Through four games this season, Harvard is averaging 35 points per game. The Crimson is first in total offense in the Ivy League, by far. Harvard defeated Cornell on Saturday 27-0—it was the Crimson’s worst offensive output of the season.
And yet, the offensive line reads like a hospital chart.
Talk about resiliency.
They’re a corps of barely-walking wounded, but the Crimson front five has allowed just nine sacks—fewest in the Ivies through four games—while providing outstanding protection for junior signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But attaining such a high level of success in helping to propel No. 22 Harvard to its 4-0 record has been anything but easy.
Junior left tackle Mike Frey suffered a season-ending injury when he fractured both bones in his lower right leg in a victory over then No. 10 Northeastern two weekends ago. Only plays later, his backup, junior Max McKibben, went down as well. McKibben was inactive against Cornell and is now listed as day-to-day.
Junior center Andy Smith sprained his MCL prior to the season’s start and is slotted to return soon, though he has missed the team’s first four games.
“I think we’ve taken it in stride,” senior right tackle Joe Mujalli said. “When a new guy enters the line, it’s up to the guys who’ve been there the week before to step up and provide a little leadership.”
With the squad seemingly unable to tolerate any more injuries, backup right tackle junior Brian Lapham has played the past two weeks despite a broken hand. And even those who manage to make their ways into the lineup are not playing at 100 percent, suffering from tweaks and sprains that just aren’t enough to force them to the sidelines.
“It’s definitely been challenging,” Mujalli said. “But a lot of the younger guys have stepped up and done a great job.”
Sophomore lineman Will Johnson succeeded in plugging the first hole of the season by shifting to starting center from backup right guard when Smith went down. The introduction of junior lineman John Bechdol to the mix means that nearly half of those projected to start at the beginning of the season are now watching from the sidelines.
Bechdol, a former walk-on who saw his first action towards the end of his sophomore season, started the first game of his collegiate career against Cornell. But he didn’t miss a beat, bolstering a line that allowed just two sacks all game.
“Everyone’s always ready, looking for the opportunity,” Bechdol said. “At the same time people realize it’s a team and try to help however they can.”
Pitching in has often meant switching over to another position in order to find a way to get healthy bodies onto the field.
“We try to look at it not position by position but as a line,” Mujalli said.
In addition to Johnson’s switch, senior lineman James Bakken has played both guard and tackle, while junior defensive tackle Joe Kawczenski is preparing to make the transition from pass rusher to blocker.
“It was the big joke around the locker room,” Bechdol said. “It was a question of who was next.”
Though the constant jumbling of the lineup has made the task of maintaining a high level of chemistry on the line more difficult, the adversity has made for a tightly-knit group on the offense—including those who have gone down to injury as the season has progressed.
“The offensive line as a unit is real close,” Bechdol said. “We’ll do [the traditional Thursday] dinners together. The injuries pull us closer. Our last dinner we went to dinner at The Wrap and then went to eat at UHS with Mike Frey.”
It is those bonds which have kept the unit at its high-level of play thus far and, barring additional injuries, will keep it strong as veteran starters begin to return from injuries in the coming weeks.
“Guys are coming back this week and next week,” Mujalli said. “Knock on wood, hopefully we’ll get through it.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.