ANALYSIS: Football

Unheralded defense proves instrumental to the Crimson's championship campaign

Harvard coach Tim Murphy’s program has rarely been known for its defense, and understandably so. Only once had the Crimson held its opponents to fewer than 14 points per game over the course of an entire season during Murphy’s decade at the helm prior to the 2004 campaign, while Harvard’s offense had scored more than 21 points per game on six separate occasions and more than 30 points per game three times during that same stretch.

Given that history and the star power arrayed on the other side of the ball, it’s little surprise that the Crimson’s latest crop of defenders never became household names ’round Harvard Yard or received their fair share of the credit for the Crimson’s perfect season. A school-record 339 points scored will have that effect, too. But ultimately it was Harvard’s proficiency at keeping its opponents out of the end zone rather than its own skill finding a way in that prevented the Crimson’s most successful season in more than a century from falling apart at the hands of an eager spoiler.

Murphy had long promised that his defense would surprise the detractors who’d pegged the unit as the team’s most glaring weakness. Nine of Harvard’s 10 most athletic players lined up on defense according to their skills testing, he repeatedly said, his assurances falling on deaf ears.

A shutout against Holy Cross to open the year did little to assuage those concerns, lost in the swirling wind and rain of a tropical depression and an offensive onslaught that focused the spotlight squarely onto the Crimson’s indomitable running game. Only a week later, Brown’s 21-point first-quarter outburst poked significant holes in Murphy’s assurances and threatened to derail Harvard’s push for the Ivy Crown.

But rather than succumb to rusher Nick Hartigan’s bruising after falling behind 31-10, the Crimson defense at last roared to life, surrendering just three points and 112 yards in the second half to allow the Harvard offense to retake the lead at 35-34.

And when efforts to maintain that narrow edge sputtered in the fourth quarter and a Crimson fumble handed the Bears possession at the Harvard 20-yard line with ample time to secure the go-ahead score, the defense lived up to Murphy’s expectations, allowing just two yards to force a field goal that flew wide right. Minutes later, Brown’s last push sputtered at midfield, thanks to the effective play of the revitalized Crimson secondary, which had been burned on several occasions to start the contest.

“A play not made here or there at the end of the Brown game,” Murphy said, “and the season could have taken on an entirely different complexion.”

“Just looking at the Brown game in particular, [the defense] didn’t stop Brown once, I think, in the first half,” Fitzpatrick added. “[The second half] was the moment when they started gaining confidence in themselves, and being comfortable with the schemes, and realizing the kind of defense they could become.”

The immediate change was not overwhelming. Twenty-three points the next week against Lafayette and 24 against Cornell the Saturday after that. But in both cases the defense was clutch come crunch time, hauling in two fourth-quarter interceptions to stamp out the Leopards’ comeback drive, then shutting the Big Red out in its final frame. Weeks five and six were little different, as Harvard limited both Northeastern and Princeton to two touchdowns apiece, and no points in the second half and final three quarters, respectively.

But neither of those performances was required for victory, given the offense’s combined 80 points scored against the Huskies and Tigers. Against Dartmouth, though, 14 points would’ve doomed any hopes for an undefeated record. Down 13-6 late in the fourth quarter, the Big Green drew to within one via a 12-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-eight.

But rather than take the sure tie with an extra point, Dartmouth attempted a two-point conversion, unwisely choosing to test the Crimson’s big-time ‘D.’ Not surprisingly, Harvard answered, as sophomore Danny Tanner batted away a pass thrown in the vicinity of several receivers to preserve the narrow lead.

And when the Crimson offense failed to run out the clock with its final possession, its counterpart again interceded. As Dartmouth raced into Harvard territory in an attempt to position itself for a game-winning field goal, Crimson safety Ryan Tully wrestled running back Chris Little to the ground just in bounds to keep the clock running as the clock expired to save the perfect season.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to be as good as we were defensively,” Fitzpatrick said. “But that was really it—if you could put your finger on one thing that won us a championship, I think it was the strong play of our defense.”

That defense coasted through its final three outings, blanking Columbia, limiting two-time defending champion Pennsylvania to a meager 10 points, and holding archrival Yale to just a field goal to cap off the second most successful season by any of Murphy’s Harvard defenses. (Only his 1997 Crimson, which allowed 123 points—11 fewer than the 2004 incarnation—was more effective.)

“Early on we struggled a bit,” Murphy said. “But once we got past the Brown game, we improved every single week until we were playing the best defense since I’ve been here at the end of the year.”

And even if Murphy’s program still isn’t known for its defense, its 2004 version always should be.

—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at mcginn@fas.harvard.edu.

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