After eight auditions, the curtain is set to rise—and Harvard and Penn are waiting eagerly in the wings.
The Crimson set the stage for the matchup of league unbeatens by defeating Columbia 38-0 at Harvard Stadium on Saturday.
“We’ve pointed to [the Penn] game all year,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “This is exactly what our goal has been—to be in the championship game.”
With the Philadelphia road trip looming, the Crimson (8-0, 5-0 Ivy) easily dispatched the weaker Lions (1-7, 1-4).
Though Columbia had only one win on the season coming into Saturday’s game, memories from last year’s meltdown prevented Harvard from getting overconfident. In the 2003 contest in New York, the Crimson threw two interceptions in the last two minutes to set up the Lions’ game-winning touchdown and effectively dashed its hopes of a share of the Ivy championship.
This time, Harvard made sure that no late comeback would be possible, scoring on its first two drives and taking a 21-0 first-half lead on a special teams touchdown by senior wide receiver Brian Edwards.
In the second quarter, Columbia’s third consecutive three-and-out drive culminated in a punt. Edwards—a punt returner known for never calling a fair catch—allowed the twisting ball to drop to the field. The Lions, expecting Edwards to let it roll, let down their guard and were left standing as the Crimson receiver scooped the ball at the Harvard 19 and ran untouched into the endzone for an 81-yard score.
“The wind today was kind of swirling, so I was having trouble tracking the ball in the air,” Edwards said. “But luckily it took a good bounce, and I was able to pick it up.”
Sophomore running back Clifton Dawson keyed the Crimson’s first-half offensive surge. On Harvard’s first possession, Dawson carried the ball eight times for 36 yards, capping the drive with a two-yard touchdown up the middle.
With those six points, Dawson brought his tally for the year to 96 and broke the record for points in a season set by Charlie Brickley ’15 in 1912.
“It’s always great to achieve individual success,” Dawson said. “But it’s a great testament to how well our offensive line has played.”
After straining a muscle in his side against Dartmouth last week, there was a question as to whether the Payton Award candidate would be available against Columbia. But Dawson started and continued to add to his resume, reaching 1,000 rushing yards on the season early in the third quarter on a 15-yard run up the middle.
“I said in a team meeting a week or two ago,” Murphy said, “that I honestly felt that Clifton had been probably the most consistent and productive player in all of [Division] I-AA football over his first 15 games.”
While Dawson had a good outing, it was junior reserve tight end Jason O’Neill who had a career day.
O’Neill finished the day with two touchdowns on three catches. Before the contest against the Lions, however, the tight end had never caught a pass in his collegiate career.
O’Neill’s first score came on the Crimson’s second drive of the game. With third-and-goal at the Columbia 1-yard line and 22 seconds left in the quarter, Harvard called a timeout. As the teams lined up, the Lions showed blitz, expecting a rush attempt from Dawson. That left O’Neill wide open in the left corner of the endzone. The resulting touchdown put the Crimson up 14-0.
“Our offense did exactly what it needed to do,” Murphy said. “We knew if we could establish the run, then we’d have opportunities to throw the football.”
The Harvard offense ran smoothly all afternoon, orchestrated by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. When a play broke down, the Crimson captain was quick on his feet, getting sacked only once and scrambling for 66 rushing yards on the day.
“How many scrambles did [Fitzpatrick] have when we covered guys?” Columbia coach Bob Shoop said. “He made plays that should have been second-and-14, second-and-15 [into] second-and-4, second-and-5.”
While Fitzpatrick and the offense racked up 389 total yards, the Harvard defense shut down Columbia, allowing only 104 yards through the first three quarters. The Lions found themselves unable to convert in big-play situations, going 0-13 and 1-4 on third-down and fourth-down conversions, respectively.
“We set a goal early in the year of being a great third-down team,” Murphy said. “Quite frankly, that was our Achilles’ heel a year ago. It was our one big emphasis in the offseason as a coaching staff.”
The Crimson’s efficient performance allowed it to rest its starters and showcase some of its younger players. In the fourth quarter, many freshmen entered the game—including quarterback Liam O’Hagan and running back Charles Baakel.
“The guys who filled in stepped up,” Murphy said. “It’s been just a great across-the-board team effort.”
That’s exactly what Harvard needed—to go into Philadelphia on a positive note. And with another solid win under their belts, the Crimson players are ready to battle the Quakers.
“This is why we play the game,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s kind of the clash of the Titans—we’re both on top right now of the Ivy League. It should be a great game.”