PRINCETON, N.J.—It took the Harvard run defense two quarters to return to true form Saturday, and it nearly cost the Crimson the game. Before the break, the Tigers offense ran all over Harvard, only to see the game ripped from their grasp with a stronger second-half performance from Harvard that limited Princeton to just two field goals.
Until week five, the Crimson defense hadn’t allowed a single rusher more than 100 yards in a game since 2005. Then last Saturday, Lehigh senior Matt McGowan posted 105 yards on the ground, breaking the three-year streak.
Fixed on the idea that the way to beat Princeton was to stop its league-leading rushing attack, Harvard knew it had to get to Jordan Culbreath, the league’s leading individual rusher, and get to him early.
But in week six, Culbreath picked up right where McGowan left off, obliterating the century mark with consistent big gains through enormous holes created by his offensive line. The back ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone—more than Harvard had given up to any rusher over the course of an entire game.
“When we came out first half, and I thought the line was doing a great job, the holes were the biggest I’ve seen in a while, and the stretch play was working really well, the outside run,” Culbreath said.
The ground game kept the Crimson on its toes with a multi-threat attack. In addition to Culbreath, Harvard faced rotating quarterbacks as Brian Anderson—the usual starter, who was also recovering from a shoulder injury—switched with senior backup Dan Kopolovich on every few plays in the first half. In the end, however, the offensive attack that rolled to 221 total yards before the break came down to Culbreath and the offensive line.
“We knew pretty much when Kopolovich came in he was going to run the ball,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “What had us on our heels was that their offensive line did a great job, their backs run hard, and they just did a great job executing their option offense, starting with the running back, the tailback.”
Something had to change at halftime, and change it did, as the Crimson recovered from its early struggles to limit the Tigers’ attack, especially in the fourth quarter. Princeton still managed to move the ball at will, but when it came down to the red zone, Harvard knuckled down and forced the Tigers to go for three.
“I thought we played an outstanding game except when we got inside the red zone on offense,” Princeton coach Roger Hughes said. “We had a number of opportunities to put this game away, [and] we didn’t do it. And when we needed to make a big stop at the end of the game to preserve the lead or get the ball back, we weren’t able to do that. And that’s basically what the game came down to.”
The big fourth-quarter performance included a good read from senior defensive end Peter Ajayi where he dropped Culbreath for a 4-yard loss on 3rd-and-goal from the two. The loss forced the Tigers to kick a 23-yard field goal instead of getting the seven it had so easily earlier in the game.
But Ajayi wasn’t alone in his second-half heroics. Senior linebacker Eric Schultz seemed to be all over the field, wreaking havoc on Princeton quarterback Brian Anderson and his offensive attack. Schultz ended the game with 16 tackles, got in on a tackle for a loss, and shared a sack that gave the Tigers a 4th-and-18 from which it could not recover on its final drive.
“I got after our defense pretty good at halftime just in terms of ‘hey, stop bitching about the referees. Get off your blocks and tackle the tailback and everything else will fall into place.’ And I think our coaches did a good job,” Murphy said. “Coach Larkee did a great job, just reiterating we gotta play great assignment football, and it all starts with 21. He’s a terrific back, he’s the leading rusher in the league, and if he doesn’t go, then the rest of the zone option package doesn’t go.”
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.