BOOK OF SAMUELS: Football Avoids Repeat of 2011 Opener

The Book of Samuels

It was nearly déjà vu all over again for the Harvard football team.

In its first game in 2011, a strong Crimson squad with high expectations met a weaker Holy Cross team coming into its third contest of the season. And what happened? Sloppy play from the Crimson doomed it to a 30-22 loss.

Fast forward to Saturday’s season opener. Through three quarters, Harvard was trailing, 13-7, against a San Diego team that—yes—was in its third contest of the season too.

Once again, the Crimson was beating itself. Harvard was giving away penalty yardage like it was tax-deductible. Quarterback Colton Chapple, whose laser precision in 2011 landed him in the Crimson record books, was doing something we didn’t see much at all last season: missing receivers, and at times, missing badly (though a strong wind didn’t help).

For a second, it looked like the script for the game was copied from the 2011 version. 2012’s season opener was quickly becoming the “Hangover 2” to 2011’s “Hangover.” Yes, it took place in a different spot. And fine, it may have had different antagonists. But in the end, the story was, well, the same: Sloppiness and rust end the quest for a perfect season as soon as it starts.

But finally, in the fourth, an alternate ending emerged.

Because the Harvard offense, with just 15 minutes to spare, finally awoke from that 10-month slumber. After hitting the snooze button for the first 45 minutes of action, the Crimson attack—with help from some tangible adjustments from the coaching staff—finally rolled out of bed and showed up at Harvard Stadium.

And one quarter later, 21 points later, Harvard had run away with it. If you look at the final score—28-13—it doesn’t even look that close. The Crimson emphatically shut the door at game one, extending its winning streak to 10 games dating back to—you guessed it—its Week 1 loss to Holy Cross a year ago.

What sparked the sudden about-face for the Crimson? Interestingly enough, it arrived after what might have turned out to be one of the afternoon’s more disheartening plays, a play that would have been the subject of countless “what-ifs” if the Crimson’s “W” had instead been an “L.”

With under two minutes remaining in the third quarter, San Diego had just taken the 13-7 lead. Then, on the subsequent kickoff, sophomore Seitu Smith II did what he does best: run and run and run, from the one-yard line all the way into the Toreros end zone for the touchdown.

Or, more precisely, what appeared to be a touchdown.

A holding call against Harvard brought the play all the way back to the Crimson six. What was supposed to be a lead-changer instead pinned Harvard deep within its own territory, 94 yards away from the San Diego end zone.

And so, everyone braced for another quick three-and-out from Harvard, which only just cracked 100 yards of total offense in the first half. One drive to go 94 yards? Might as well have been to Istanbul.

But that’s when something clicked for Harvard. Senior running back Treavor Scales found his stride. Chapple looked more like his old 2011 self (though he later threw what could have been a costly interception on the next drive). And with that, in conjunction with some careless San Diego penalties, Harvard marched down the field in just over three minutes and held the lead for the rest of the affair.

“Looking back after the kickoff return was negated, as a coach, you’re happy it happened,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “I certainly wasn’t happy it happened at the time. We had to show a little bit of stuff, we had to show a little bit of resiliency, and I thought our kids really kept their poise and really played their best after that point.”

Now, though, comes the real question, the one that frightens and excites players and coaches alike.  For the next nine games, which offense will show up? Is it the one from the first three quarters, the one with the horsepower of a mid-80s Kia? Or is it last year’s Hummer, which bulldozed everyone and everything in its path en route to an average of nearly 40 points per game?

Such are the questions and unknowns that are the exclusive purview of early-season contests. And as for the answers? Well, those may not come for a while.

But one thing is clear: If the offense is asleep at the wheel in future games for three quarters, even if the fourth quarter is a masterpiece like it was on Saturday, that 10-game winning streak might become a thing of the past very soon.

—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at robertsamuels@college.harvard.edu.

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