After missing weeks two through five with a hamstring injury, Collier Winters exploded in his week-six return, throwing for 403 yards and five touchdowns in the Harvard football team’s win over Princeton. On the year, Winters completed a program-record 68.6 percent of his passes.
It’s rare that a record-setting quarterback gets sent to the bench, but senior Collier Winters quickly made Harvard coach Tim Murphy’s decision to sit junior Colton Chapple in favor of the fifth-year senior look brilliant.
Coming into the 2011 campaign, it was all but assumed that Winters, the returning starter, would lead the Crimson attack, but a week-one matchup against Holy Cross forced the Harvard football team to change its plans.
In a 30-22 loss, Winters threw for 265 yards and two scores but also tossed two interceptions. In the fourth quarter, a scrambling Winters was brought down during a two-point conversion attempt when he heard a pop in his hamstring.
“At first, I didn’t think it was going to be that bad,” Winters says. “But throughout the rest of the fourth quarter it got really tight and pretty sore, and the next day it was tough to walk on.”
Throughout the ensuing week, Winters remained hopeful that he could start in the team’s next game, even if he was slightly injured. But he was never able to do much running, and it became clear that playing against Brown would not be a realistic possibility. Enter Chapple.
The junior had gained experience under center the previous year thanks to a Winters groin injury, and the Georgian quickly took advantage of his second big opportunity. In his first two games as a starter, Chapple led the squad to 24-7 and 31-3 victories over Brown and Lafayette, respectively, posting modest but solid passing numbers in the process. Then, with Winters still sidelined by injury, Chapple exploded in his following start the next week against Cornell.
Chapple amassed a whopping 414 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air in a 41-31 shootout. He followed that performance with a five-touchdown outing against Bucknell, in which he needed only 23 pass attempts to put the team up by 35 points.
Heading into that battle with the Bison, Winters said he was healthy again and ready to play. But Murphy thought otherwise and kept Chapple’s hot arm first on the depth chart, as he explained to Winters during the week.
“I thought that I was healthy enough to play, but I sat down and had a talk with Coach Murphy, and he said they were going to go with Colton for a few reasons—mainly because I wasn’t 100 percent and it wasn’t an Ivy League game,” Winters says. “It ended up being the right decision, even though I was itching to get back.”
After Chapple had put up historic numbers in back-to-back weeks, Murphy made the surprising decision to reinstate Winters as the No. 1 quarterback for the team’s next game at home against Princeton.
In advance of the game, the coaching staff was split on who should start, but Murphy was sure that he wanted Winters back under center. Beyond believing that Winters was a better quarterback, if only slightly, Murphy also decided on Winters based on how much the fifth-year senior had sacrificed to come back for another campaign, and because he didn’t want to punish Winters for getting hurt.
“If you put it all together, how much the kid had sacrificed, how much experience he had…he deserved to play by merit, and he certainly deserved to play by circumstance,” Murphy says.
Still, even the stadium announcer was caught off guard by the switch, incorrectly introducing Chapple as the starter before the game. Despite the adversity, Winters silenced potential critics of Murphy’s swap by matching, if not topping, Chapple’s previous two performances. In a 56-39 win, Winters threw for over 400 yards and five scores while completing more than 80 percent of his passes.
“He comes out and executed comfortably and almost flawlessly in the Princeton game,” Murphy says. “It takes a load off the coach when you come out and put up 56 points and almost 600 yards on the board.”
The known scrambler also added 30 yards and a touchdown on the ground, eliminating doubts about the strength of his hamstring.
“I had prepared for that game [and was] really just happy to be back playing football. It was a big game anyway, so I didn’t really try to put any more pressure on myself,” Winters says. “I was grateful to get my job back and ended up having a big game, so that took pressure off for the next week.”
Winters’ masterful return allowed him to regain control of a team undefeated in conference play. Winters would lead his squad to four more victories to close out the year at 9-1 as Ivy champions. On the year as a whole, Winters completed 68.6 percent of his passes, a single-season Harvard record.
“I thought he played tremendously down the stretch,” Murphy says.
—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at email@example.com.