ITHACA, N.Y.—It’s a long ride from Cambridge to Ithaca, and for the Harvard football team the return trip must have seemed interminable.
The No. 20 Crimson came to Cornell with the goal of rebounding from a loss last week to Lehigh that knocked it out of the ranks of the Division I-AA elite. Instead, Harvard (2-2, 1-1 Ivy) limped home with a 27-13 loss to the Big Red (2-2, 1-1) that raises serious questions about whether the Crimson can even compete with the best of the Ivy League.
“To state the obvious, we got our butts kicked today,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “I thought they out-toughed us, and we never really gave our defense a chance.”
On a cold and rainy day when the temperature didn’t creep above 50 degrees, the Harvard offense spent the entire day searching for a rhythm it never found. The Crimson finished the day with only 226 yards of total offense—120 of it during a largely inconsequential fourth quarter.
The Cornell defense once again had an answer for All-American running back Clifton Dawson, holding the junior to just 39 yards on the ground. The Big Red has held Dawson to an average of 58 rushing yards in the teams’ three meetings during Dawson’s career.
“We really pointed to him as a guy we had to stop, and it was part of our talking about him all week,” Cornell coach Jim Knowles said.
Even more discouraging for the Crimson, after a week when Murphy stressed ball security, Harvard came out and committed five turnovers—four in the first half alone.
“It’s the heart and soul of what we preach and it’s been such an incredible strength for our football program,” said Murphy of ball security. “No. 1 in nation in 2001, No. 1 in 2002, No. 1 in the Ivy League three of the last four years. It’s dramatic.”
Sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan, who hoped to improve upon a three-interception performance against Lehigh, matched that number against the Big Red and managed only 95 yards passing. Playing with a decimated receiving corps, O’Hagan routinely dropped back to pass only to look downfield and find nobody open.
With the Crimson’s top three wide receivers—senior Rodney Byrnes, junior Corey Mazza, and senior Ryan Tyler—all out with injuries, freshman Alex Breaux and sophomore Joe Murt took over starting responsibilities and combined for only one catch.
“Too many mistakes,” said O’Hagan of his performance. “I put that on me, not thinking the right things out there sometimes, and it cost us the football game.”
Sophomore backup Richard Irvin briefly replaced O’Hagan for two series to start the second half, but he only attempted one pass before being lifted.
Right from the opening kick, Harvard looked outmatched. The Crimson’s Neil Sherlock muffed the opening kickoff only to recover it and have Dawson fumble on Harvard’s opening play from scrimmage, forcing O’Hagan to fall on the ball and save the possession.
After a three-yard run by Dawson, O’Hagan attempted his first pass of the game and found Cornell defensive back Kevin Rex for the Crimson’s first turnover.
On Cornell’s first offensive play, quarterback Ryan Kuhn hit Bryan Romney for a 21-yard score.
After a converted extra point, the rout was on.
“If you look at it from a momentum standpoint, it was a huge momentum swing in the first quarter for obvious reasons,” Murphy said.
Added Rex: “To just come out, get four plays, interception, touchdown, that just got everybody on one page. To start the game like that, it just really took the wind out of their sails early.”
O’Hagan would add two more interceptions before the half and sophomore Steven Williams lost both a fumbled kickoff and a fumbled punt for Harvard’s other two turnovers.
The Crimson defense did all it could to try to keep the game within reach. Already trailing 14-0 with 3:17 to go in the first quarter, Williams fumbled a kickoff that was recovered by the Big Red’s Tim Bax at Harvard’s 23.
The defense trudged back on to the field and held, forcing Cornell to settle for a field goal and a 17-0 lead.
But 17 points would be more than enough. Despite the defense’s ability to slow the Big Red running game—which entered Saturday ranked tops in the Ivies—the Crimson never threatened Cornell’s lead.
Harvard added two touchdowns in the fourth quarter on runs by Dawson and O’Hagan to avoid being shut out for the first time since 1998, but by then the game was all but over.
“Harvard has really been an excellent program, something to really compare yourselves to,” Knowles said. “And for us to be able to beat them, as we did, at home...it’s a great signal to all that’s in front of us.”
—Staff writer David H. Stearns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.