Harvard Defense Again Musters Second-Half Resilience
For the second week in a row, the Crimson defense clamped down after surrendering 14 first-half points, tossing a pair of zeroes up on the scoreboard in the third and fourth quarters.
“They gassed us on a few plays early,” senior linebacker Bobby Everett said. “We knew that they were a big-play team. We focused on stopping those plays and though we seemed to kind of get off to a bad start, we just stuck with the game plan.”
That approach has served the Crimson well throughout the 2004 season. Though Harvard has typically struggled in the first two periods, allowing 83 first-half points through six games, offenses have waffled in the face of the unit’s intermission adjustments, adding just 26 more after the break. That’s just one touchdown—a meaningless late-game tally by Lafayette after the game was already out of reach—a field goal and four scrambling opponents who’ve been sent away with nothing, despite their last ditch efforts.
“I think,” Murphy said, “our coaching staff has done a tremendous job, especially making halftime adjustments.”
Those changes left the Princeton backfield increasingly vulnerable, and quarterback Matt Verbit and his running back tandem, Jon Veach and Branden Benson, significantly less likely to find a path back to the line of scrimmage. Junior linebacker Matt Thomas alone accounted for two sacks and six tackles for a loss as he and the front seven harassed Verbit and nullified Veach—who a season ago rushed for over 200 yards against the Crimson—surrendering a measly 85 net yards on the ground.
THREE AND OUCH
Those numbers were largely the result of well-timed clutch performances from the Harvard defense, which prevented the Tigers from converting any of their 13 third downs.
“Our third-down conversions today were not good at all,” Princeton coach Roger Hughes said. “They modified their blitzing package a little bit and that kinda threw that off balance I guess.”
In the second half in particular, when Princeton struggled to remain within striking distance, the Crimson allowed just one drive of more than six plays, and the Tigers failed to advance the ball more than 30 yards even once. Setting the tone for the half, Harvard forced three-and-outs on Princeton’s second, third and fourth drives while its offense continued to extend the lead.
“If our offense hadn’t played as well as it did in last year’s 43-40 overtime win], we would have lost that game,” Everett said. “So we knew the responsibility was on us today, the defense, to come to play.”
Those failed third-down plays not only returned the ball to the Crimson offense, but frequently earned enviable field position due to standout special teams play.
Pressure once forced Princeton punter Colin McDonough to attempt an illegal drop kick following his fumbled snap, handing Harvard possession at the one-yard line—leading to a Clifton Dawson touchdown—and Russell Schober’s block deep inside Princeton territory gave the Crimson the ball at the 23-yard line, setting up a field goal.
Though defended by standout cornerback Jay McCareins, senior wide receiver Brian Edwards was the surprising early focal point for the Harvard offense. Drawing heavy coverage from wary secondaries throughout the season, Edwards has primarly freed up teammate Corey Mazza, who has accounted for most of the Crimson’s receiving yards.
But quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looked to Edwards early and often Saturday afternoon. The two connected on nine passes for 129 yards—109 of which came in the first half, courtesy of six receptions.
“McCareins is a very talented corner,” Fitzpatrick said. “But at the same time Brian’s a very talented receiver and we think he’s as good as or better than any corner in the league. We have confidence throwing at anybody with him.”
But rather than allow the cornerback to key on Edwards’ routes, Harvard ran three first-half rushing plays for Edwards, end-around or reverse calls designed to give him the ball without McCareins hanging all over him.
“Brian’s a very special athlete,” Fitzpatrick said. “And the biggest thing coming in with the game plan was that we had to get him double-digit touches. With the ball in his hands he does some great things...We decided we needed to get him the ball a little bit more.”
FOURTH AND FOUR
Senior Sean Tracy was forced to leave yesterday’s game due to a knee injury sustained during the first quarter. After the game Murphy said that his starting linebacker had likely damaged his meniscus, and his availability for the remainder of the season would need to be reevaluated...Sophomore defensive lineman Michael Berg, who is playing despite a cracked fibula in his left leg, left Saturday’s game as a result of leg cramps caused by dehydration. The broken bone, however, is fine, and he will remain available throughout the week...Harvard is now one of just two undefeated teams left in Division I-AA following Jacksonville State’s 16-13 loss to Tennessee Tech. The only other school with an unblemished record is Cal Poly, which escaped with a 13-10 win over North Dakota St...Harvard now has a nine-game winning streak over Princeton dating back to 1995.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.