Sure, the Crimson, undefeated heading into the halfway mark of the season. is poised to duplicate its unforgettable run of two years ago, when Harvard compiled a perfect 10-0 record and won the Ivy League title.
But after a shuffle at quarterback that saw the Crimson starting its third-stringer in Week 2, Harvard knows not to look too far towards the future.
So what’s the most pressing concern for the Crimson? Trying to finish the first half of the season undefeated when it battles non-league foe Lafayette (2-3, 1-0 Patriot) tomorrow at 12:30pm at Harvard Stadium.
It’s the final non-conference game of the year for Harvard (4-0, 2-0 Ivy) before five straight Ivy League contests to close the season.
It’s also the last out-of-conference game for the Leopards, and judging from what has happened during the team’s last three outings, that’s a good thing.
“We’ve found a way to beat Patriot League teams [in the past],” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said.
Harvard has won eight of ten matchups all time with Lafayette, including last year’s 24-17 victory in Easton, Pa. Each of the three Leopard losses this year has also come against Ivy opponents.
“I really can’t give a reason as to why that is,” said senior defensive tackle Mike Berg. “For us, it’s just about keeping up the momentum.”
After a week off last Saturday thanks to a bye, Lafayette will be led back onto the field by quarterback Brad Maurer, whose 344 yards in a 37-34 loss to Yale two weeks ago was a career-high.
In addition to 282 yards and two scores through the air, the senior ran for 62 yards and a touchdown. That versatility in the backfield will try to mix up the Crimson’s defensive line, a unit that ranks first in I-AA in rushing defense, sacks, and tackles for a loss. Still, Harvard doesn’t have plans to change its defense just because of one player.
“We’ve been working all year on containing the quarterback, not giving him escape routes, and getting as many guys as possible to the football,” Berg said.
“We’ve emphasized that, and we’re going to continue as the weeks go on.”
A struggling Lafayette rushing attack led by senior running back Jonathan Hurt has seen his production decrease in each of the Leopards’ five games this year, something of a trend with many facets of the team thus far.
“I think Lafayette has been, in all honesty, kind of an underachieving team,” Murphy said. “So, with two weeks to prepare for us, realizing this is kind of a pivotal point in our season, we think we’re going to have a tiger by the tail similar to what we had at Lehigh.”
The Chris Pizzotti- led offense Crimson’s offense, ranked fifth overall in the nation, will go up against a Leopard defense that has allowed an average of 28 points per game its last three times out.
But despite Harvard’s advantage at nearly every position, nobody is taking the game lightly.
“In my time here, the only time we’ve won the Ivy championship is by winning all our contests,” Berg said. “This is not an off week. It’s just as important.”
Berg’s sentiments are echoed by the numbers.
The last time the Crimson won the Ivy League championship in a year where the team didn’t finish undefeated was 1997, two full cycles of players removed from this year’s team.
The only team to beat Harvard that year was Bucknell, another Patriot League school, during a time in which the Patriot League seemed to dominate the Ivies.
“I just think it’s a renewed emphasis on national recruiting,” Murphy said of his conference’s resurgence in head-to-head matchups. “Just a real good cycle for the Ivy League in terms of having a lot of parity in the league, and having a lot of good teams.”
One of the best players on those good teams has been senior tailback Clifton Dawson. He gained exactly 100 yards on the ground the last time the two teams met, and after two straight games this year without a 100-yard rushing performance, he’s due a big performance—especially when he sits just 545 yards away from the Ivy League’s all-time rushing mark.
But Dawson’s record and far-off undefeated dreams aside, tomorrow’s game is just like any other.
“It’s always hard,” Murphy said. “We think it’s going to be a big test.”
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.