It was sophomore Jeff Witt’s turn when junior Chris Pizzotti, went down hard with a knee injury in the second quarter. Witt, a native of Lilburn, Ga., guided an efficient Crimson offense with poise beyond his limited experience.
The most recent offseason for Harvard football has been ripe with roster changes: within the senior class, at captain, in the receiving core, and maybe most importantly, at quarterback. Things were finally ready to come together in Saturday’s 31-14 season-opener against Holy Cross, after five weeks of rallying around the Crimson’s new signal-caller, junior Chris Pizzotti.
That all ended on one play.
With the Crimson trailing 7-0 and driving early in the second quarter against the Crusaders, the depth chart suffered its most recent setback. Only this time—when Pizzotti scrambled for a seven-yard gain before taking a questionable sideline hit that left him visibly shaken—Harvard didn’t have the luxury of additional practice reps or time for nerves to settle.
“We knew we would have to respond to adversity in some way,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said. “We just didn’t know in which form it would present itself. And to lose your starting quarterback, who’s already your second string quarterback, so early in the game against a team that’s playing their third game was very challenging.”
It certainly didn’t seem that way. All but three of Harvard’s points were scored on drives engineered by Pizzotti’s backup, sophomore Jeff Witt. It was Witt’s first extended game time, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by the quarterback’s efficient 7 for 13, 105-yard performance, which included a 17-yard touchdown pass on the second half’s opening drive.
“I felt very comfortable coming into the game, and I had gotten plenty of reps in practice,” Witt said. “When my number was called I went in there and executed the plays that were called as best I could.”
Pizzotti performed well in his starting debut, going 10 for 13 for 126 yards in just over a quarter’s work, but suffered the latest in a long string of injuries that kept the Reading, Mass. native out all of last year.
“He’s definitely out, we’re just hoping it’s not a really severe injury that requires surgery,” Murphy said. “They think it’s an MCL sprain, and he’ll have to get an MRI to see if it’s worse than that.”
In the meantime, the job is Witt’s, and that’s something that Harvard tailback Clifton Dawson has no apparent problem with.
Dawson earned 150 of his 170 yards while Witt was calling the plays.
“Pizzotti is obviously a great quarterback and he was doing very well, but we [also] had all the confidence in Jeff Witt,” Dawson said. “We knew he’d go in and do the things that he’s been doing all preseason. He had a great preseason and I personally felt very confident in him.”
“Jeff had a solid spring, but he’s had a really strong preseason,” Murphy said prior to the game. “We’re happy with Jeff’s development.”
Despite the fact that it was a scramble that ended the day for Pizzotti, both quarterbacks looked comfortable moving around in the pocket, with each averaging at least four yards per carry and both racking up runs of ten yards or longer.
“There really wasn’t any particular thought process other than just doing what I’d been practicing and ready to do,” he said.
The play that prompted Witt’s number being called raised ire on the Harvard sideline, with the Crimson sideline urging the referees to flag the Crusaders for a late hit.
Still, Murphy stopped well short of saying that the referees got the play wrong.
“It was close,” he said. “I think it would be too close to put it in that category.”
Late or not, one thing remains clear, for the next couple of weeks at least—Witt is Harvard’s starting quarterback.
“Jeff will be starting, for sure,” Murphy said.
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.