In preseason, boundless optimism takes full expression. As the great sportswriter Jim Murray once said about baseball’s spring training, “It’s March. Everybody wins the pennant. Every pitcher is Cy Young. Every batter is Ty Cobb.”
And the same is certainly applicable to football. Concerns are brushed aside and discounted, and confidence bubbles to the surface. Talking to the players and Tim Murphy over the past few weeks, enthusiasm reigned. One player told me that Collier Winters was surprising even the secondary coaches with his accuracy. Murphy expressed deep confidence in a Collin Zych-less secondary and thought that Treavor Scales, more so than his Ivy League MVP predecessor, could pull off those highlight-reel runs. And of course, no one would be able to stop Josue Ortiz.
But in the first game, always in that first game, optimism meets and is tempered by its cold enemy reality. The same was true for the Harvard Crimson Saturday afternoon in a tough 30-22 loss.
Winters, while accurate for parts of the game, threw two picks, and completed just over 50 percent of his passes in the final three quarters. The secondary made some serious gaffes, and a blown coverage allowed for a 68-yard touchdown. Scales’ longest run was just nine yards, and Ortiz only recorded two tackles.
Perhaps Murphy summed it up best. When asked about the positive takeaways from the contest, he quipped, “It wasn’t a league game.”
But it’s not fair to dismiss the contest entirely: there were some mitigating factors. Ortiz was double-teamed all game long and dealt with some pretty serious holding (and even so, he made one of those how-did-he-just-do-that tackles in the fourth quarter when he essentially outran the Holy Cross running back). The Crusaders blitzed like crazy, making the run less of an option and taking Scales out of the picture. That forced Harvard to go to the air 41 times.
And of course—most importantly—it was Harvard’s first game.
In my book, there are two broad categories of losses. The first: the other team was better—a lot better. Not a whole lot you can do about those.
The second: the teams were equally matched, maybe we were even a little better, but we didn’t execute. And the other team played well too, I guess.
Luckily for the Crimson, Saturday’s loss falls into the second category, thanks in large part to the rust that comes with the first game. If two plays had turned out differently—if Harvard hadn’t dropped a punt and Winters hadn’t thrown that pick-six—the scoreboard at the end of the game just as well might have read, “Harvard 24, Holy Cross 20.”
So for that reason, Harvard football fans can take a sigh of relief. Their team has the talent to keep up with anyone. I think that’s clear. Furthermore, one of the biggest question marks coming into the season—the offensive line—played quite well and gave Winters ample time in the pocket.
But regardless of the outcome, Harvard has its work cut out over the next four days, when the Brown Bears roll up to Harvard Stadium and the real season begins.
Because the Crimson, some of the time, just looked sloppy. Too many false starts from that young offensive line. Too many missed tackles by the defense, in addition to that blown coverage. A dropped punt. Harvard players bumping into each other. And not enough pressure on that Holy Cross quarterback. Overall, after a stellar first 16 minutes for the Crimson, Holy Cross outscored Harvard, 27-8.
Mind you, this was against a Crusaders team that had already played twice this season. It had a chance to work out some kinks and was playing at full-throttle yesterday.
Now, it’s Harvard’s turn to emulate that.