Once again, the defensive line was exceptional, keeping the Big Red to 67 net yards rushing. Junior Brad Bagdis sacked Nathan Ford three times on Saturday, causing a loss of 32 yards.
In 32 games, it was the only team that had consistently held him in check. But in his 33rd career outing, Saturday’s 33-23 win over Cornell, senior Clifton Dawson finally and literally broke free of the Big Red.
It took just one play, too, as the senior running back returned the game’s opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, giving Harvard the kind of start it needed on the heels of last year’s clash with Cornell, a 27-13 loss in Ithaca. It was Dawson’s second kick return of the season, but his second touchdown on a return in two years.
“The special teams coach is always knocking on my door saying, ‘Hey, am I getting Clifton this week, am I getting Clifton this week?’” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said after the game. “Clifton’s touchdown gave us a great emotional lift—it was a great effort, because you know we don’t put him on kickoff returns.”
Dawson was used sparingly in the kickoff game last year too, but executed a memorable 92-yard return for a score in Harvard’s 42-14 win over Dartmouth. And he didn’t get another opportunity for the Crimson on Saturday until a Big Red onside kick late in the second half, partly due to a scare that took place midway through the second quarter.
“That was nothing more than me just being cautious,” Dawson said of coming out of the game after a big hit. He stayed down on the field for a few minutes before jogging off under his own power. Seven plays later, he scored the last of his three touchdowns, an easy over-the-pile dive thanks to good blocking up front.
“Our offensive line did a great job preparing, watching film,” Dawson said. “They did an incredible job today.”
FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
It was business as usual for Harvard’s D-line Saturday, as the nation’s best rushing and sack defense picked up seven sacks and gave up just 67 net yards on the ground. They came against a Cornell squad that had given up just a single sack entering the game, best in the nation.
“We have great athletes up front,” Murphy said. “We’re just very fortunate to have a real aggressive, athletic bunch of front guys. It dictates the tempo up there.”
Dictating a surprising tempo early was the Big Red offense, which came out on the first drive to pass four straight times, many out of five-receiver sets. It was a bit of a change for Cornell, which came into the weekend as the top rushing offense in the Ivy League.
“Harvard’s got a great run defense,” Big Red coach Jim Knowles said. “They’re very strong and physical up front, so we felt like we had to loosen them up a little bit and really go with the pass early to get them loose enough to be able to come back with our run.”
Sophomore cornerback Andrew Berry sat out the game due to a mild ankle sprain suffered in last week’s 35-33 win at Lehigh. Though Murphy expected a number of players to take over Berry’s spot opposite junior Steve Williams in the defensive backfield, freshman Derrick Barker started in his place.
“He got thrown into it as a freshman today, and he responded,” Murphy said. “Overall, he did a good job.”
It was Barker’s interception late in the fourth quarter that killed any Cornell hopes for a comeback.
“He has big shoes to fill with Andrew Berry out, but he was poised,” Murphy added. “He played with maturity, and he came up with a big interception, so anytime you throw a freshman in there and you get a win against a good team, you’re happy.”
Berry is expected to be back in action for Harvard next week when the Crimson hosts Lafayette.
Although he managed 197 total yards, the Big Red once again held Dawson under 100 yards rushing. This, the fourth time Cornell has held Dawson below the century mark, brings his all-time average against the Big Red to 66 yards per game...Junior Matt Schindel kicked a career-long 42-yard field goal early in the second quarter after booming a 52-yard punt earlier in the game. He also saw a long extra point and a 33-yard field goal blocked, both by Cornell’s Chi Chi Madu...Nine different Harvard players caught passes Saturday for 231 total yards. Seven Crimson backs and receivers caught just one ball...the Crimson failed to score in the fourth quarter, while the Big Red put up 13 points. Opponents have outscored Harvard a combined 36-7 in the fourth quarter through four games.
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.