Special teams are a segment of the game that is often ignored by the casual observer until something goes horribly wrong. Saturday at Harvard Stadium, special teams took center stage in Harvard’s 27-24 loss to Princeton (4-2, 2-1 Ivy), a defeat that essentially dashed the Crimson’s (3-3, 1-2) hopes of a 2005 Ivy League title.
After Harvard took a 24-20 lead with 7:21 to play, Tigers cornerback Jay McCareins broke the ensuing kickoff return for a 93-yard touchdown, which would prove to be the difference.
But that wasn’t the Crimson’s only special teams miscue of the day.
After an offsides penalty on the opening kick gave Princeton an extra five yards on the return, wide receiver Derek Davis took a reverse around right end 72 yards for a touchdown. With the home side of the crowd of 12,023 silenced, Harvard fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving Princeton possession on the Harvard 30.
The defense managed to prevent a Tigers score on that drive, but the poor special teams play continued. At the beginning of the second quarter, a fake punt attempt by senior punter Mike King resulted in no gain and Princeton gained possession in Harvard territory.
“Obviously we struggled at times in the kicking game today, and we paid the price. The bottom line is, they outexecuted us,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We had the dropped kickoff; I don’t know what to say. Four times in the last three games we’ve had that exact same thing. Prior to that, we haven’t had it four times in our entire tenure, 12 years. So ‘go figure’ is the best way I can put it.”
Despite all the mistakes, it seemed Harvard had righted the ship in the second half. After trailing 9-3 and then 17-10, the Crimson closed the gap to 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. Nearing the end of a 69-yard drive that had reached the Princeton five-yard line and facing a fourth-and-two, Murphy elected to go for the first down instead of kicking the game-tying field goal. On the 13th consecutive running play Dawson was stopped for no gain, and the Tigers took over.
“We had such incredible momentum, they hadn’t come close to stopping us, and I also felt that their offense had been on the field so much and generated so much that we needed touchdowns, not field goals,” Murphy said. “They hadn’t come close to stopping us in that formation, on that play, and my hat’s off to them; when they absolutely had to, they did. They converted, and we didn’t.”
Even after failing to convert on that drive, all was not lost.
On the next Harvard drive, sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan completed a 37-yard pass to senior tight end Jason O’Neill and then a 52-yard touchdown strike to senior wide receiver Ryan Tyler, playing in his first game back from injury.
“Ryan’s a great leader out there,” O’Hagan said, “and he showed it with the long catch he had out there.”
The long score put the Crimson ahead 24-20 with just 7:21 to play, but the lead would be fleeting.
On the next play, the combination of McCareins and Harvard’s poor special teams play finally proved too much to overcome.
McCareins fielded the kickoff on the seven yard line and returned it 93 yards up the right side for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 27-24 lead that they would not relinquish.
“We decided it would be a wedge right...we anticipated them kicking the ball to that hash,” McCareins said. “The kickoff before we made our call, and our blocks were a little bit late...but this time we let go earlier and tried to anticipate...and I think the lanes held up better.”
The loss negated a pair of fine offensive performances for the Crimson. Dawson gashed a vulnerable Tigers defense for 203 yards and two touchdowns on runs of 20 and 29 yards.
“One of the things that makes him a great back is that he rarely loses yards...you hit him, you think you’ve got him stopped for nothing, [and] he’s got four,” Princeton coach Roger Hughes said.
With a 19-yard carry in the second quarter, Dawson moved into second on Harvard’s all time rushing yardage list.
Sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan also had a quality day, his second consecutive interception-free performance. He was 11-for-16 for 189 yards and a touchdown.
Another touchdown pass was negated by a holding penalty in the first quarter, a drive on which the Crimson were held to a field goal.
“Any time you get a touchdown called back against a quality team, it’s going to come back to haunt you,” Murphy said.
The loss, Harvard’s second in the league, essentially eliminates the Crimson from the Ivy League title hunt. It also marks the first time since 1995 that Princeton has defeated Harvard. The Tigers remain in the chase with fellow one-loss teams Brown and Yale behind undefeated Penn.