NOTEBOOK: Defense Bends but Refuses To Break
Early in the season, Crimson coach Tim Murphy characterized his defense as a “bend-but-don’t-break” unit. Harvard has made a living of backpedaling as its opponent picks up yardage, only to stop the other team cold when it counts, and Saturday’s matchup with Columbia was no exception. The Crimson yielded 394 yards—the most it has given up all season—but a crucial red-zone turnover and a pair of botched field goals left the Lions with just seven points.
“The big thing we did is, even though we allowed some yardage, I thought we did a great job in red-zone defense,” Murphy said. “Any time you hold anybody to one touchdown in this league, or anybody on our schedule, you’re doing a pretty good job. I think that was the big thing of the game.”
Three of Columbia’s first four drives made it into Harvard territory, but the Crimson defense always seemed to respond. Late in the first quarter, with the Lions at their own 46, quarterback Sean Brackett rifled a throw to receiver Kurt Williams in the left slot that looked to set Columbia up deep in enemy territory. But junior safety Jonathan Mason laid a perfectly-timed hit on Williams, jarring the ball loose and falling on the fumble for a big turnover.
The second half started much the same way for the Lions, who drove 73 yards on their first possession before a tipped pass at the Crimson four-yard line landed in the hands of junior linebacker Alex Gedeon. Just like that, a statement drive for Columbia became another trademark moment for the Harvard defense.
“Defensively, they did some things that hurt us,” captain Collin Zych said. “They did a great job coaching in the second half, making some adjustments, but it was great to see that we were able to get off the field and to make plays when we needed to.”
Thanks to these big plays, the Crimson built a 23-0 third-quarter lead before Columbia finally reached the endzone. Despite an additional 104 yards in the fourth quarter, the Lions would not score again, making an otherwise tight game look like a blowout.
When Harvard’s punt unit headed onto the field for the first time on Saturday, Columbia’s radio broadcast crew commented on the remarkable stockiness of the punter. That’s because, for the first time in his collegiate career, linebacker Gedeon—all 6’1” and 220 pounds of him—took on the starting punter role.
With usual sophomore starter Jacob Dombrowski suffering from a back injury, Murphy turned to Gedeon, who hadn’t booted a kick since moving to Cambridge.
“In high school, he was a quarterback, a defensive back, a linebacker, a punter—he never came off the field,” Murphy said of Gedeon. “And you want to recruit athletes, number one, kids that under pressure can do it. And number two, you want to recruit guys that are versatile, because you never have enough athletes.”
Gedeon certainly showed his versatility against the Lions, posting seven tackles and his key interception to go along with six solid punts. The junior averaged 36.8 yards per kick—two yards better than Columbia punter Greg Guttas—with a long of 47.
“I think being out there on defense definitely gets you acclimated to the situation,” Gedeon said. “It was a little bit different being 15 yards back and having a punt rush coming, but after the first one, I kind of settled down, and it was like riding a bike.”
Murphy was certainly happy to see his star linebacker settle into the dual role, as the timetable for Dombrowski’s return is unclear. For now, the coach stated that the job is Gedeon’s to lose.
Meanwhile, the Crimson must hope that the other side of its kicking game can find some consistency. Freshman plackicker David Mothander isn’t hurt, but he looked nothing like his dependable self on Saturday, when he missed a pair of field goals inside of 40 yards and bounced an extra point off the upright. Mothander was 8-of-11 on field goals entering the game against Columbia, but he pushed his first-quarter attempt wide right from 36 yards out before hooking a fourth-quarter try wide left from 34. The missed PAT was Mothander’s first of his rookie season. Still, Murphy seemed unfazed by his young kicker’s struggles.
“I think David was indicative of our team—we were on and off today,” the coach said after the game. “For a freshman, he’s done an outstanding job...Today he just didn’t have it, but he’s a legitimate athlete, legitimate kicker, and we’re happy to have him.”
—Staff writer Max N. Brondfield can be reached at email@example.com.