Last week it was the special teams. This week it was, well, the special teams.
A week after a fumbled kickoff by Harvard and a return for a touchdown by the Tigers’ Jay McCareins led Princeton past the Crimson 27-24, Harvard’s special teams unit provided the spark in its 42-14 win over Dartmouth (2-5, 1-3 Ivy) on Saturday at a snowy Harvard Stadium.
Holding on to a 14-0 lead at the intermission, Harvard running back Clifton Dawson took the opening kickoff of the second half back 92 yards for a touchdown. Following a Big Green score that pulled it back within 14, the Crimson (4-3, 2-2) used three straight Dartmouth personal foul penalties to set itself up with a first-and-goal at the two—a drive which sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan easily capped with a sneak.
Special teams came into play again on the ensuing kickoff, when sophomore Matt Schindel’s short kick squirted around on the ground, allowing the Crimson to recover on the Big Green’s 32-yard line.
The next play saw Dawson take the ball to the endzone, putting to rest any doubt about the game’s outcome. In just over five minutes, the crowd saw three scores—two from Harvard, and both thanks to special teams miscues from Dartmouth.
“We haven’t had a series like that this year,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “It was reminiscent of last year. John Butler, our special teams coach, did a great job. Quite frankly, we’ve had some frustrating times with special teams, so I felt great about him and our guys having that opportunity to have success.”
Dawson, who has played sparsely on the kick return unit this year, had an even bigger game on the ground, and, more importantly, in the record books. He scored three times against the Big Green, two rushing and the aforementioned kickoff return.
The highlight of the day, though, came during Harvard’s second possession of the fourth quarter. Dawson, who came into the day needing just 98 yards to become the Crimson’s all-time leading rusher, ran for a two-yard gain on a third-and-three to tie the mark, and three plays later, a five-yard scamper put him alone at the top of Harvard’s all-time rushing list.
“I’m just so excited to be amongst such great tradition and history at Harvard,” said Dawson, who finished the game with 103 rushing yards on 23 carries and 223 all-purpose yards. “All week I’ve been more excited for some of the offensive lineman, who have as much a part of this as I do. There are some guys who I don’t think I rushed a yard without them being on the field. They deserve this as much as I do.”
After halting the Big Green’s initial drive of the game, the Crimson took its opening drive 73 yards, resulting in a seven-yard touchdown pass from O’Hagan to senior wide receiver Ryan Tyler—the first time a score has been produced on the first drive all season.
One of Dawson’s touchdown runs followed in the second quarter, giving Harvard a 14-0 edge heading into halftime. Up 28-7 after O’Hagan’s sneak during the heavily penalty-aided drive, Dawson followed with his last touchdown of the day. Then O’Hagan scored the last of his three touchdowns—two on the ground, one through the air—on a three-yard run set up by an interception from sophomore cornerback Steven Williams, his second of the afternoon.
The pick, one of three on the day by the Crimson defense, was aided by some relentless defensive pressure. Much of it came from linebacker Robert Balkema, who had 13 total tackles—10 solo—in addition to three of Harvard’s eight total sacks.
“A lot of times we were sending more guys than they could block, and the D-line was eating up blocks, so a lot of times I was just free,” Balkema said. “The D-line basically controlled the line of scrimmage and we were sacking the quarterback without pressure a lot of times, so it made it easier when we were pressuring too.”
“We knew going in that they had a relatively young offensive line with a couple sophomores,” Murphy added. “They’re young, they’re inexperienced, and when you’re young and inexperienced you don’t have as much speed and skill.”
Movement at the top of the Ivy League standings saw the Crimson leave the game exactly as it entered it, in fifth place, behind four teams all tied for first. But its league title aspirations after the game are a little more hopeful. Previously undefeated Penn fell to Brown, meaning that—assuming Harvard wins out—Brown must lose one of its last three games and Penn must beat Princeton next week in order for the Crimson grab a share of the Ivy title.
“I said to them after the game, ‘you know, I think Brown beat Penn,’ and the frustrating part is that we’re literally one play away from being tied for first, a 5-2 team,” Murphy said. “I said going into the season that this is not going to be just a Harvard-Penn year, watch out for Brown and Cornell, and it’s proved to be relatively accurate. You throw Princeton in there, on any given day just about anybody can beat anybody.”
As far as goals for the final three games, Murphy says the Crimson will be doing little watching of other teams’ schedules.
“We have one goal,” he said. “Beat Columbia.”