‘Surprise’ Defense Anchors Harvard Title Hopes

ICE BERG
Joseph L. Abel

Sophomore defensive lineman Michael Berg hits Columbia quarterback Jeff Otis during the Crimson's 38-0 win at Harvard Stadium Saturday.

Invigorated by Saturday’s blowout win but checked by fresh nerves, Harvard coach Tim Murphy cleared his throat and gazed at the glowing horizon.

What about Penn?

“It’s been this way all the 11 years I’ve been here at Harvard,” Murphy said. “And that is, every year, they’re usually No. 1 in defense. Every single year, they’ve led the league in run defense and scoring defense.”

“And that,” he said, “is why they have so many championships.”

With his own undefeated squad perched in purgatory until next weekend, Saturday’s 38-0 victory against Columbia served relatively little purpose as a grudge win, a primer, or even as a late-season boost.

Mostly, it was a reaffirmation of Harvard’s surprise strength:

Defense.

“We’re a completely different team than we were a year ago,” Murphy said.

Harvard’s defensive revolution has arrived at a timely juncture.

At this point last season, the Crimson was in collapse mode. From an overtime thriller against Princeton on Oct. 25 to a crippling loss to Columbia on Nov. 8, Harvard ceded an average of 28.6 points in the three games preceding Penn.

During the same window this season, the Crimson has yielded only 8.6 points.

“We’re peaking at the right time,” senior linebacker Bobby Everett said.

Statistics from Saturday’s game illustrate a dominant and thorough defensive effort.

In the air and on the ground, Harvard harassed Columbia’s skill tandem of Jeff Otis and Rashad Biggers the entire game.

Otis, the Lions’ quarterback, completed only eight short passes and was intercepted once before leaving the game in the fourth quarter.

Biggers, the Ivies’ fourth-leading rusher, finished with 31 yards on a per-carry average of 2.5.

Harvard held Columbia to 203 yards of total offense. At 7:44 in the fourth quarter—just before the Lions launched the first of two consecutive long, fruitless drives against the Crimson second-team defense—Columbia had only gained 101 yards.

“We did not execute on offense,” Lions coach Bob Shoop said. “It wasn’t our best day, and to beat that team we have to play our best.”

Perhaps most impressive about the Harvard defense was its dominance on crucial plays.

Five times, the Lions drove into Crimson territory. Five times—including an interception and three turnovers on downs—the defense got the best of them.

The first time, trailing 21-0, Columbia ran on fourth-and-short at the Harvard 25.

“We tried to get some momentum back,” Shoop said.

With no room to run, Lions tailback Ayo Oluwole was pile-driven into the turf by Ricky Williamson and Matt Thomas for a short loss.

That would be the theme of the afternoon. Overall, Columbia tried four fourth-down plays and converted only once.

Even more damaging, the Lions converted exactly zero third-down plays—in 13 dismal attempts.

“We kept getting three-and-outs, and any one of those is a chance,” Shoop said. “I thought their defense is what stepped up and played really well.”

Murphy said Harvard’s “one big emphasis” in the offseason was improving its defense on third-down plays.

“Because quite frankly, that was our Achilles’ heel a year ago,” he said.

The result? Despite featuring only the third-best season defense in the league by total yardage, the Crimson boasts the Ivies’ best third-down efficiency—by far.

In 115 attempts, opponents have only converted 25 first downs. That 21.7 percentage leads Penn by more than four points, putting the Quakers closer to Cornell than to Harvard.

“I think it’s a combination of a great job by our assistant coaches,” Murphy said, “and our kids just buying into finishing people off and getting off the field.”Everett, whose 62 season tackles figures as the team’s second best, praised the team’s collective effort.

“It’s very hard to say who’s been the star,” he said, “because from day to day it’s a different person doing something outstanding.”

On Saturday, the stars were Thomas and sophomore tackle Michael Berg.

The two contributed to 13 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks.

For two games, Berg has played on a broken leg.

“Michael Berg is an amazing football player,” Murphy said, “when you consider he is only a sophomore.”

Toughness is only one quality that separates Berg from the rest.

“He’s a 400-pound bench presser,” Murphy said. “He can really run and change directions. But the thing that really makes him an outstanding young player is that his instincts are so natural.”

On the progression to stardom, Berg will hope to repeat Saturday’s performance next week.

He has never experienced a win against Penn. Neither has 80 percent of the Harvard roster, for that matter.

To change that, all the Crimson has to do is emulate its enemy.

So far, so good.

—Staff writer Alex McPhillips can be reached at rmcphill@fas.harvard.edu.

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