A six-turnover performance—four of them interceptions in the second half—turned the Crimson’s afternoon into an endless defensive stand in the red zone. The Mountain Hawks (3-1, 0-0 Patriot) scored 28 points off of Harvard’s miscues and compiled 453 yards of offense in a 49-24 thrashing of the Crimson at Harvard Stadium.
The setback ended No. 15 Harvard’s Division I-AA-leading win streak at 13 games, with the last defeat coming at home against Penn in 2003. It also brought the Crimson’s season turnover total to 10—nine more than Harvard (2-1, 1-0 Ivy) had after three games a year ago.
"If you want to look at what our Achilles’ heel is, it’s very obvious," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. "For a variety of reasons, we’re doing a terrible job of taking care of the football."
Murphy benched sophomore starting quarterback Liam O’Hagan after he threw back-to-back interceptions in Crimson territory in the third and fourth quarters, squashing Harvard’s second half momentum. Early in the quarter, O’Hagan scrambled for a 13-yard touchdown to put the Crimson up 17-14 and erased an early 14-0 deficit.
But O’Hagan’s two consecutive lobs over the middle were gobbled up by the Mountain Hawks’ defense, and Lehigh quarterback Mark Borda responded with a pair of quick touchdowns to give the visitors a 42-17 advantage.
"Turnovers took a relatively competitive game and turned it into a rout," Murphy said. "We had fought our way back and really felt the momentum turn. Obviously that was short lived by virtue of some turnovers and the short field that our defense had to face."
Backup quarterback Richard Irvin did little more than pad Lehigh’s defensive stats, as the sophomore transfer tossed another pair of interceptions on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter. The first was a glaring over-the-middle bullet to defensive back Julian Austin at the Harvard 33-yard line on just the second play of the Crimson’s drive. Irvin’s second pick came in the endzone after a late fourth-quarter drive.
The Crimson’s aerial futility came in the absence of wide receivers Corey Mazza and Rodney Byrnes, both sidelined with injuries. Where last week O’Hagan had an automatic third-down target in Mazza, this week he had a largely inexperienced receiving corps and a Lehigh defense that stymied Harvard’s running game.
"You take inexperienced quarterbacks, basically brand new receivers without our top guys, and the combination was a little bit volatile today," Murphy said.
Lehigh stuffed seven into the box and silenced star running back Clifton Dawson, daring the Crimson to throw. The result—both rushing and passing—was disastrous.
Dawson came into the contest averaging a I-AA best 171 yards per game but mustered just 59 yards on 15 carries and appeared hobbled by a leg injury for most of the game.
"We knew that if we shut down Dawson, that’s a big part of the offense," said Lehigh linebacker Anthony Graziani.
The handoff to Dawson—almost instinctive on third-and-short situations—was nowhere to be found on Saturday. On a third-and-two attempt from the Lehigh seven-yard line, O’Hagan kept the ball, dropped back, and fired a strike to Graziani for a first-quarter interception.
Three plays later, Lehigh wide receiver Winfred Porter burned senior Keith Howell with a 91-yard touchdown catch down the left side to put Lehigh up 14-0.
"The bottom line is if you can’t establish the run, everything becomes a little bit easier for the defense," Murphy said.
Harvard overcame turnover woes and waged late comebacks against Holy Cross and Brown in the opening weeks of the season, but the Crimson’s two inexperienced quarterbacks gave Harvard little hope for a late surge on Saturday. Three of the second-half interceptions put Lehigh within the 25-yard line, and the Mountain Hawks converted all of them into touchdowns.
A Harvard defense already decimated by injuries in the secondary was on the field for nearly 18 minutes in the second half. After Lehigh fell behind 17-14, Borda engineered a 77-yard touchdown drive and picked apart the Crimson’s defensive backfield with a string of pass completions and screen plays to the sideline. A 34-yard pass to Kevin Zebluim put the Mountain Hawks on the Harvard one-yard line, and running back Eric Rush plowed in for a touchdown that gave Lehigh the lead for good. Borda finished 25-of-39 with 347 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and a pair of rushing touchdowns.
The 49 points given up by the Crimson defense was the most since Harvard allowed 50 to Lehigh in 1989. The Harvard offense compiled 477 yards total offense but saw almost every drive cut short by a turnover.
"If you don’t take care of the football you’re going to be a statistically a good looking offense, [but] it doesn’t mean a thing," Murphy said. "It’s all about ball security. [Our] goal was to do a great job of ball security and we failed miserably."
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.