Having been the football beat writer for the past three years, I’ve pretty much seen it all. From the gut-wrenching 22-13 loss two years ago at Penn when Clifton Dawson ’07 broke the Ivy League’s all-time rushing record to last year’s 37-6 drubbing of Yale to run the table and regain the Ivy title, no one game has been exactly alike.
And yet, just a few minutes into the game last Saturday, I found myself wondering if my second trip to Princeton would be much like the first.
Two years ago I began my career as a Crimson columnist, writing my very first column about a miss-call that cost Harvard the game. Those memories I had pushed so far into the back of my mind slowly began to creep forward.
Let me set the scene.
The 2006 edition of the Harvard-Princeton matchup had been highly anticipated, as both teams entered at an undefeated 5-0 mark. The Crimson found itself down 24-14 at the half, but after a few ballsy calls by head coach Tim Murphy—including going for it on a 4th-and-1 deep in Crimson territory—Harvard took the lead 28-24 and looked to have the game won after breaking up the Tigers fourth-down play with under five minutes remaining.
But as the play ended, then-defensive back Dan Tanner ’07 turned around and beat his chest…moments later flags flew. Unsportsmanlike conduct was the call, and Princeton was awarded 15 yards and the first down. The Tigers went on to score the game-winning touchdown three plays later to take the game, 31-28.
To say the call was bogus would be an understatement. It was down right ridiculous.
Saturday started out eerily similar to 2006.
Although the Crimson was the heavy favorite to demolish the Tigers, not much went the team’s way through the first couple of quarters.
After forcing a quick three-and-out, Harvard looked to be in a position to take an early lead on its way to the easy win as expected.
And as the ball spiraled into Crimson territory, there stood senior cornerback Andrew Berry, poised as he always is to receive punts. But as the ball came down, a Tiger and a Crimson special teams player tussled and pushed through Berry’s halo and into the senior. The ball came loose and was recovered by Princeton at the Harvard 20.
Yes, a flag flew, as it should when there is interference on the kick return. But as I feared in the back of my mind, the flag wasn’t for interference. Illegal block in the back, they called—against Harvard.
As the other writers and I tried to understand the call, we could see Murphy livid on the field and the coaches in the coaching box next to us distressed. Were we going to see a repeat of two years ago where the atrocious officiating cost Harvard the game?
Let me qualify this with the fact that I don’t by any stretch of the imagination believe that the Crimson played well before the break. Giving up 118 yards rushing and two touchdowns to a single guy in one half is not exactly what we’d call dominating the competition, but the Tigers were surely helped by a lack of consistency from the officiating crew. The entire complexion of the game would’ve been different without that missed call.
Numerous times the officials handed the Tigers a first down on what should have been second or third and short, and once the back judge—standing nearly 20 yards behind the play—tried to rule a Crimson pass incomplete over the line judge standing just feet from the play. While the play stood as the line judge called it—as a catch—it was just one more example of the inconsistencies in from the officiating crew.
I guess, in the end, it’s all a wash since the Crimson came back in the second half and won, 24-20. No one will remember how Berry got clocked or a yard that was given here or there.
All I’m saying is I don’t want to be reading the box score from Harvard-Princeton in two years and see that some botched call led to another chapter in the officiating drama that is the Tigers-Crimson matchup every time it happens in New Jersey.
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.