First-Half Rollercoaster Ride Ends With Surprising Success

ON HIS BACK
Jessica E. Zbikowski

Crimson running back Clifton Dawson, who has been hobbled with injuries over the past few weeks, ran for 100 yards in Harvard’s 24-17 win.

EASTON, Pa.—It’s only been five games? Are you sure?

For the Harvard football team, the first half has been a roller coaster with enough twists and turns to last an entire season.

A program blessed with stability throughout much of the past decade has seen its foundation rocked this year over and over again. And it’s still got half a season to go.

Yet, even with all of the craziness, isn’t the Crimson pretty much right where everyone thought it would be? With a winning record and the balance of the Ivy season approaching, Harvard has kept afloat during a rocky first half. There’s even reason to hope that things might be beginning to stabilize—if for no other reason than it seems impossible that the second half could throw as much in the Crimson’s direction as the first half did.

With the first five down, let’s take a look at some landmines that Harvard has had to sidestep to get through the first half.

QUARTERBACKS

If you had told Crimson coach Tim Murphy that his two quarterbacks would combine to throw 12 interceptions through five games, you probably would not have received a pleasant response.

Sophomore Richard Irvin won the starter’s job out of camp and then lost it in the first quarter of Harvard’s opener to classmate Liam O’Hagan. Since then, O’Hagan has thrown nine of the team’s 12 picks, but has also led the Crimson to two dramatic comeback victories.

Despite three-interception performances in back-to-back losses to Lehigh and Cornell, Murphy stuck with O’Hagan this week against Lafayette—perhaps trying to stabilize a position that seems inherently unstable this year for Harvard.

Even though O’Hagan is clearly the starter, every time he throws a pick or makes a bad decision, all eyes wander over to Irvin on the sidelines.

O’Hagan can stop that by winning and limiting mistakes. If this weekend’s interception-free performance is any indication, he may be doing just that.

INJURIES

Yes, injuries are a part of football, but this many?

The Crimson has had key players who were supposed to be ready for the opener not play a down this season, players who were supposed to be out for the season playing the following week, and receivers dropping so quickly that Murphy might soon hold an open casting call.

Senior cornerback Gary Sonkur was supposed to help anchor the secondary opposite Keith Howell. Sonkur aggravated a hamstring injury in camp, thought he’d be ready for Week 1, but hasn’t seen the field since.

The secondary wasn’t helped out any more when safety Danny Tanner went down with a knee injury two weeks ago, although he is likely to return next week against Princeton.

Tackle Brian Lapham sustained a knee injury against Brown that was originally thought to be season-ending, only to learn that playing on it would only hurt but couldn’t do any additional damage. He’s started all three games since then, but is not anywhere near full strength.

Finally, there are the receivers.

Senior Rodney Byrnes injured his hamstring on the first offensive series of the season. He’s practiced once since then and re-aggravated it. Junior Corey Mazza, maybe the best receiver in the league, was run over while trying to run block for Dawson and severely sprained his ankle. His only recent appearances have been in sweat suits on sidelines. Senior Ryan Tyler, the team’s third wideout, went down with a shoulder injury against Lehigh. He and Mazza are questionable to return next week.

I can’t imagine Murphy had Matt Legace penciled in as one of his go-to receivers at the start of the season, but there was Legace on Saturday making three catches for 41 yards.

It appears that help may be on the way for the depleted receiving corps. But if not, there’s always Kelly Widman.

DAWSON

All right, so it’s extremely unfair to call Dawson a “landmine,” but we’ve been spoiled. He’s been so good the last two years that when he doesn’t routinely break off 80-yard runs, we’re bound to ask, what’s wrong?

Dawson is probably more banged up than he’s letting on, and defenses don’t have to contend with Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 so they can focus on Dawson. Still, the junior has managed to average over 100 yards rushing a game, and has always has been a steady pass blocker for O’Hagan.

While Dawson’s numbers are solid, for Harvard to run the table—they’ll likely have to in order to win the Ivy title—Dawson will need to unleash a few of his signature dashes. My bet is that he will.

So there it is. The Crimson has battled through inconsistent quarterback play, a trainer’s room full of impact players, and their All-American running back looking slightly more human.

All of a sudden, 3-2 is looking pretty good.

—Staff writer David H. Stearns can be reached at stearns@fas.harvard.edu.

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