An all-league quarterback. Stellar wideouts. A sound defense breaking in three new starters in the secondary. An improved running game. Sound familiar?
It should, but maybe not in the way you think. That description applies just as well to the Crimson as to their first opponent of the 2008 season, Holy Cross (0-1), as the Crusaders come to Harvard Stadium at 7pm tonight for only the second night football game in the history of the venerable field.
Both teams come into the contest with questions in the secondary, and unless they find quick answers the game could rapidly become a shootout. Harvard, while returning senior All-American cornerback Andrew Berry, must replace departed All-Ivy corner Steve Williams ’07, a role that will be filled by junior Derrick Barker, the Crimson’s nickel back last season. Two new starters will take over at the safety positions, where senior Ryan Barnes and sophomore Collin Zych will attempt to fill the shoes of two All-Ivy graduates.
“I think the quality’s going to be good,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “That’s not to say you can just replace the guys we have to replace, but I think we’re going to be good.”
That secondary will be tested immediately, as Holy Cross quarterback Dominic Randolph, a preseason All-American, leads a potent Crusaders passing attack. Randolph threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns in Holy Cross’ first contest of the season, a 45-42 loss to No. 4 Massachusetts, on Sept. 6. Last season, Randolph torched Harvard for 339 yards and four touchdowns, including a 40-yard strike with 19 seconds remaining that gave the Crusaders a 31-28 victory, their first over the Crimson since 2000.
“There’s no question we’re going to be challenged immediately,” Murphy said. “There’s no question that, both in the quality of teams, and the quality of offenses, we better hit the ground running, because probably two of the three best teams on our schedule are weeks one and two.”
The key to stopping the Holy Cross attack may lie in Harvard’s talented front seven, a group that Murphy has called the best he’s had as the Crimson’s coach. Harvard will start seniors at every position along the defensive line and in the linebacking corps, and has just one sophomore, defensive end Ben Graeff, in the two-deep at those spots.
“They’re very, very good up front,” Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore said. “That’s going to be a challenge against them. Obviously the strategy is to try to keep them off balance.”
The Crimson will try to pressure Randolph, which it was unable to do effectively last season against a Crusader offensive line that yielded just 14 sacks on the year, including just one against Harvard.
“If we don’t get a lot more pressure, it’s going to be a long day,” Murphy said. “When he gets in a rhythm, he’s so accurate, so disciplined about getting through his reads, getting it to the right guy, we simply have to get pressure on him.”
Harvard’s offense had its fair share of success against Holy Cross’ defense last season as well. Senior Liam O’Hagan was the starter in Worcester last season as the Crimson racked up 442 yards of total offense, but senior First Team All-Ivy pick Chris Pizzotti will lead the Harvard attack this year with O’Hagan as his backup. It may seem odd for O’Hagan, the sixth-leading passer in Crimson history, to begin the season as a backup, but Pizzotti’s undefeated record as a starter and banner campaign last season earned him the starting job.
O’Hagan, however, is expected to see some playing time to take advantage of his athleticism. Last season, the Crimson used sophomore Collier Winters as a change of pace near the goal line and in certain situations, and Murphy plans to use O’Hagan in similar fashion.
“We won’t specifically limit ourselves to any situation, meaning that there’s no guarantees that where maybe Collier went in last year, Liam will go in this year,” Murphy said. “But we do have those same designs and packages for Liam, as possibilities.”
Pizzotti and O’Hagan will be without one of their top returning targets, junior Mike Cook, who will miss the game with a torn pectoral muscle. However, they do return a top receiving threat in junior Matt Luft, and the running game should be bolstered by new back Ben Jenkins, a junior who moved to the position during spring practice and won the starting job over junior Cheng Ho and sophomore Gino Gordon.
Regardless, Harvard will face a healthier Holy Cross defense, with three starters returning from injuries and a hungry team overall.
“Obviously we’re looking for a first win of the season, and I think there’s a lot of ammunition on both sides,” Gilmore said.
—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at email@example.com.