Charting the Road to Perfection

Season Recap

Harvard and Yale have been playing The Game for over a century. For 121 years, the Crimson and the Eli have duked it out for Ivy bragging rights and the right to shout “safety school.”

This year, though, there’s more than just bragging rights at stake for Harvard.

This year, the Bulldogs are all that stand in the way of the Crimson’s first 10-win season in 98 years and sole possession of the Ivy title.

To claim that final victory, the Crimson will turn to the same formula of balanced and explosive offense, relentless defense and surprising special teams that has propelled the squad to the cusp of perfection in 2004.

KICKING OFF

The season got underway in September with the Ivy media predicting for the Crimson a second-place finish behind Penn.

In Harvard’s season-opening 35-0 dismantling of hapless Holy Cross, both offense and defense wasted no time starting the year off right. Sophomore tailback Clifton Dawson proved his rookie season was no fluke, accumulating 184 yards on the ground and scoring three touchdowns, while the Crimson defense applied constant pressure to the Crusaders quarterback, forcing him to throw three interceptions and holding the team to 131 yards of offense.

Harvard also received a boost from freshman kicker Matt Schindel, who knocked in a pair of 30-plus-yard field goals, repairing an aspect of the Crimson strategy—the kicking game—that was woeful in prior years.

The next week, however, almost saw the Crimson’s hopes for a brilliant season dashed in the first quarter. In the team’s first game of Ivy League play, Harvard spotted Brown an early 21-0 advantage in Providence before rallying with 25 second-half points to tie for the largest come-from-behind win in Crimson history.

Experience played a major part in the comeback. Dawson scored three touchdowns again and Fitzpatrick keyed several lengthy second-half drives that put points on the board and stole the momentum from the cruising Bears offense.

“Everyone on the team knows our offense is going to get everything rolling,” Thomas said. “As a defense, we have to keep them on the field as long as possible.”

By stymieing star running back Nick Hartigan and the rest of the Brown attack that racked up 451 first-half yards, Thomas and the defense did just that and turned the game around.

As the Harvard players held their breath on the sidelines, a late Brown field goal sailed wide and preserved a 35-34 win.

FINDING A GROOVE

Fortunately, this was one of the few tight games the Crimson endured all year. Harvard returned home the following week to take on Patriot League opponent Lafayette, and used the familiar combination of balanced offense and big-play defense to surge to a 38-23 victory.

Dawson trounced the opposition once again, rushing for over 100 yards, with 172, for the ninth straight game, and bringing his season total to nine touchdowns, challenging less than a third of the way through the season a Crimson record he would eventually break.

“He’s such a great player,” Fitzpatrick said of his backfield mate, “not only with his speed and his physical ability, but just his attitude and his mentality out there on the field.”

Harvard came home to Cambridge the following Saturday to square off against the Big Red of Cornell and its formidable defense, ranked eighth in I-AA entering the game. In a surprisingly close contest he Crimson prevailed by the score of 34-24.

For the first time on the season, Dawson failed to break loose, tallying a mere 64 yards as the Cornell defense loaded up to stop the run.

“It’s absolutely frustrating when they’re putting eight or nine guys in the box and not allowing me to get the carries and yards,” Dawson said. “But that’s really where our balance comes in.”

That balance came in the form of the aerial assault. Fitzpatrick operated the bulk of the offense, finding his receivers on deep routes or running the ball himself. He accumulated 419 yards of total offense, 317 passing and 102 rushing, the majority of those in the air going to sophomore Corey Mazza, who caught nine balls for 194 yards in a breakout performance.

Brian Edwards, Harvard’s other top receiver, displayed the full range of his versatility in the win, returning a kickoff 92 yards for a score and throwing a touchdown pass to Mazza on a reverse.

The Crimson truly achieved midseason form in its fifth game, destroying No. 19 Northeastern 41-14 in a ballyhooed showdown between the local rivals.

Although Fitzpatrick threw for over 200 yards and Dawson ran for over 100, it was the ball-hungry defense that proved crucial to Harvard’s rout of the Huskies. They forced three fumbles and stole two interceptions, giving the offense short fields to work with and score.

The Crimson poured it on in the second half with three third-quarter scores, while the defense dominated. Of the team’s 131 points allowed on the year, only 45 of those have been surrendered in the second half.

THE IVY STRETCH

That statistic turned out to be crucial in the Princeton game the following week, the first of five straight Ivy League tilts. Facing a 14-3 first-quarter deficit, Harvard reeled off 36 unanswered points to capture the Jersey joust 39-14.

“We’ve never been a dominant team,” Murphy said. “We’ve just been an extremely resilient, mentally tough football team.”

Dawson wrote the headlines once again, running for 201 yards and two scores, to make him the Crimson single-season record holder for overall and rushing touchdowns. His exploits included a characteristic 80-yard touchdown sprint late in the fourth quarter.

A quick glance at the Harvard schedule following that win showed two upcoming contests against perennial Ivy League doormats Dartmouth and Columbia, a pair of easy revenge games against teams that spoiled the Crimson’s title hopes in 2003 with upsets. The clash with the Big Green in Hanover, though, proved anything but easy.

A Harvard offense that averaged 37 points a game at the start of play against Dartmouth, achieved 421 yards of offense but eked out a mere 13 points.

Schindel put up half of the Crimson’s points, booting two field goals and adding the extra point on the team’s sole touchdown. An invaluable crutch on special teams for Harvard all year, he made his presence feel more keenly in the low-scoring affair that lacked the usual offesnsive fireworks.

“We’ve been so consistent offensively this year—and maybe it’s a lot to ask—but the bottom line for us is to continue to have success, we have to execute,” Murphy said after the game.

He was vindicated in the utter trouncing of Columbia the next week, in which the Crimson overwhelmed the Lions 38-0.

Dawson, questionable all week with a muscle injury, ran for 82 yards and a score. Fitzpatrick completed two-thirds of his passes, Edwards returned a punt 81 yards for a score and the defense kept Columbia to 0 for 13 on third down.

The blowout gave Harvard the leisure to pull its starters and begin scheming about the title clash with Penn.

FIRST AND PENN

For all the hoopla surrounding the Ivy showdown game, it proved to be an anti-climax, as the Crimson coasted to a share of the Ivy title by a final margin of 31-10.

“They are very explosive,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “I think they showed why they are very explosive as a team, and I thought their kids came up big.”

With Quaker QB Patrick McDermott injured, Harvard locked in on the run, keeping back Sam Mathews to 57 yards.

The icing on the cake was a fake field-goal late in the third quarter. Holder Robert Balkema picked up the snap and threw to a slanting Everett, who rumbled in for the score and sealed the win in extending the lead to 31-3.

“It was a great play,” Everett said. “It worked out exactly how I planned it—getting a chance to score.”

JUST ONE MORE

Those nine wins, at home and on the road, versus league and non-league opponents, by big and small margins, for titles and for grins, have been all leading up to this—the epic Yale game, with 10-win perfection on the line.

Fitzpatrick, the veteran team leader, knows that despite a 5-4 record, the Bulldogs are still dangerous and will do their utmost to disrupt Harvard’s quest for undefeated glory.

“It’s going to be pretty hard to finish [them] off, they’re a very tough team, every year it seems to be a great game, and their seniors are especially motivated this year because they haven’t beat Harvard yet,” he said. “That’ll be such a great thing to take with us.”

Although the all-important share of the Ivy crown is won, the near goals of a victory over archrival Yale and preservation of I-AA’s only unbeaten record mean the Crimson won’t suffer a letdown on Saturday.

“The Ivy League championship—that’s something that we’ve been able to attain this year, which is great,” Fitzpatrick confirmed. “But 10-0 certainly sounds better than 9-1.”

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