It was more of a systematic vertebra-by-vertebra shattering of the spine that paralyzed the usually nimble, athletic and aggressive Harvard football team.
In the Crimson’s first loss of the season, the Big Green burst through time and again with forceful, momentum-changing plays that Harvard was unable to counter.
To be sure, the Crimson had some highlight-reel action of its own. Freshman tailback Clifton Dawson, a show-stopper if ever there was one, unleashed a mammoth 71-yard touchdown run barely three minutes into the game, finding a huge hole in the Dartmouth defense and flat outrunning a Big Green defender to give Harvard an early lead. It was the sort of play that was supposed to embarrass the opposition and give the Crimson an instant advantage.
But that’s not what happened.
Almost without trying, Dartmouth quarterback Charlie Rittgers was able to find receivers in every nook and cranny on the field, no matter how tightly-guarded they were. Over and over again, the southpaw lofted seemingly-aimless third-down passes from deep in the backfield, and over and over again a Big Green player would somehow reel them in for a massive gain and a first down.
“It literally seemed to me on the sideline that at times the ball was just heaved up there as a prayer, and it was amazing just how many times they came down with it,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.
The big play didn’t emerge every time, but what Dartmouth was able to produce was more than enough to put Harvard to shame. Sometimes it was a sucker-punch of a reception, sometimes it was a where-did-that-hole-come-from run.
Tailback Chris Little, though ultimately held to just 91 yards by a rush-focused Crimson defense, nabbed 35 yards on one savvy exploitation of a gaping hole in the defense. With the Big Green already up 16-9 in the third quarter, Little took advantage of a heavy blitz to burst through on a beeline to the end zone, scoring completely untouched to give Dartmouth a 23-9 lead.
“The last two weeks, guys have just been making more plays than we have,” captain linebacker Dante Balestracci said.
Ironically, though most of Harvard’s scoring was the direct result of big plays—Dawson’s TD run, a 55-yard TD pass to junior wide receiver Rodney Byrnes from junior QB Ryan Fitzpatrick—the Crimson was not able to make them materialize when it was necessary. With the clock ticking down near the end of the fourth quarter, Harvard’s last three relevant drives ended in three Fitzpatrick turnovers—a fumble and two interceptions—that came as a result of an overeager offense desperately trying to make something happen.
“I came in, trying to bring the team back,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think my biggest problem was I was thinking I could bring the team back in one play every time.”
The most brutal play came right after an unconventional sack that had the potential to swing the game in the Crimson’s favor. With Dartmouth facing second-and-10 on the Harvard 22-yard line with 12:58 left in the game and the Big Green ahead by seven, a passel of Crimson defenders chased Rittgers deep into the backfield. As he scrambled backwards, searching for an open man, he backed up smack into the referee, knocking both of them to the ground and registering an 18-yard loss. Confronted with a seemingly impossible third-and-28, Rittgers launched a precarious toss to Andrew Hall in double coverage on the two-yard line. Hall, hemmed in by defenders on all sides, made an astounding one-handed reception on the overthrown pass, instantly gaining back all the lost momentum plus some.
“The biggest difference in the game was that their receivers made unbelievable plays,” Murphy said.
After the game, the Dartmouth coach and players talked about how they had focused in practice on keeping Harvard’s big-play offense in check, as the Crimson is well-known for its tendency toward lightning strike plays. But in the end, it didn’t really matter how well that defensive strategy worked out, because the Big Green’s imitation of Harvard’s explosive style proved more effective than the authentic version. There were simply too many plays that packed too big a punch.
“You have 17 completions [made by Dartmouth] and you think you’re in solid shape, then you look at the yardage and you see it’s about 20 yards-per-catch,” Murphy said.
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.