Sophomore Clifton Dawson rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns in less than two-and-a-half quarters of play in Harvard’s 35-0 drubbing of Holy Cross on Saturday afternoon.
One year ago, Clifton Dawson was just “another weapon.” The 17 carries and 76 yards in his Worcester debut were a coming out party for the then-uninitiated, but a hushed one at that. Then, Ryan Fitzpatrick was the story. Brian Edwards was the unexpected hero. Dawson was just an afterthought to Ryan Tyler.
But on Saturday, none could overshadow Dawson and his 184-yard, three-touchdown performance on the rain-soaked turf at Harvard Stadium.
With the Crimson’s passing game castrated by Hurricane Ivan’s wrath, Fitzpatrick did all he could trust his slick palms to do—and handed the ball off to Dawson.
Methodically plowing ahead, Dawson slogged through mud and churned past the waiting arms of Holy Cross’ five-man defensive line. With his carries coming in twos and threes—interrupted only by the occasional Fitzpatrick attempt after an ineffective opening series—Dawson lugged the Harvard offense the length of the field a yard at a time throughout the first quarter.
“He’s got good speed, but he’s also a real hard runner,” said Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore. “He gets the ball north-south.”
Though he gained first-down distance on a single carry just once, six- and seven-yard rushes kept the chains moving and the Crimson out of passing downs. And while his early second-effort touchdown staked Harvard to a seven-point lead, Dawson’s firm grip on the ball—he has lost a fumble just once in his collegiate career—not only kept Holy Cross on defense, but allowed the Crimson to maintain the field advantage edge earned on the first series.
And when those modest successes provided only a tenuous lead, Dawson effortlessly ratcheted his play up a notch. Just moments into the second quarter, the speedster absorbed a crushing hit on second-and-seven, then launched himself forward just across the 29-yard line for an eight-yard pickup.
“I know that on days like today where the elements are in play it’s important to get that second and third effort, to keep your legs driving because people slip off,” Dawson said.
A Holy Cross personal foul later, Harvard was again in striking position. So the ball again went to Dawson. The Crusaders knew he’d be coming and were impotent to stop his pending charge.
A sidestep in the backfield cleared 10 yards of green space which Dawson seized in an instant, and the Crusader who grabbed his lower half at the four-yard line was already too late. As on his first score, Dawson dragged his frame, a linebacker heavy, just far enough for the touchdown.
“Most of the time,” Dawson said, “it was just make one cut and it’s off to the races. So that’s a testament to the offensive line and I just can’t wait until next Saturday when I can go out and run again for those guys.”
Fitzpatrick must have known not to bother wasting his arm on unnecessary passes. He attempted just one, an incompletion, in the frame’s opening minute and didn’t try again until after halftime.
Not that Dawson didn’t have a role in taking the decision out of Fitzpatrick’s hands. Two plays following Crusader wide receiver Sean Gruber’s fumble in the endzone, Dawson delivered the coup de grâce, smashing through three tackles—including a final ankle grip that all but stopped his forward progress—before leaving the secondary 20 yards behind and scampering 74 yards to put the contest out of reach.
“It seemed like that play was going a little faster than normal,” Dawson said. “Once I got to the second level, there was a wall in front of me and really all I tried to keep on running was to keep my legs churning and luckily the coverage just slipped off and it was off to the races.”
With any potential tackler more than several steps behind, Dawson galloped into the end zone and raised three fingers to celebrate the third score.
The single-play gain was just five below the Crimson’s net output in the air for the day and two yards short of his entire game output in his Harvard opener as a freshman.
Seven carries later and midway through the third quarter, Dawson was on the sidelines, ceding the rest of the day’s carries to Nick Carrington, splitting time as he had a year before. But with almost half the game left to play, there could still be no doubt: He was the story, the very much expected hero—and nobody’s afterthought.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.