Freshman tailback CLIFTON DAWSON (33) checks the path of junior quarterback RYAN FITZPATRICK (14) during Harvard’s 28-20 win over Northeastern on Saturday.
The defense was not supposed to steal the spotlight this week.
Yes, the defense held Northeastern to under 100 rushing yards. Yes, the defense nabbed two interceptions and recovered a fumble. Yes, the Harvard defense is, in general, jaw-droppingly talented.
But when the two teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Division I-AA in total offense meet head-to-head, it is not unreasonable to expect a certain level of offensive pyrotechnics.
On one side was Harvard and its multifaceted scoring onslaught led by junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Crimson had won its first two games by convincing margins, with Fitzpatrick putting up record-breaking numbers—including the highest single-game total yardage in Harvard history. In the most indicative statistic, Harvard went into the game leading Division I-AA in total offense per game with 591.
On the other side was Northeastern, ranked 10th in the country coming into Saturday’s game and previously ranked as high as fourth. The Huskies had been trampling opponents, starting with a 78-6 whipping of Stonehill in their season opener, and had racked up at least 40 points in each game until a 28-7 loss to Villanova last week. Their running-back-by-committee combination of four athletic rushers was leaving opponents stunned. The Huskies, averaging 517.2 yards per game, were the only team close to equaling Harvard’s offensive output.
With two teams putting up this kind of numbers finally meeting on the field, the game had the appeal of mixing two volatile chemicals. The Fitzpatrick Express was set for a head-on collision with Northeastern’s four-wheel drive running game. In theory, they could have combined for over 1000 yards.
But the pre-game offensive hype dissolved in the drizzle and by game’s end seemed as soggy as the spectators.
Northeastern, despite its terrifying spectre of rushing speed and power, was stifled by the Crimson defense and gained a measly 91 yards on the ground. This was a team that previously was averaging 333 rushing yards per game. Saturday, the Huskies managed only 332 yards of offense overall.
“Offensively, we just put ourselves in such third-and-seven, third-and-long scenarios, and that’s just not how we’re going to make a difference,” Northeastern coach Don Brown said.
Though Harvard fared better in living up to its reputation than its crosstown opponent, the Crimson’s final offensive statistics were far lower than what it had produced in its previous two games. Harvard finished with 409 total yards, including 165 rushing, which lowered its average to 209.
While trying to run out the clock in the fourth quarter, the Crimson could only manage 14 yards on the ground.
“You’ve gotta run the ball—and they knew we were going to run the ball—and that wasn’t pretty,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.
Fitzpatrick threw for 244 yards—in itself not an unimpressive statistic, but trifling when compared to his previous totals of 359 and 361 yards in the first two games of the season.
Fortunately for Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Harvard team, this week’s totals will most likely prove to be more of the exception than the rule. With a return to conference games against more modest Ivy opponents—including bottom-dweller Cornell next week—expect to see passing efficiency ratings and offensive yardage skyrocket back to more familiar digits.
“Our offense did what it had to do against a very good defense,” Murphy said.
Northeastern’s defense was good. Harvard’s previous offensive efforts were better.
Luckily, the Crimson only had to beat the first one.
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.