Linebackers Bobby Everett and Matt Thomas spent most of their time on Saturday afternoon camped out in the Holy Cross backfield.
Going into this season’s opener against Holy Cross, there was palpable anticipation of what the 2004 edition of the Harvard defense would look like. Despite losing captain middle linebacker Dante Balestracci ’04—the four-time All-Ivy pick who led the team with 96 tackles—along with All-Ivy cornerback Benny Butler ’04 and five of its six top leaders in tackles, there was no sense of panic. And watching how the Crimson manhandled the Crusaders Saturday, there seemed to be no need for it.
“I said last week, I think that we have a much better defense than we did a year ago,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy.
Nevertheless, despite Harvard’s dominance, one game does not provide enough evidence to judge the Crimson’s potential effectiveness against tougher opponents such as Yale and Penn—as tempting as it might be to leap to that conclusion.
“One game certainly a season doesn’t make,” Murphy said, “but we do this strength and conditioning testing and nine of our top 10 strongest, fastest kids on our team are defensive starters, so we really feel like we’ve got some talented, tough, experienced kids and we should be a good defensive team.”
What the Crimson faithful should take from a shutout like this is a glimpse into the future—a peek at what this team just might be capable of. This defense completely shut down Holy Cross, holding it to 131 yards of total offense and only twice allowing it to move the ball past the 50-yard line. Even then, the Crusaders’ deepest drive was abruptly undermined by a fumble at the goal line, forced by senior Ricky Williamson and promptly snatched up by junior cornerback Keith Howell. It took Harvard only two plays to score a touchdown on its ensuing possession, effectively putting the game out of reach.
“Essentially it was a 14-point swing,” Murphy said. “I think that obviously was the straw that broke it.”
While the Crusaders are relatively punchless against their intrastate rival—they have lost 13 straight games dating back to the last time they faced Harvard—a shutout is a shutout, and five turnovers can’t be chalked up solely to the weather.
Watching the game, it was clear this defense was tired of no-contact scrimmages and blocking drills. They were hungry to punish the competition and ready to erase all doubts about filling the Balestracci void.
Junior linebacker Matt Thomas may have never started a game in his life, but just try telling Holy Cross that he’s a novice. Thomas stifled Crusader running back Gideon Akande in his tracks on the Crusader offense’s second play of the game, visibly psyched up to be out there dominating the line of scrimmage.
On Holy Cross’ next possession, Thomas charged his way through the backfield to sack quarterback John O’Neil for a six-yard loss. It was the first of many times Thomas would harass the beleaguered signal caller and send him tumbling to the turf—or into an ill-advised toss, like the one a couple of plays later when Thomas scrambled up from the ground to hit O’Neil as he threw, launching the ball sky-high and straight into Williamson’s waiting arms for the first of his two interceptions on the game.
The interception was, according to Williamson, a result of the relentless pressure on O’Neil by the defense.
“We had great pursuit from our linebackers and defensive line, and the quarterback didn’t really have any options,” said Williamson, who also forced one of four Holy Cross fumbles.
Blame a lot of that pursuit on senior linebacker Bobby Everett. Last year, Everett made opponents pay for focusing their coverage on the more-heralded Balestracci. And Saturday he seemed to be everywhere at once, driving a scrambling O’Neil out of bounds or lunging over sprawled offensive linemen to recover that Williamson-induced fumble.
Everett was so omnipresent, he even caught a reception for a two-point conversion from junior linebacker Robert Balkema following a botched extra point attempt.
Obviously, questions about the defense remain. The secondary seemed solid enough, but the driving rain put a damper on the passing game for both sides, making it difficult to see how Harvard would handle a full passing onslaught. On top of that, many of O’Neil’s passes were to wide-open receivers who simply could not make the reception.
“You don’t find out everything about your team in a game like this,” Murphy said. “We gotta find out about our passing game, our pass defense—you don’t get a really great look at those things in sloppy conditions.”
So yes, it’s probably too early to make claims that this year’s version of the Harvard defense is better than last year’s. But Saturday’s performance makes a statement like that seem a little less than radical.
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.