As kickoff neared, however, the pool of experienced players from which Harvard could draw was rapidly dwindling.
Junior defensive end Erik Grimm was already out with a strained medial collateral ligament (MCL) sustained two weeks ago against Brown. Defensive tackle Coesen Ngwun was a late scratch with a separated shoulder, although Harvard coach Tim Murphy had expressed optimism earlier in the week that the senior would see playing time. Senior Gary Sonkur, the oft-injured cornerback who usually plays through minor ailments, was also sidelined with a shoulder injury.
And Saturday morning, Murphy learned that senior safety Ricky Williamson had been hospitalized Friday night for viral meningitis.
With those four defensive starters out and the defense already shifting around to compensate, Murphy was forced to dig deep into the depth chart and pull out some untested underclassmen.
Fortunately, the new kids on the block answered the call to arms with few signs of nervousness. The numbers on their backs may have been unfamiliar, but the backups for the most part looked right at home out on the field.
“I thought our defensive coaching staff and [defensive coordinator Kevin] Doherty did a great job under the circumstances,” Murphy said, dubbing the defense “resilient.”
Sophomore Michael Berg, who began the season as a second-stringer, stepped into Grimm’s shoes for the second consecutive week and helped anchor the depleted line with four tackles and a sack. Sophomore cornerback Danny Tanner stood in for Sonkur and more than held his own against the Big Red’s receivers.
And then there was the clutch performance of sophomore Ryan Tully, who only learned he’d be assuming Williamson’s duties at the pre-game meeting. But from the way he swiftly adjusted to the unexpected starting responsibility, you’d barely know he hadn’t been starting all season.
“Obviously he did a good job,” Murphy said of Tully. “Anytime you throw a sophomore into the fire like that and come out with a win against a pretty good offensive team, you did a good job.”
Tully finished with eight tackles, including a team-leading three for lost yardage. He capped his afternoon with a vicious seven-yard sack of Cornell quarterback D.J. Busch. With the Crimson clinging to a slim three-point lead, 27-24, Tully charged to snare the unsuspecting Busch from behind and help hold the Big Red to yet another second half third-and-out situation.
“We’ll obviously put it under a microscope tomorrow when we watch the video,” Murphy said, “and he did make some mistakes, but in terms of effort he was outstanding.”
The sophomores weren’t the only ones getting a chance to show off their moves. With the Cornell defense zeroing in on Harvard’s running game, the Crimson threw more receivers into the mix than usual. One of those was freshman Joe Murt, who caught the first pass of his collegiate career—an 18-yard strike across the middle from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick—on Harvard’s first drive of the game. The catch gave the Crimson a first down in Big Red territory, and Harvard would eventually drive in for a touchdown.
“It’s pretty competitive to get on the field,” Tully said. “When you get the opportunity you just try to make the best of it.”
Rounding out the baby boom were freshmen safety Doug Hewlett, defensive end Desmond Bryant and kicker Matt Schindel. Both Bryant and Schindel have already made an impact in the season’s opening weeks.
Murphy might prefer experience over the exuberance of youth, but Saturday at least the next generation showed it’s a worthy substitute for the old guard.
“The bottom line is we’re at a point now where freshmen, your top freshmen, have to play,” Murphy said. “We just don’t have enough depth to be able to go with upperclassmen. It doesn’t work that way anymore. That’s just the way it is in college football, whether you’re Southern Cal or Harvard or anybody.”
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at email@example.com.