Special Teams Plague Harvard

The Crimson, sitting 7-1 overall and in position to make a run at a second consecutive Ivy title, faces its toughest two tests over the final contests of the season. The key to winning those battles won’t lie in Harvard’s high-octane offense or its deep, experienced defense.

Instead, it will be part of something that the Crimson’s fans have bad memories of—special teams.

Granted, I’m a little biased. I’ve grown up watching Virginia Tech, a team that has moved from obscurity to national prominence by focusing on special teams, patenting a style called “BeamerBall” that lives off finding hidden points in the kicking game. It’s the only school I know where the fans stand up and pay rapt attention whenever the special teams come on the field. The Hokies even call their punt-block unit “Pride and Joy.” It’s a local obsession, but it’s paid huge dividends.

That said, I hope you haven’t paid attention to the Crimson’s special teams this season—or last, for that matter. Harvard currently sits last in the league in punt returns, kickoff returns, and net punting, a year after finishing third, seventh, and seventh in those categories (in fairness, the squad’s kickoff coverage has been excellent).

This weakness has the potential to become especially visible this weekend, when Harvard travels to Penn. The Quakers lead the league in kick returns, are third in punt returns, and have brought one each back for a touchdown—the only Ivy squad to do that this season. And it becomes even more important when you consider that Penn leads the league in total defense and is second in scoring defense. In other words, a touchdown given up in the kicking game is tough to overcome.

As a result, special teams should be focus number one for the Crimson this week. It doesn’t help that Harvard is an abysmal 1-12 in its last 13 trips to Franklin Field, including a 22-13 loss in 2006 that was not as close as that score would indicate.

The lone win since 1982 came in 2004, when Harvard dominated the Quakers 31-10 on the way to an undefeated season. Unsurprisingly, that 2004 squad was also excellent in the exact area where this year’s group is weak.

“In 2004, we were number one in the league in special teams,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We had great specialists, we had great units in general, and we were really good at it and it was a strength. That’s why, other than one game, we didn’t have a lot of close games that year.”

Another major drawback and source of disappointment for any Crimson fan over the last few years has been a serious lack of positive big plays for Harvard on special teams. In the last two years, the Crimson has allowed three punt returns for touchdowns without returning one of its own—in fact, Harvard hasn’t returned a punt for touchdown since 2004, when Brian Edwards ’05 took one back against Yale.

Instead, we’ve been treated to a series of gaffes—missed extra points, fumbled returns, a snap over the punter’s head, a blocked punt against Lehigh (the Crimson actually blocked one in the same game), and a punt return TD—all within the first eight games. And, for the moment, no one has stepped up to fill the role of playmaker.

“What we need from a returns standpoint, we need someone to really jump out and identify themselves as…a real threat as a returner,” Murphy said.

In the meantime, the Crimson will have to keep hoping nothing goes wrong until Harvard and its coaches can figure it out. If they can escape over the next two weeks, it’ll be the second straight year that the Crimson has pulled a Houdini act in that phase.

“Last year’s championship team, we won an undefeated championship despite being below average on special teams, and right now we’re competing for a championship and quite frankly at times struggle on special teams,” Murphy said. “We work on it every day. In fact, it’s such a priority with us and always has been that we spend the first 30 minutes of practice on nothing but special teams.”

Hopefully that emphasis will make us all want to pay attention—for the right reasons.

—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at bhinshel@fas.harvard.edu.

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