When two evenly matched squads, such as No. 11 Lehigh and the No. 15 Crimson, square off, the result can hinge on little more than a team’s ability to halt its opponents’ drives and sustain its own on third down. The team that wins the third-down battle usually wins the game.
On Saturday, that team was definitely not Harvard.
While visiting Lehigh converted nine of its 15 third-down chances, the Crimson came through on only six of 14 tries. As a result, the Mountain Lions hung 49 points on the board, the most surrendered by a Harvard defensive unit since 1989. And the Crimson O was continually stalled, forced by the ineffectiveness of junior tailback Clifton Dawson to air it out in an effort to move the chains.
"Obviously we never truly developed our run game today," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. "Any time Clifton Dawson averages 3.9 yards per attempt, we’re forced to throw the football."
And once the ball was thrown, it was intercepted five times.
"We did a much better job on third down," Lehigh coach Pete Lembo said. "That was critically important—getting off the field, getting the offense back on the field. That was encouraging."
All downs are not created equal. Urgency builds through each set of downs, reaching a crescendo on third down, with its tantalizing prospect of forcing a punt. In the red zone, the stakes and outcomes change—the challenge for the defense becomes holding the opposition to a field goal, while the offense strives for seven points.
Against Brown a week ago, the Crimson exhibited the truth of this axiom, employing a bend-don’t-break defensive mindset to ultimate success. In that game, Harvard held the Bears to three points from inside the red zone five different times and ultimately prevailed in overtime. In contrast, the Mountain Lions did not attempt a field goal all afternoon, finding the endzone every time they ventured inside the Crimson 20-yard line.
"Our coaches just stayed on us," Lehigh quarterback Mark Borda said. "We didn’t want to settle for field goals. We wanted to score touchdowns."
The multiple Harvard turnovers certainly made it easier, tipping the advantage in field position decisively in the Mountain Lions’ favor.
"You can’t put that much pressure on your defense," Murphy said. "I don’t think our defense played that poorly today; I thought it was more a result of field position. We certainly made some mistakes but it was more field position."
In essence, confined to a short field, the Harvard defense lacked the time and opportunity to make a third-down stand, while the Lehigh play-callers could diagram safe short-yardage plays like the bootleg and the screen pass to keep inching towards the goal line.
The last time the Crimson converted a lower percentage of its third-down chances than its opponent? At Yale on November 22, 2003, the first win in its 13-game streak that ended Saturday.
If Harvard is to regain its winning ways, first it will have to shape up on third down.
—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.