When No. 24 Harvard hosts No. 19 Penn tomorrow afternoon, the essential ingredients of a college football classic will be in place—crisp autumn weather, the ivy-clad walls of a majestic stadium and two record-breaking senior quarterbacks.
Fans will be treated to perhaps the best Ivy quarterback duel of the season, as the Crimson’s Neil Rose and the Quakers’ Gavin Hoffman enter the game having experienced similar, astounding success.
Hoffman set or tied 14 Penn season and career records in 2000, while Rose tops the Harvard record book in 11 different categories. Last week Hoffman became only the fifth Ivy League quarterback to throw for at least 7,000 yards, while Rose raised his quarterback efficiency rating to an Ivy-leading 157.9, good for No. 5 in Division I-AA.
As impressive as all of these numbers are, to really explain how effective Rose and Hoffman have been, only two numbers are required—14 and zero—the combined record of Harvard and Penn in 2001.
The “Clutch” Quarterback
“I pride myself on my won-loss record,” Hoffman said. “I think I always put my team in a position to win.”
Both quarterbacks do.
With Hoffman at the helm, Penn has won eleven consecutive contests and lost by more than a touchdown only once in the past two seasons. With Rose taking the snaps, the Crimson is 11-4 and has had a fourth quarter lead in all but one of those losses.
Rose and Hoffman know how to win, and they perform when it matters.
“Neil Rose has a tremendous impact on our football team, for the obvious reason that he is an outstanding quarterback, and arguably the best quarterback in the Ivy League,” said Harvard Coach Tim Murphy. “I will always think of Neil Rose as a clutch player, one of the smartest poised quarterbacks I have ever been around.”
Murphy has also witnessed, and respects, Hoffman’s ability to perform under pressure after suffering from his comebacks each of the past two seasons. The Quaker signal-caller led his team to fourth quarter comebacks in each of its last two meetings with Harvard.
“Hoffman has been a great clutch quarterback, as evident by him leading Penn to an Ivy League championship last year and being named the MVP of the league,” Murphy said. “He is a clutch player who has done it in the big games.”
Whatever It Takes
Being a “clutch” quarterback means more than just putting up flashy statistics in important games. It also means avoiding mistakes. Rose and Hoffman not only make big plays, they don’t make many bad ones.
After combining for 11 300-plus yard passing performances last season, the highest single-game total either has posted this season was Rose’s 292-yard effort against Cornell. Hoffman has not yet thrown for 250 yards this season. However, the two have combined to throw only seven interceptions in 348 attempts, while still picking up enough yards to lead their teams to victories.
“Most definitely I am having a better season this year,” Rose said. “In most games we’ve had a big lead early, so you don’t have to throw the ball. We haven’t really played in a big shootout yet. The team in general is just doing so much better that I’m not called upon to throw the ball 40-50 times a game, and that’s nice.”
Hoffman also acknowledges a transformation in his role from last season.
With the return of the Quakers’ star tailback Kris Ryan, the League’s top rusher, the Penn attack now has a formidable balance of rushing and passing. Though it has toned down Hoffman’s gaudy statistical output, the preseason second-team All-American just wants to help his team win.
“Last year the team needed me to pass on every down and win games through the air,” Hoffman said. “This year, with Kris Ryan back, my role is more to keep the chains moving in a more ball-controlled attack. I feel I have been pretty successful in both scenarios, and I take pride in that.”
The Roots of Success
Though Hoffman and Rose are currently in similar situations—breaking records while leading undefeated Ivy League teams—they arrived at this point in vastly different fashions.
After being named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota while leading Breck High School to the Class ‘B’ state championship, Hoffman was successfully wooed to Northwestern by then-head coach Gary Barnett.
As a freshman, Hoffman started every game for the Wildcats, who were just two years removed from their Big 10 title season of 1995. Though his team struggled to a 3-9 record, Hoffman passed for 2,199 yards and 13 touchdowns, the fourth-highest totals in their respective categories in school history.
But when Barnett departed for Colorado, he was replaced by Randy Walker of Miami (Ohio) and his run-first offense, so Hoffman began to shop around. After considering several schools, including Harvard, Hoffman chose to transfer to Penn because he would have the opportunity to play immediately.
According to Hoffman, it was the right choice.
“Transferring to Penn worked out better than I thought it would,” Hoffman said. “Being the League champion and Player of the Year was nice, but most importantly I found the fun in playing football again.”
Rose’s road to success wasn’t quite as glamorous. Since his high school, University School in Miliani, Hawaii, didn’t have a football squad, Rose played for PAC-5, a team comprised of players from five area schools that went 0-10 Rose’s senior season.
But Harvard came calling regardless, and Rose headed north to Cambridge. After seeing action in only one game his freshman season, Rose broke his foot during fall practice the next year and redshirted. In 2000, though, Rose broke out, throwing for a school-record 412 yards in his first career start, a 42-37 upset of Brown.
It was the first of many records Rose would break, and with only two games remaining in his senior season, Rose is pleased with his career.
“It’s been great,” said Rose. “I couldn’t have asked for a better school to go to, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to play with. I’ve been playing with the greatest group of people I’ve ever known. Coming to this school was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
A Ring’s the Thing
The only thing needed to complete Rose’s career is something Hoffman already has—a ring—and a win tomorrow will guarantee Harvard at least a share of the Ivy League title and give Rose his first victory over the Quakers.
Though Hoffman says he will not have any regrets about his career regardless of this weekend’s outcome, Rose isn’t quite as sure.
“Not winning is unthinkable right now,” said Rose. “Ever since the season began, we expected to be here, and we expected to win this game. We expect to win next week against Yale. I’ve never thought about if my career would be complete without a title.”
One thing is certain, though.
Two weeks from now, as the final crimson leaves fall to the ground the ground in mid-November, at least one of these men will be the quarterback of a 2001 Ivy League champion.