Let the Games McGinn: Schires Or Fitzpatrick, But Not Both, Murph

As Harvard signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick slunk off the field, the Crimson faithful sat in stunned silence. The junior had just thrown his second interception since entering the game and Dartmouth had already begun to celebrate its stunning 30-16 upset victory on Harvard’s home turf.

The silence said it all. The perfect season, the Crimson’s realistic chances at sole possession of the Ivy title—none of it was supposed to end this way. Not with Fitzpatrick, Harvard’s own miracle worker, at the helm.

Fitzpatrick’s mistakes were the product of the high-pressure situation in which he had been placed. Why he was put in that spot to begin with is anyone’s guess.

After the game, Fitzpatrick said his hand was at 100 percent.

But he wasn’t ready.

At least Harvard coach Tim Murphy didn’t think so. If he had been, Fitzpatrick would have taken every snap from scrimmage.

But Fitzpatrick had practiced once in the last three weeks, and gotten his cast removed less than a week before.

“There was a thought [about starting Fitzpatrick],” Murphy said. “We felt that Garrett [Schires] was better off mentally.”

Regardless of his purported physical fitness, Murphy correctly knew that Fitzpatrick was rusty. Schires, though not as good as a healthy, practiced Fitzpatrick, was ready.

So Schires started and Fitzpatrick was held in reserve for emergency situations. Unfortunately, that logic was abandoned at the beginning of the second quarter.

Schires started off slowly, struggling through the first quarter as he did each of the last two weeks before finding his rhythm.

But Harvard wasn’t losing; the score was still knotted at six. Not exactly an emergency situation.

But rather than give Schires a chance to redeem himself in the second quarter, as he successfully has twice in as many starts, in trudged Fitzpatrick on the first play of the next frame.

Murphy said afterwards that Fitzpatrick gave Harvard the best chance of scoring inside the red zone, thanks in part to his mobility.

But that reason makes little sense.

Your best quarterback is the one who gives you the best chance to score and a coach should always play his best players when he can.

So if Fitzpatrick gave the Crimson the best chance of scoring, why wasn’t he in the entire game instead of inserted mid-drive only to be yanked right after one series?

Whatever the reason, the gamble was completely ineffective. Harvard emerged with just a field goal, and Schires’ game was ruined in the process.

When Schires was reinserted and saw Fitzpatrick warming up yet again, the backup saw his time on the field coming to an end.

Murphy’s ploy inside the red zone showed beyond any doubt his lack of faith in Schires’ ability unless he scored.

Schires may have accepted his role as a backup, but make no mistake, he wanted to be out there just as badly as Fitzpatrick did and he was going to do everything in his power to stay on the field.

And that meant playing for the kill, abandoning the flawless decision-making skills that had allowed him to guide Harvard to victory in each of his first two starts.

The consequences were disastrous. Schires guided the Crimson inside the Big Green 10-yard line and he went for the jugular.

Under heavy pressure and with nowhere to throw, Schires didn’t scramble and he didn’t tuck the ball for the sack. He didn’t throw the ball away.

He threw into heavy coverage right down the middle and to no one’s surprise, he was intercepted, killing a perfect scoring opportunity.

Schires looked like a man about to be executed, waiting for the death blow, until Murphy finally delivered it with 7:49 remaining in the third quarter.

Playing not to be pulled, Schires immediately became ineffective. Then when Fitzpatrick entered the game, his situation was hardly better.

Murphy often speaks of forcing opponents to play left-handed. Putting Fitzpatrick in down by seven midway through the third quarter did just that—to the Crimson.

Fitzpatrick entered the game and hurled a bullet across the middle of the field to Byrnes, who made a spectacular leaping grab.

Harvard was on the move and Fitzpatrick seemed on his game. Plowing ahead, his pre-injury self seemed to shine brightly through.

A flea-flicker gone awry under heavy defensive pressure caused no problem. Slipping two tacklers and avoiding a third, the hero of the Crimson’s first four victories dove just short of a first down—15-yard change of fortune.

But once again it was the little things, the small changes of fortune, that did not go his way.

Lofting a beautiful fourth-down pass to Byrnes along the sideline, Fitzpatrick seemed to have regained his touch. But the ball skidded off Byrnes’ hands and fell harmlessly to the ground.

Under normal circumstances that would not have been ideal, but Fitzpatrick would have had more time. But by changing quarterbacks as frequently as Murphy had, there was no continuity and no flow. For both quarterbacks, what time they had been given could have amounted to so much more.

Still, Fitzpatrick, trying to carry the team on his shoulders, would not relent.

Running quarterback keepers, absorbing hits, trying to will the ball into his receivers’ hands, the strain on the normally easy-going Fitzpatrick was obvious.

“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.”

But despite his exhaustion, Harvard’s savior seemed ready to resurrect the Crimson’s chances for victory at any moment.

Fitzpatrick nailed Byrnes in stride coming across the middle of the field and Byrnes was off to the races. And just like that, Harvard was within seven.

But another Dartmouth touchdown returned him to square one and this time, the lack of clock drove him not to the pinnacle of his game, but to failure.

Three straight possessions. Three straight turnovers.

Like Schires, Fitzpatrick was forced to try to make something from nothing, and each time, for the first time, he failed.

On fourth-and-10, with the kicking game incapable of scoring points or trapping Dartmouth deep, Fitzpatrick took off and snuck through the defense for a first down. But diving for more, the ball popped out of his hands and the Big Green recovered.

The team needed points. You could see it in the way he carried himself. Fitzpatrick took it all on himself to deliver them.

“I was trying to hit those home run balls,” Fitzpatrick said.

The perfect pass would have done it, but Fitzpatrick—the immortal, unstoppable comeback king—simply didn’t have enough time, given his rust, to deliver.

Throwing down the field, you could almost see him telling the ball to find the holes that weren’t there. But those passes—which wouldn’t have been thrown if not for Harvard’s desperation—found only white jerseys as interceptions ended each of the last two drives.

And Ryan Fitzpatrick found only defeat where there should have been victory, if only he’d been given a little bit more time.

—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at mcginn@fas.harvard.edu.