At first glance, Saturday’s matchup between the No. 19 Crimson (6-1, 3-1) and Columbia (1-6, 1-3) at Harvard Stadium doesn’t look like much of a fair fight.
On one sideline looms the Crimson, coming off a dominant performance last week against winless Dartmouth. Despite being ranked ninth in the nation in passing entering the contest, Harvard relied on its ground game with great success, out-gaining the Big Green 368 yards to -2 in the 35-7 win.
Sophomore Gino Gordon provided a spark from the start, garnering all of his 78 yards in the opening half on just six carries, and junior Ben Jenkins led the team with 111 yards on 20 carries.
Signal-caller Chris Pizzotti joined in the fun, sneaking into the end zone twice in the first half and throwing for a third touchdown on his only pass attempt of the second half.
Harvard defenders made quite a strong showing of their own, holding Dartmouth to 123 total yards. Senior linebacker Eric Schultz led the team with four tackles as well as an 11-yard sack.
On the other side of the field will be Columbia, fresh off its worst loss of the season, a 27-12 defeat at Yale. The Lions turned the ball over three times and had a punt blocked in defeat.
Making the first start of his career, quarterback M.A. Olawale threw an interception on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He later fumbled on a scramble and was pulled in favor of former starter Shane Kelly. However, a Kelly fumble late in the fourth quarter sealed the game for the Bulldogs. Yale running back Mike McLeod romped for all three of Yale’s touchdowns, the second of which came off of excellent field position resulting from the blocked punt. The Bulldogs did not turn the ball over.
Yet appearances may be deceiving, for Columbia isn’t coming to Cambridge without weapons of its own. Last week, Olawale showed signs of brilliance with his arm and legs, going 13-for-18 through the air for 109 yards and the one interception. He also rushed 12 times for 86 yards, including a 44-yard dash that set up a Columbia field goal and gave the Lions their only lead of the game.
His replacement Kelly did not fare so badly either, going 5-of-6 passing for 43 yards and rushing three times for 22 yards. He also notched the Lion’s only touchdown, scoring from 10 yards out to finish off a 10-play, 80-yard drive.
“Quarterback run might be the number one thing we have to defend this week,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.
As for defense, Columbia did manage to hold McLeod to 85 yards on 23 carries.
What was most encouraging about the loss was that the Lions came away with the victory in most statistical categories, such as first downs, time of possession, and total offensive yardage.
Repeating that feat will be difficult when facing Harvard’s stellar offensive and defensive lines, one of the best combinations in the Ivy League.
Still, fans of the Crimson should not expect an outcome as lopsided as last week’s drubbing of the Big Green.
“They’re much better than their record indicates,” senior cornerback Andrew Berry said. “They’re young, they’re confident, and they’re very well-coached.”
Columbia wields the Ivy League’s third-ranked defense and is second against the pass. Linebackers Alex Gross and Drew Quinn stand atop the league in tackles, and defensive end Lou Miller leads the league in tackles for a loss with 11.
“And you look at their last couple of games, I mean, they held Penn to one touchdown, they held Dartmouth to one touchdown, they held Lafayette to one touchdown,” Murphy said. “So their last three games, not including Yale, they held quality opponents to only one touchdown. They’re playing legit defense.”
The Lions will also try to utilize their top receiving target, Austin Knowlin, whom Berry called “arguably the best receiver in our league.” Knowlin has been held to 70 yards or less in all seven games thus far and has not caught more than five passes in a game.
Thus, while certainly wary of opponents Penn and Yale coming up in the next two weeks, Harvard must pay attention to its current foe, which only lost by three points to Princeton, a team that managed to give the Crimson quite a challenge.
“We will be playing a 1-6 team, but they’re more like a 4-3 team,” Murphy said.
Having held Dartmouth to negative rushing yardage, perhaps Harvard will be motivated by the fact that Columbia has not gained positive yardage on the ground in three seasons against the Crimson, averaging negative 11 yards over the three-year stretch.
Forcing mistakes and continuing to rely on Gordon and Jenkins will be keys to maintaining Harvard’s hopes for an Ivy title. And look for Pizzotti and star receiver Matt Luft to return back to prominent roles in the offense.
A win Saturday would extend Harvard’s streak of seven-win seasons to an Ivy-record eight consecutive years.