Just as last year, the winner of the battle between Harvard (6-2, 5-0 Ivy) and the No. 17 Quakers (7-1, 5-0 Ivy) will be guaranteed a share of the title. The loser will need help in the season’s final week just to figure into the championship picture.
If the stakes are not high enough, the fact that ESPN’s College GameDay is broadcasting live from Philadelphia has placed this game on a national stage and has made this title bout even more momentous.
“I think it’s tremendous for the [Ivy] League and Harvard football,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Our league has been legitimized as a quality football league. I say, embrace it. All we can do is reap positive benefits from this thing, so enjoy it.”
Over the last three years, spectators at Harvard-Penn tilts have reaped the benefits of riveting football, with the last three meetings having been decided by a total of 12 points.
And the games have been meaningful. Harvard and Penn have dominated the Ivy League over the past two years, with only one league loss between them—Penn’s loss to the Crimson 28-21 a year ago that decided the title.
However, Murphy said yesterday that this Quaker team presents an even more daunting challenge.
“They’re probably a better team than they were a year ago, so we have to play better than we did a year ago,” Murphy said.
Penn has been tearing up Ivy competition this year, beating Princeton 44-13 last week and winning every one of its league games by at least 20 points.
Quarterback Mike Mitchell leads a potent Quaker passing attack ranked seventh in the nation and an offense that has put up 36 points a game.
Mitchell’s main weapon on offense is wide receiver Rob Milanese. A fifth-year senior, Milanese is fifth in the nation in receptions with close to eight per game and 11th in receiving yards.
However, Penn’s ability to shut down other teams has had as much to do with its success this year as its offense.
The Quakers have had their way with opposing offenses, not allowing more than 21 points all season. Penn’s run defense has been particularly stingy, only giving up 49 yards per game on the ground—the lowest average in the nation.
While third in the league in rushing output, the Crimson benefitted greatly from the scrambling of second-string quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick during his stint as a starter.
Last week, the Crimson asserted itself on the ground for the first time with captain Neil Rose back under center and actual running backs shouldering the load on the ground. Harvard rushed for 229 yards against Columbia on the strength of 120 yards from freshman fill-in Ryan Tyler.
Whether Tyler or senior Nick Palazzo sees the bulk of the carries, the Crimson will need similarly effective results on the ground to stay in the game.