Freshman Ryan Tyler—a 5’10, 190-lb. southern California native who started the year on the junior varsity team—carried the ball 19 times on Saturday, picking up 120 yards rushing and a touchdown. Not only did Tyler have the best performance by a running back since senior Nick Palazzo ran for 132 yards against Columbia in 2001, he also set the Harvard record for single-game rushing yards by a freshman.
“He cut his teeth on the JV team,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We were really impressed. What you don’t know about freshmen is how they’ll perform under the pressure.”
There definitely was some pressure on the Harvard running game to perform against the Lions, who have traditionally been weak defending the rush. But the offensive line responded by creating enough holes for the crafty Tyler to slide through.
“The line did a great job,” Tyler said. “The holes were huge.”
Most of Tyler’s carries were of the healthy 5-7 yard variety, created by a combination of a strong line push and the freshman’s quick feet. It also didn’t hurt that every time he was tackled, he fell forward.
Tyler’s contribution was unexpected, especially when one considers the circumstances by which he had risen to the No. 2 running back position.
Palazzo, the team’s top back, has been effective when playing, but has hardly been playing. Shoulder injuries and other ailments have kept his stellar ability under wraps, and he only ran three times this weekend for 24 yards.
“Coach told me to be ready for anything,” Tyler said. “Nick is a great player. I knew he was a little banged up though. He went down, and I had no idea what to expect.”
After Palazzo, the rest of the Crimson’s options at tailback have slowly but surely fallen by the wayside, as well.
Sophomore Rodney Byrnes, the Crimson’s explosive “Slash”, played a significant amount at tailback over the past two weeks, but injuries also slowed him down and he was ineffective in the backfield last week against Dartmouth. Plus, Byrnes has been making a much more immediate impact at the wide receiver position, as he had six receptions Saturday.
Senior Rodney Thomas started the season as the No. 2 running back but saw his carries decreasing, especially when sophomore quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ran the offense and became the team’s top rusher. And since Thomas fumbled a Fitzpatrick pitch in the waning moments of the loss to Northeastern, he has not seen any action except for special teams.
Sophomore Ricky Williamson got two carries against Dartmouth, but his main job has been to occasionally return kickoffs.
Sophomore Nick Carrington, one of the Crimson’s bright spots in the pre-season, suffered an injury from which he has only recently recovered. He tallied 11 carries on Saturday, but totaled only 31 yards. Discounting his long 12-yard run, he only averaged 1.9 yards per carry.
And so Tyler, having hit a bit of luck, made the most of his opportunity. He had several key runs, including consecutive runs inside the red zone that resulted in Harvard’s—and Tyler’s—first touchdown. Also, his 18-yard run in the fourth quarter sparked a Harvard offense that had stalled since the second quarter, and led to a Neil Rose touchdown that sealed the game.
Palazzo will once again be the starting running back against Penn, and Byrnes could be in the backfield as well. But since Harvard surprised the Quakers in last year’s historic contest by pounding them with the run, don’t be surprised if the guy who cut his teeth on the JV squad ends up cutting a rug on the Franklin Field turf in the biggest game of the year.
—Staff writer Rahul Rohatgi can be reached at email@example.com.