PRINCETON, N.J.—For a record-breaking touchdown, a one- or two-yard scamper just wouldn’t do.
No, Clifton Dawson wrote his name atop the Harvard record books in style, slipping untouched through the Princeton front seven then dashing 80 yards to paydirt. The score, his third of the game, broke the marks for single-season rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns, both set by Chris Menick ’00 in 1997. Through six games, Dawson has 14 touchdowns on the ground, 15 overall.
“I hadn’t broken one in a few weeks,” Dawson said, “and I was starting to wonder whether it was the defenses or something I was doing.”
Recently, opponents have stacked the line of scrimmage with eight and sometimes nine defenders in an effort to contain him, but Dawson has remained steady, if not flashy.
Though prevented from breaking the 70-plus-yard touchdown runs—he now has five of them—that have earned him a spot on the watch list for this year’s Payton Award, Dawson had steadily continued to add to his touchdown tally prior to Saturday and maintained his spot as the nation’s top scorer.
But his yards per game had dropped off—most significantly after a sub-100-yard performance against Cornell—and, until yesterday, the trio of three-touchdown performances with which he had started the season had not been equaled.
Consistently posting numbers most rushers can only dream of, though, the sophomore tailback had plenty of reasons to remain confident.
“I knew,” Dawson said, “that I was close to breaking the record, whether it be this game or the coming game.”
Princeton’s defense, which smothered All-Ivy running back Nick Hartigan one week prior, approached Dawson with the same bend-but-don’t-break strategy adopted most recently by Northeastern, and executed it with modest results. Dawson did his fair share of damage in the first half—92 yards on 20 carries—but his longest rush was just 12 yards. Nothing too devastating.
But Dawson’s polished finishing skills, lethal irrespective of his distance from the goal line, undermined an otherwise successful Princeton defense twice midway through the second quarter.
“There’s a lot of great athletes, and I’ve been around a few really great athletes,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “The thing that makes Clifton Dawson and Ryan Fitzpatrick so special—and I use that word, and I don’t use it very much as you know—is that they’re unbelievably mentally tough.”
With the Crimson trailing 14-3, the Tigers handed the ball over at their own 46-yard line. Five Dawson carries for 24 yards set up a pass from Fitzpatrick to wide receiver Brian Edwards, who was pushed out at the two-yard line. Dawson painlessly punched the ball across the goal line on the next play, cutting Harvard’s deficit to five points.
A botched punt four plays later gave the Crimson possession at the Princeton one-yard line. The handoff again was to Dawson, and in just 5:01, Harvard erased the Tigers’ 11-point lead, replacing it with a one-point edge of its own.
“We’ve been in that situation before, notably the Brown game,” Dawson said. “I think having bad experience so early on in the season really gives you an edge. You know you can come back from any point difference. We were very confident.”
Time and again Fitzpatrick placed the ball in Dawson’s hands, keeping the clock ticking, the chains moving, Menick’s share of the record hanging in the balance.
Dawson’s yard total crept higher and the Crimson lead swelled to 16. But with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it appeared that history would need to wait another week.
Yet another handoff to Dawson—his 31st carry of the game. A simple rush up the middle. But Harvard’s offensive line cast Princeton’s battered front three aside, a seam opened, and Dawson was gone.
And even in this, his brightest moment in the spotlight, the tailback was quick to deflect the praise and spread the credit to everyone but himself.
“I’m honored to be in the presence of such great backs that we’ve had at Harvard,” Dawson said. “I think that the fact that I was able to accomplish such a task, a feat midway through the season is a compliment to how well our offensive line has played...Their names deserve to be right up there beside mine.”
The touchdown was Dawson’s 26th in his two seasons, 25th rushing, and—surprise, surprise—moves him within striking distance of yet another record.
Mike Giardi ’94 holds the school record for career touchdowns with 29. Whether Dawson can shatter that mark with so fitting a score remains to be seen.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.