Every time a television announcer utters a variation of the football axiom, “You have to run to win the game,” my father asks, “Why?”, out loud, in the middle of our living room. Why not, he reasons, given that a passing attempt nets about seven yards on average and a run play around four, simply throw the ball on virtually every down? Pass-heavy playbooks worked for Steve Spurrier in the fun ‘n gun days, and they’re now flourishing in places like Lubbock and Honolulu.
Still, though you won’t hear John Madden say that you have to pass to win the game, offensive balance is the accepted norm. In the Ivy League this season, only two teams are straying outside of a 60-40 percent breakdown of run and pass. Cornell is at 61 percent pass; the other team is Yale, which has vaulted up to No. 16 in the I-AA poll with a blistering 4-0 start. The Bulldogs are at 76 percent run!
The squad’s backup runner, Ricardo Galvez, playing only in garbage time, has more rushing yards than anyone on Harvard, Princeton, or Brown. Matt Polhemus, Eli’s senior quarterback, is throwing only 17 times a game, down from roughly 21 attempts per contest last season. Head coach Jack Siedlecki is going with what’s working, and that’s a heavy dose of superlative tailback Mike McLeod, who has amassed 719 yards and 13 touchdowns through four weeks.
Which brings us to the 2007 Harvard Crimson. Harvard averages a league-best 7.9 yards per passing attempt. It gains a league-worst (by far) 3.0 yards per run. So you’d think the Crimson would go with what’s working and feature a majority-pass offense, right? Nope—it checks in at 55 percent run. This is on par with Tim Murphy’s historical trends. Even in the early 00’s, when his best offensive players were quarterback Neil Rose and two-time Ivy Player of the Year wideout Carl Morris, Harvard ran more than it threw.
Now, Murphy boasts a senior signal-caller and an explosive receiving corps, has sophomore Cheng Ho and freshman Gino Gordon learning on the job at tailback, and it’s the same formula. Will it be good enough to outlast the one-dimensional but dominant Bulldogs?
HARVARD (2-2, 2-0 Ivy) VS. LAFAYETTE (4-1)
Harvard welcomes the Patriot League leaders to Cambridge tomorrow for the first of three straight home dates and its last non-conference tilt of the year. Traditionally, the Crimson owns the series with Lafayette, with a 9-2 head-to-head mark and a six-game winning streak dating back to 2000.
Lafayette has beefed up its nation’s-best defensive numbers (8.8 points and 210 yards allowed per game) against patsy opponents like Marist, Georgetown, and Columbia. Princeton knocked off the Leopards on the road by wearing them down in the trenches, not Harvard’s forte to this point. In Anthony D’Urso and Maurice White, Lafayette suits up two of the top five rushers in its league.
Kicking woes aside, Harvard played its most complete game of the season last weekend at Cornell. If it struggles to establish its ground game early against the rugged Leopards front, it may force Chris Pizzotti to the air, which isn’t a bad thing. Home field gives it to the Crimson.
Prediction: Harvard 24, Lafayette 20
BROWN (1-3, 0-1) VS. PRINCETON (2-2, 1-0)
Believe it or not, Brown has the top-ranked offense and passing attack in the Ivies. Michael Dougherty ranks No. 1 in I-AA in passing yards per game, and has gone over 400 in back-to-back games.
Princeton, the defending Ivy co-champ, has been putting up points in bunches, too, but its defense has been ineffective, surrendering 48 points to visiting Hampton last week and 32 to Columbia, of all teams, the week prior. Put me down for the upset.
Prediction: Brown 31, Princeton 21
COLUMBIA (1-3, 0-1) VS. PENN (1-3, 0-1)
The Quakers’ linchpin, fifth-year running back Joe Sandberg, returned to full-time action last week, and, not coincidentally, Al Bagnoli’s team tallied its first win of the season. That’s bad news for the Lions’ defense, which is allowing almost 260 rushing yards per outing. Norries Wilson has instilled a disciplined approach on the Upper West Side—Columbia is the least-penalized team in the league by a decent margin—but still lacks the roster to crack the Ivy’s top half.
Prediction: Penn 27, Columbia 14
NO. 16 YALE (4-0, 2-0) VS. LEHIGH (3-2)
Keep in mind that the last three rushing leaders in the Ancient Eight have played for title-winning squads (Clifton Dawson/Harvard ‘04, Nick Hartigan/Brown ‘05, McLeod/Yale ‘06). Now realize that McLeod already has a 353-yard cushion in the race for that distinction this season. Can anyone stuff this relentless Bulldogs running game?
Lehigh was lucky to beat Harvard in Bethlehem. It’ll take more than luck to grab a ‘W’ in New Haven.
Prediction: Yale 30, Lehigh 18
DARTMOUTH (1-3, 1-1) AT HOLY CROSS (3-2)
I highly recommend the Warren Zevon song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
Prediction: Holy Cross 35, Dartmouth 17
CORNELL (2-2, 0-2) VS. COLGATE (3-2)
The new Philip Roth book? Not that great.
Prediction: Cornell 23, Colgate 21
Men’s soccer bonus pick: Harvard 3, Brown 2
Record to Date: 21-5
—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at email@example.com.