State of the Crimson: Historic, But Hardly Invincible

This era of Harvard football has been one for the ages, but now the Crimson is at a bit of a crossroads

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Can They Run The Table?
Harvard controls its own destiny within the Ivy League, but a difficult matchup at Penn awaits in a few weeks.

Two straight weeks, two straight interesting results for the Harvard football team.

Leading up to the Crimson’s final nonconference matchup of the season against Holy Cross, I was dismissive of the fact several key starters had to sit with injuries. Even without its top performers, Harvard would, in typical fashion, grind out a victory.

Well, I was mistaken. The Crusaders delivered a convincing blow to the Crimson in Worcester—one that left me struggling to find a positive element to Harvard’s performance. The offense looked sloppy in the 27-17 defeat, and the defense was no more than adequate.

A bounceback week against Princeton was expected, and that expectation proved correct this time around. The Tigers have a good team, and accordingly, Saturday’s contest went down to the wire.

After Princeton kicker Tavish Rice nailed a 25-yard field goal on the first overtime possession, senior quarterback Joe Viviano countered with a diving reach into the end zone for the clinching score. Harvard walked away from New Jersey with a 23-20 victory.

Now, Harvard football (5-1, 3-0 Ivy) is at a bit of a crossroads. Following four games in which it only trailed once—3-0 to Brown in the first quarter of its second game—the Crimson has faltered a bit.

Will Harvard continue on the tried-and-true road of dominance through the Ivy League en route to another Ancient Eight title? This is very likely. I have watched precious few teams that seem so sure to win on a weekly basis.

But there is a chance the Crimson falls off its beaten path. Harvard’s looming road bout with Penn on Nov. 11 will be the defining game of the 2016 season, as the Quakers are also unbeaten in the Ivy League at 3-0. Princeton could also challenge these two for the Ivy championship, as the Tigers’ loss Saturday marks the only blemish on their conference record thus far.

In case Harvard does not win out, let’s revisit the last time the Crimson actually lost multiple games in a season.

Actually, this was not long ago. In 2012, Harvard dropped a 39-34 decision on the road against Princeton and fell to Penn in the penultimate game of the year, 30-21.

So Harvard football is not invincible. However, the fact an 8-2 record falls under this kind of scrutiny is impressive in itself. In fact, you would have to go back nearly to the beginning of coach Tim Murphy’s reign to find a Crimson team with a losing record.

That year was 1998. Harvard finished 4-6, but what else was going on in 1998?

Well, I was barely one year old. The cost of a gallon of gas was only slightly more than one dollar. Mark Zuckerberg (or the Winklevoss twins, depending on whom you believe) had not yet revolutionized the concept of social networking.

The point is, the year 1998 now seems like the distant past. So does 1995, when the Crimson won just two games—its lowest mark under Coach Murphy. And so does the entire stretch between 1988 and 1993 before he got there when Harvard failed to produce a winning record.

In fact, the contrast between now and then makes you wonder if there has been an era more dominant for Harvard football than the beginning of the 21st century.

Well, there was one. In the days when football was almost indistinguishable from rugby, the Crimson dominated the collegiate football scene. Harvard won nine national championships between 1890 and 1919.

Take the 1890 squad as an unrealistic, and frankly baffling, example of the Crimson’s prowess. This team allowed a total of 12 points in 11 games. Yes, barely more than a point per game.

Before you dismiss this low scoring trend as the product of a violent age of football in which there were more broken bones per game than points scored, take a look at Harvard’s offensive output. The electric 1890 offense totaled 555 points in those 11 games.

Regardless of what ends up happening in the Crimson’s final four games, the 2016 season will surely not stand out like the 1890 or 1995 seasons did. However, history is not always made year by year. When viewed in the context of the last 20-plus seasons, this era of Harvard football is historic indeed.

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at jackstockless@college.harvard.edu.

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