The media presence has improved but the stakes are the same—the Harvard football team will battle Penn tomorrow with the Ivy League championship hanging in the balance.
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.
“Our rushing game is going to have to stack up competently at least,” Coach Murphy said. “If you drop back and throw the ball each snap, they’ll eat you alive.”
Palazzo will play this week after leaving last week’s game with an injured shoulder. Sidelined for significant amounts of the season but effective when he’s on the field, Palazzo is eager to make his presence felt.
“My shoulder is doing well,” Palazzo said. “I will be in the game, and don’t anticipate it being much of a problem because of all the adrenaline and excitement that goes along with playing for a championship.”
Despite the question marks surrounding the rushing game, the Crimson does not plan to abandon a strategy that worked a year ago.
“We will run our typical offense which means we will attack on the ground and through the air,” Rose said. “Last year, Penn was the top rushing defense in the nation and we ran the ball against them well. I expect more of the same.”
Throughout Harvard’s Ivy unbeaten streak, “more of the same” has meant a lot of passes to senior wide receiver Carl Morris. The passing game has been Harvard’s biggest strength this season. Rose comes into the game as the nation’s sixth most efficient passer, and Morris’ 150 receiving yards per game lead Division I-AA.
Harvard’s offense has chewed up yardage this year, averaging nearly 450 yards a game—sixth best in the nation. Facing a crowd swelled by the championship implications and the presence of ESPN, establishing that pace in the game’s opening minutes will be that much more important.
“I think it’s very important to get ahead early since no offense has challenged Penn this year,” Rose said. “We need to start strong and not let up.”
As in any tightly contested battle, turnovers will play a significant role in the outcome.
“Last year, we played a perfect game,” Murphy said. “We didn’t turn the ball over against a defense that rattled the heck out of everyone. We will have to play another perfect game to win this year.”
The goal of this season for the Crimson has been to win the Ivy League Championship. For the Harvard players and coaches the objective of this weekend is very clear—take care of business and make that season-long goal a reality.
“This game is by far the biggest of the season for one reason—it is a championship game,” Palazzo said. “You make sacrifices and work hard all year for the opportunity to play in such a game. This is why we play football—to play for a championship.”