might have the most talented athlete on the field in junior wide receiver Carl Morris. Morris has more than twice as many catches (57) and receiving yards (734) as the next leading wideout, senior Dan Farley. He should break multiple school receiving records by the end of this year, despite being only a junior.
Rose said the key to beating Penn’s defense is to attack them with short-to-medium range passes.
“We’ll have to nickel and dime them,” Rose said. “They’re going to have problems defending against throws to the sideline.”
The Quaker offense features last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year in Hoffman. This year, he’s not even the team’s best player.
That honor goes to tailback Kris Ryan, the nation’s sixth-leading rusher, averaging more than 140 yards per game. Ryan is a workhouse, capable of handling the ball more than 40 times a game, and he possesses an impressive mix of speed and power.
“He’s about as good as you can get at our level of football,” Murphy said.
While Ryan’s return from an injury-plagued junior season has limited Hoffman’s role on the Penn offense, the quarterback is still capable of putting up monster numbers. Last season, Hoffman—a transfer from Northwestern—threw for more than 3200 yards and completed a remarkable 70 percent of his passes.
Hoffman spreads the ball around—six receivers have at least 10 catches—but his favorite target is Rob Milanese, who has 42 catches on the year.
Harvard’s defense is vastly improved from last year, when it had problems stopping anyone through the air. This year, the Crimson ranks near the top of the league in both rushing and passing defense.
The Crimson will look to its front four to pressure Hoffman and stop the run. The Harvard line is led by senior defensive end Mark Laborsky, who leads the league with nine sacks, and has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Penn’s weakness is in the kicking game. The Quakers have tried three field goal kickers on the season, and none has made a field goal of more than 30 yards. Combined, they are just 3-for-9.
Harvard may have found its solution for two years of kicking woes. Junior Anders Blewett has looked solid since taking over the job from Wright earlier this year, hitting two of three field goal attempts this season.
To pull off the upset, Harvard will likely have to win the turnover battle against a team equally stingy with the ball. While Harvard leads the nation in turnovers, allowing just seven on the year, Penn is second nationally, having given up the ball just eight times.
“The biggest key to the game will be the turnover ration,” Murphy said. “If we come out with no turnovers, we will have a great chance of winning.”
Even if it takes care of the ball, however, Harvard will have its hands full with one of the most talented Ivy teams in recent memory.
“They’re good. They’re really good,” Laborsky said. “It’s going to take a great effort to beat them.”