Harvard’s defense entered the season pegged to be one of the best in Division I-AA, after a 2006 season that saw the Crimson post the most sacks and tackles for loss in the nation and limit opponents to an average of 66.5 rushing yards per game. During Week 8 against Columbia, the squad held the Lions to negative yards on the ground.
Through one game in 2007, however, it has been a different story.
With 1:19 left and the Crimson up, 28-24, a mental breakdown led to a 40-yard touchdown and a last-second loss, the first in seven years in the team’s season opener. The defense gave up 153 yards rushing and 339 through the air to go along with the four touchdowns. Harvard managed just one sack in the game after posting six in its 2006 debut.
For a unit that was supposed to shut down every opponent, 31 points and almost 500 yards of total offense hardly tells of a force to be reckoned with.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t perform up to that standard,” junior cornerback Andrew Berry says. “By no means do we think that our performance against Holy Cross is characteristic of the best effort we can put forth. We’re trying to put that behind us. We want to be the strength of this team. We really think we can be.”
And the team is certainly not lacking in talent and experience. With seven returning starters and another week of practice, the ‘D’ should have no problem falling back into its championship-caliber ways.
“The nice thing is that at each level, we have quality,” head coach Tim Murphy says. “We don’t necessarily have depth at each level, but we have quality.”
The defensive line comes back with experience but is slightly weakened by the loss of a few familiar faces. The Crimson lost an NFL-caliber tackle to graduation in the form of Mike Berg ’07, who frequently drew double teams to free up space for the rest of the unit. The defensive end corps also took a hit in the offseason when the Bryant brothers–Desmond and Brenton—were forced to miss the season for unrelated academic reasons.
“[Mike Berg] was a great defensive lineman,” says junior defensive tackle Matt Curtis. “Coach Murphy always talks about how tough it is to replace a guy like Clifton Dawson; well, it is extremely difficult to replace someone like Mike Berg...He was the best defensive player in our league. It obviously hurts.”
Still, the loss of Berg doesn’t mean the line is in trouble. Returning tackles Curtis and classmate Carl Ehrlich—who missed the Holy Cross game due to a mild ankle injury but should be ready to go for the remainder of the season—should be able to come together to hold down the fort. They’ll get additional help from senior Matt Drazba beginning in Week 4, when he’s slated to return from an offseason ankle sprain.
As for the rest of the line, senior defensive end Brad Bagdis has glided his way into the role of captain after finishing as a second team All-Ivy performer in 2006.
He is supported by junior Sonny McCracken, who saw ample playing time in 10 games last year, and classmate Peter Ajayi, who showed smarts and mobility in significant action during the season opener.
What was a point of worry for Murphy at the start of last year is now an incontrovertible force with experience and talent.
The team’s 2006 captain, Ryan Tully ’07, is the only missing piece from last year’s linebacker puzzle, but his graduation has opened up the way for junior Matthew Thomas to enter the picture. Thomas is not lacking in experience, having seen time in all 10 games last year. He is accompanied by juniors Glenn Dorris and Eric Schultz, both of whom started as sophomores a year ago. The two have combined for more than 30 games’ experience and 17 starts in their two seasons.
“One of the biggest things is that we have a lot of experience coming back,” Curtis says. “We’re not starting a lot of guys that we didn’t last year. With the loss [to Holy Cross] with an experienced group, we know the defense, we know what we did wrong. Now it’s just a matter of adjusting, fixing those schematic problems.”
The linebackers and defensive line, as experienced as they are, cannot outshine the solid secondary. Multiple starters return to both the cornerback and safety positions.
At corner, Harvard has preseason All-American and 2006 first team All-Ivy member junior Andrew Berry and 2006 second team All-Ivy member senior Steven Williams.
In last weekend’s matchup, the two combined for eight tackles and four pass breakups. Berry nearly caught an interception in the endzone, and Williams leapt to break up what looked to be a sure 40-yard completion.
The position is rounded out by a trio of sophomores—Derrick Barker, Ben Jenkins, and Chris Carlson—who, although much less experienced, can all be playmakers.
Although perhaps underrated and certainly less decorated, no one can forget the safeties, seniors Doug Hewlett and John Hopkins.
To add to the individual experience, the core four have now played together for three years.
“It’s probably the best combination of talent and experience we have here,” Murphy says. “On the back end, we’re very solid.”
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.