Two years ago, Clifton Dawson was an afterthought, a disenchanted transfer from Northwestern who’d assumed the number-two slot at tailback but was unlikely to evolve into a major contributor on account of Harvard’s depth at his position and, more generally, on the offensive side of the ball. Then-sophomore Ryan Tyler had already staked himself to the starter’s role and even his touches would be limited by the Ryan Fitzpatrick-Brian Edwards battery that the Crimson could hardly wait to unleash on its Ancient Eight opponents.
Dawson’s performance against Holy Cross on opening day was a pleasant surprise, 17 carries for 76 yards and one touchdown, but did not hint at his promise or his eventual impact on Harvard’s offensive system.
Of course, nothing then would have suggested that both Fitzpatrick and Tyler would be sidelined by injury later that year, thrusting Dawson into the spotlight and forcing him to shoulder significantly more touches than expected. But with the Crimson’s passing game grounded by Fitzpatrick’s bum throwing hand, Dawson certainly rose to the challenge, smashing a host of Harvard rookie rushing marks and establishing himself as an indispensable component of the Crimson offense.
But the precise interplay between Dawson and the invigorated Crimson ground game and a healthy Fitzpatrick had yet to be determined. Even upon his return to the field in 2003, Fitzpatrick was hampered by a knee injury ameliorated only by off-season surgery, so just how Murphy would integrate his two most effective weapons remained anyone’s guess heading into last season.
Those waiting for an answer were provided with a clue during Dawson’s second go-around with the Crusaders in 2004’s opener, in which he rushed 21 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns. But those results could’ve been dismissed by the devoted pro-Fitzpatrick camp. Driving wind and unforgiving rain had muddied the turf at Harvard Stadium, effectively providing an additional “defender” to both sides’ secondaries.
And against Brown one week later, the results were again mixed. Dawson managed 142 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries, Fitzpatrick totaled 18 completions on 25 passes for 263 yards and one score. Neither had gained supremacy, and, as time would later prove, neither was going to.
The run-and-gun days of yore were a thing of the past, not because they needed to be, but because both Dawson and Fitzpatrick had agreed that they be. Each could have demanded that he be the center of the offensive system—but neither did.
“If we wanted to,” Murphy said, “there’s no question in my mind we could have gone out and thrown 350 yards a game. And Fitzy would have been happy to do that if it meant we would win the game.”
In fact, that’s exactly what Harvard would have done without Dawson. Opponents would have known what was coming from the Crimson’s one-dimensional offense, but they’d have had a tough time stopping it.
“Without Dawson, we would’ve been more like what we were when Neil Rose [’02-’03, Fitzpatrick’s predecessor] was here, and that’s probably a more explosive offense from the standpoint of throwing the ball with Fitzy,” Murphy said. “But we wouldn’t have been as good a field-position team and probably would have had a few more turnovers.”
And that’s the catch. Offenses revolving around either Dawson or Fitzpatrick would both have been serviceable and more often than not successful. But the complement Dawson provided after his emergence in 2003 transformed stopping the Crimson from improbable to nearly impossible.
The strategy is simple enough: provide balance and keep the opponent guessing.
“People never knew on the six-yard line going in or the six-yard line going out whether we were going to throw the ball or whether we were going to run the ball,” Murphy said. “That just makes things much easier.”
Of course, the entire scheme falls apart with an inconsistent running back comprising one of the two key roles, which, of course, Dawson was not. The sophomore was held below 100 yards rushing just twice—by Cornell and Dartmouth—and only the Big Red was able to halt his inevitable march towards the end zone with the aid of an injury sustained mid-game.
“The most impressive thing is that he’s so consistent,” said Chris Menick ’00, most of whose single-season and career rushing marks Dawson rewrote in his sophomore season, or will supplant in the year ahead. “It seems like it’s easy to him. It’s like no defense can stop him.”
Alone? Well, maybe defenses would be able to stop him. Probably not, but maybe. When matched with Fitzpatrick and Harvard’s aerial assault? The latest edition of the Crimson’s record book and its new primary author should answer that.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.