Although Cornell (1-3, 1-1 Ivy) held a three-point lead as late as the third quarter, the Crimson (4-0, 2-0) turned to its passing game, some crafty playcalling and a miserly second-half run defense to defeat the Big Red 34-24 at Harvard Stadium on Saturday.
Captain Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Crimson’s assault on a Cornell scoring defense that had been ranked eighth in Division I-AA. Fitzpatrick finished 19-of-35 with 317 yards passing and two touchdowns—as many as he had posted in the first three games combined.
“I thought Fitzy in particular really stepped up today and took what they gave us, and beyond that made some obvious big plays running and throwing,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy.
Cornell took its final lead of a see-saw battle in the third after quarterback D.J. Busch hit wide-open receiver Chad Nice on the first play of the drive for an 80-yard touchdown to put the Big Red up 24-21.
The Crimson, undeterred, turned to creative measures. On the next drive, Fitzpatrick handed off to Dawson, who ran left but then reversed to Brian Edwards. The wide receiver darted back to the right and chucked the ball 21 yards on the option to sophomore Corey Mazza for the touchdown and a 27-24 lead that Harvard would not surrender.
While the Big Red kept the dangerous Dawson contained, Fitzpatrick more than compensated to spur the Crimson’s ground attack. Harvard’s offensive line neutralized the blitz, providing Fitzpatrick with time both to search downfield for open receivers and to utilize his own mobility. He carried the ball 17 times, netting 102 yards and picking up a touchdown on a 17-yard dash in the fourth quarter.
“They really keyed in on Clifton [Dawson] today, and that gave me a little more opportunity to run the ball,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think a lot of it was we made the big plays in the passing game, and they kind of held back looking to avoid that big pass play, and that left a lot of open running lanes for me when I got outside the pocket.”
Cornell had no more luck reining in the Crimson’s receivers. While frequent double coverage from the Big Red held Edwards to 48 yards on three catches, Mazza wreaked havoc on the Cornell secondary, catching nine passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns.
The Crimson broke a 14-14 tie late in the second quarter when, facing third-and-10 from midfield, Fitzpatrick found Mazza uncovered at the Cornell 20-yard line for a 51-yard score. “There was a lot of separation, a couple blown coverages which we were lucky enough to take advantage of,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Big Red’s defensive unit effectively defused Dawson, holding the explosive tailback to an average of 2.9 yards per carry and 61 net yards rushing in the game. In each of the season’s three previous games, Dawson picked up three touchdowns and at least 100 yards of offense.
“The obvious key was that they were going to, at just about all cost, defend against our run game-slash-Clifton Dawson,” Murphy said.
If Fitzpatrick and Mazza had to fill Dawson’s void, the defense’s imperative was to control 230-lb. backfield bruiser Andre Hardaway. Harvard struggled to restrain Hardaway throughout the first half, as the Big Red tailback sliced through the Crimson line 19 times for 114 yards in the first two quarters alone. The second half told a different story, however, as Hardaway ran for only 25 more yards on eight carries. The Big Red’s stalwart workhorse also snagged two passes for 21 yards and returned four kickoffs for a total of 104 yards.
Harvard’s defense also kept pressure on Busch, with sophomores Ryan Tully and Michael Berg and senior Sean Tracy all notching sacks on the day. Senior defensive tackle Matt McBurney also proved vital for the line, blocking a field goal attempt in the first quarter.
Harvard was the first to put points on the scoreboard when Fitzpatrick threw to Dawson for a six-yard pass—the first TD-reception in his Crimson career—but Cornell subsequently built momentum, scoring two unanswered touchdowns while the Crimson struggled to find its rhythm.
But the winds of fortune soon blew Harvard’s way. With Big Red defenders nipping vainly at his heels, Edwards blazed up the right side of the field to return a kickoff 92 yards for the score, the fifth-longest kickoff return in school history. Fitzpatrick converted for two points on a quarterback draw to tie the game 14-14.
Harvard’s offense was not without its deficiencies, turning over the ball twice after losing the ball only once in their first three games. But Cornell went three-and-out following both a questionable first-quarter fumble and a third-quarter interception, Fitzpatrick’s first of the year.
With the win, the Crimson remains one of three teams still undefeated in Ivy play. Princeton and Penn are both 1-0.