The Harvard football team may feel a touch of déjà vu this weekend, as they face the nation’s 14th-ranked team for the second time in three weeks.
Two Saturdays ago, the Crimson (3-1, 2-0 Ivy) saw its impressive 11-game win streak snapped, dropping a crushing 36-35 decision to then-No. 14 Lehigh in Bethlehem. Tomorrow at 1 p.m., Harvard will have their chance for a unique type of revenge when they round out their non-league schedule against the current No. 14 team, crosstown rival Northeastern.
The resurgent Huskies (5-1, 3-1 Atlantic 10) are off to their best start since 1967, and already have a chance to cement a winning record with a victory at the Stadium tomorrow.
But to do so, they will have to triumph over history—Northeastern has never defeated Harvard in five tries, and has played the Crimson within a touchdown only once, dropping a 27-24 contest to the eventual Ivy champs in 1987. Last year’s contest at the Stadium ended in a 35-20 Harvard victory.
Yet contrary to what the record might suggest, the two teams appear to be remarkably well-matched.
Both teams have benefited from impressive contributions by sophomore quarterbacks, both of whom took home Offensive Player of the Week honors in their respective leagues for braving the rain last weekend.
While Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Crimson to a dominating 52-23 win over Cornell, Northeastern’s Shawn Brady turned in a similarly spectacular performance, tossing five touchdowns in the Huskies’ 38-13 romp over Rhode Island.
Fitzpatrick, filling in for injured captain Neil Rose, has teamed with senior wideout Carl Morris and several others to maintain one of the nation’s most explosive passing attacks. The dynamic Morris’ eye-popping 149.2 receiving yards per game is currently tops among Division I-AA receivers, and the Crimson’s quarterback tandem has combined for a 179.55 quarterback rating, good for second among I-AA teams.
“Harvard has an impressive offense,” said Husky coach Don Brown. “They throw the ball extremely well, and Morris is an unbelievable receiver. We’ll need to give a variety of looks on defense to try to keep them off balance, and do the best we can.”
Fitzpatrick has not thrown an interception since last season’s Dartmouth game, a streak spanning 101 pass attempts. With Rose’s health status up in the air for a third straight week, Harvard again expects to look to Fitzpatrick to keep that streak alive and lead them to victory.
But despite the Crimson’s aerial fireworks, tomorrow’s game will likely be won on the ground—on both sides of the ball.
In order to score on Northeastern’s stingy defense, it will be crucial for the Crimson to establish the run early and often. So far this year, the Huskies’ run defense is 4th-best in I-AA, limiting opponents to a mere 65.3 yards per game. Stoked by this ability to stifle the run, their defense has allowed only 12.3 points per game, including consecutive shutouts to begin the season. And while Harvard’s rushing numbers appear solid on paper, the numbers are somewhat deceiving. To date, Fitzpatrick is the offense’s leading rusher, as the Crimson running backs have struggled to find consistent running room, racking up the majority of their yards late in games.
“It is essential that we establish the run early to open up the passing game and give our defense a rest,” said senior tailback Nick Palazzo. “By establishing the running game we will be able to control the game and run more plays on offense, which could lead to big plays.”
Just as important will be the Crimson’s ability to stop the Northeastern rushing attack. Last year, Husky tailback L.J. McKanas ran circles around the Crimson defense, bruising his way to 220 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Were it not for two crucial fumbles by Northeastern quarterback Logan Galli, both of which were returned for touchdowns, McKanas may well have been the hero of Northeastern’s first-ever triumph over Harvard.
Though McKanas has moved on, Northeastern’s offense has still been keyed by its running game, as redshirt freshman Anthony Riley and senior William Griffin have teamed for 848 yards on 173 carries, averaging a solid 4.9 yards per rush. Last week, the Huskies racked up a season-high 266 yards in steamrolling Rhode Island.
“In order to beat Northeastern, we are going to have to shut down the run game,” said senior linebacker John Perry, who scored on one of the Crimson’s two fumble returns in last year’s game. “They have fast, shifty backs and a big strong offensive line that fires off the ball.”
Needless to say, the Crimson’s entire front seven will need to be up to the challenge in order to take the pressure off its much-maligned secondary. This need is not lost on the Crimson coaching staff, which has gone to great lengths to prepare for Northeastern’s attack.
“We’ve made some changes on the defensive line to hopefully give us the pass rush we’ve been lacking in our previous games,” junior defensive tackle Jon Berrier said of the staff’s preparations. “Our success this Saturday really depends on us coming together as a defense and making big plays when it counts.”
“We need to pressure [Brady] each time he passes to throw his timing off,” added junior linebacker Dante Balestracci. “By getting consistent pressure we can hopefully force him into making some mistakes.”
Forcing turnovers will indeed be one of the keys for the Crimson defense, as they face an extremely young Northeastern offense that starts four freshmen (two true) and three sophomores.
No matter how the game plays out, tomorrow’s contest promises to be a physical battle between fierce crosstown rivals. It will afford the Crimson a chance to erase the bad memories of the Lehigh loss and prove that they indeed belong among the elite teams in Division I-AA.
“Playing a nationally touted team like Northeastern provides us with a precious opportunity to dispel some of the myths about Harvard football,” said senior placekicker Anders Blewett. “This is our chance to show Beantown and the rest of the nation that the Ivies don’t mess around.”