THE BOOK OF SAMUELS: Football Returns to the Top

The Book of Samuels

HANOVER, N.H.—The situation looked bleak for the Harvard football team a week ago. After a stunning 39-34 loss at the hands of the Princeton Tigers, gone was that nation-best winning streak, gone were any “best Harvard team of the modern era” claims, and more shockingly, for the first time in two years, gone was the Crimson’s ability to control its own destiny in Ivy League play.

But after last week’s did-that-really-just-happen loss, relative order has been restored in the Ivy League.

That glass slipper might just fit. Who knows? The guy might get the girl, the hero might vanquish the villain.

Because after Princeton’s 37-35 loss to Cornell, coupled with Harvard’s 31-14 win over Dartmouth, the Crimson is back in a tie for first place in the Ivy League, back in control of its destiny. What once seemed like a far-fetched, statistical improbability—a second straight sole Ivy League title—is very much back on the table. After all that, the Crimson may still achieve that happily ever after.

More than that, it’s hard not to think that Harvard is, once again, the favorite to take it all, or at the very least a share of the Ancient Eight crown.

For starters, despite that loss to Princeton, Harvard still boasts the league’s top offense plus a defense that leads the FCS in rushing yards allowed and sacks. Yes, the Crimson is still the class of the conference. Just ask Tigers coach Bob Surace.

“They’re the best team in the league by far…. There’s a reason they won 14 in a row,” Surace said last week following his team’s shocking victory.

A look at the schedules also indicates that despite that ugliest of ugly losses, the Crimson might still emerge on top all by its lonesome. With three games left in the season, Harvard faces Penn—the best challenger left—and two of the league’s three worst teams: Yale and Columbia. Princeton, meanwhile, still has dates with Dartmouth and Penn left on the docket, both of which could knock the Tigers off their perch atop the Ancient Eight.

For Crimson fans, that’s all well and good. But just because Saturday’s contest against the Big Green ended on a cheery note doesn’t mean that the Crimson shined or dominated.

When Harvard played Dartmouth in a blizzard last season, the Crimson put together a masterpiece, with three different players rushing for over 100 yards for the first time in program history.

If that was a perfect 10, Saturday’s performance against Dartmouth was a 6.5. Maybe. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to get the job done.

Sure, Dartmouth is the most complete team Harvard has played so far, according to Crimson coach Tim Murphy. The Big Green came into the contest leading the Ivy League in total defense and tied for second in the conference standings. And playing in another team’s house on Homecoming under the lights in front of fans with a unique gift for heckling can make the climb to the top that much more arduous.

That doesn’t explain away what wasn’t far from another blown second-half lead. Up 21-0 entering the break, the Crimson looked as dazed and confused entering the third quarter as it did in the fourth quarter a week ago against Princeton. For Harvard, it was the recurring nightmare that looked like it might define its season.

The Crimson attack that boasts eye-popping horsepower and can accelerate from 0 to 60 in a snap was sputtering. Taking out the last drive of the quarter, which ultimately led to a Harvard touchdown, the team tallied just 50 yards in the period to go with three three-and-outs plus a fumble recovered by Dartmouth at the Harvard 22.

The secondary that was so polite to Princeton in those final 15 minutes—no, after you, monsieur—was struggling against the no-huddle offense and falling apart once again, and the Harvard defense allowed 187 yards of total offense.

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