“It always comes down to Penn.”
That was how Harvard football coach Tim Murphy put it. In 2004, 2007, and 2008, his team had to go through the Quakers in order to win an Ivy League championship, and this year is no different. In fact, that statement is more true than ever.
The two rivals will face off tomorrow in a game that will determine the Ivy League championship.
The teams sit tied atop the conference standings with 5-0 Ivy records, both 6-2 overall. Tomorrow’s victor will clinch a guaranteed share of the league title and put itself in a position to win the Ancient Eight outright with a win next week.
With both teams expected to win their regular-season finales, the winner of tomorrow’s battle at Harvard Stadium will have a championship in its grasp.
Harvard is looking for its third-consecutive Ivy title. If it wins, it would mark the first football threepeat since Dartmouth earned three in a row from 1990-92. If Penn, which is on a six-game winning streak, takes this year’s title, it would be its first since 2003.
“When you win the league two years in a row, we’re pinning a bulls’ eye on ourselves,” said captain and defensive lineman Carl Ehrlich. “We took Penn out of contention last year...we know they’ll be gunning and looking for payback.”
The Crimson comes into the contest with the most efficient offense in the Ivy League, averaging 28.9 points per game. The Quakers have the best defense in Divison I-AA, allowing just 11.0 points per game. Something will have to give.
“It’s one thing moving the ball and scoring the points against some of the teams we’ve played recently,” Murphy said. “And playing a championship-level defense like Penn...I think that’s going to be our test.”
Unlike Harvard, Penn does not come in with a high-powered offense; instead, it has won by playing smart, efficient football. The Quakers have averaged fewer penalty yards per game than any other team in Division I, and have the highest time of possession and the best turnover margin in the Ivies.
Because of this, Harvard will have to force Penn to make mistakes and take it out of its “small-ball” style of play. If the Crimson can turn this one into a shootout, the Quakers—seventh in the Ancient Eight in pass offense—may have trouble winning.
Forcing mistakes will require putting pressure on Penn quarterbacks junior Keiffer Garton and senior Kyle Olson, who will likely both see playing time tomorrow. Garton started versus the Crimson last year, and though he ran for 174 yards, he threw three interceptions.
“With Keiffer, you got a guy that, you know, is—with [Columbia quarterback M.A.] Olawale out—probably the best and most athletic quarterback in the league, a kid that just killed us with his feet last year more than with his arm,” Murphy said.
The Crimson defense is thinking most about how to stop Penn’s running game. Quaker halfback Lyle Marsh rushed for 99 yards last week against Princeton and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry on the season.
“I think our defense’s M.O. is we stop the run, that’s what we [hang] our hats on,” Ehrlich said. “If we shut down a team’s running game and shut them down one-dimensionally, we can have success.”