The Pennsylvania game had just ended, and Harvard coach Loyal Park was unwinding in the locker room, chatting about his defensive backfield.
"Last year they ranked eighth in the nation in pass defense," he was saying. "Right now, they're eighth again. I just thought people ought to know about it."
Park is quite correct. The Crimson secondary has held up well against several good passing games this fall. It has yet to yield a touchdown on the bomb, and twice has returned interceptions for touchdowns. But Park's defensive backfield has yet to face a quarterback as dangerous as Princeton's Scott MacBean, and its success in stopping him will most likely be the determining factor in any Harvard victory this afternoon at the Stadium.
The Tigers have serapped their disturbingly-successful single wing system this fall. and installed a basic "T" formation with MacBean as quarterback. It took them almost a month to adjust to it sufficiently. and in the process, they lost to both Rutgers and Colgate, and had to rally to defend a Cornell squad that at the time had little more than tailback Ed Marinaro.
But Princeton is always Princeton, and the Tigers are always a November football team. They clobbered Columbia, dumped Brown, and shut out Pennsylvania 42-0, on the way to becoming a consistent squad, so the team that plays in Cambridge today is not only cohesive and powerful, but is also undefeated in Ivy play.
But the Tigers are slim favorites on most charts, and their previous schedule, as well as its over-dependence on the pass, may be a reason for it. Princeton is unbeaten, but it played Cornell when the Big Red was extremely disorganized, and has yet to face either Dartmouth or Yale. Harvard happened to run into Cornell when the Crimson was missing its top linebacker and played an appalling offensive game. And the Dartmouth game is already behind it.
Much at Stake
So there is clearly quite a bit at stake this afternoon, and the loser, if it is Harvard, can write off any hopes of a second-place finish. If the loser is Princeton. the best the Tigers can hope for might be a tie for the runner-up position.
The Princeton game is always unusually important for Harvard. Whereas a loss to Dartmouth does not necessarily doom all chances for a successful season or even an Ivy title, and the Yale game, except in rare cases, is meaningless in terms of championships, the Princeton contest comes at a crucial juncture.
Three years ago the Crimson came back from Princeton with its undefeated season shattered by a late Tiger rally. Two years ago Princeton humiliated a Harvard team bent on revenge, 45-6, on regional television.
And last fall; with another Ivy title in the offing, and any Harvard victory almost assuring a clash of the unbeatens with Yale, the Crimson pulled out a 9-7 triumph in a game that was not only better played, but thoroughly more exciting than the tie with Yale. The Crimson was pushed all over the field by Dowling in the first half last November. The Princeton game was a totally different thing.
MacBean Is Key
Now it is Princeton who has the unbeaten record. It is Princeton that needs the victory to keep alive hopes of a season finale with Dartmouth that could mean the Ivy title. And MacBean is the key.
The Tigers have picked up 200 more yards passing than they have rushing, and for a Princeton team, such a statistic is highly unusual. Even with the most talented backfield in the League, the "T" formation has not done wonders for Princeton on the ground, and the passing game has yet to destroy any really strong secondary. It is likely that the tough Harvard defensive line can stifle the Tigers on the ground, but its secondary will have to keep doing the job on pass defense.
But most important Harvard must move the ball consistently. Last week at Philadelphia, it's progress was encouraging, although the Crimson's lack of killer instinct cost it 18 points on four drives that were stalled inside the Penn 10. If it can put it together this afternoon. Loyal Park may not have to worry excessively about the absolute necessity of stopping MacBean.