The first time Harvard got its hands on the football in Saturday's game with Cornell, the bleak, threatening clouds hanging over Schoellkopf Field began to break and lighten up. It's not likely that many of the 25,000 fans at the game noticed the change (it only lasted for a second or two), but nevertheless, it was a highly symbolic moment.
It was as if someone up there were supporting Harvard's changes against the highly-touted Cornell outfit.
The brief change in the sky also had personal symbolism for me. After four games of pessimism in which I had criticized the legitimacy of Harvard's winning ways, I finally saw the light. And I have to admit I was wrong about this Harvard football team.
Before the season began, I couldn't see how Harvard would improve its 4-4-1 record of a year ago. Crimson coach Joe Restic had lost a passel of talent at graduation, and was basing his hopes for a respectable season on a sizeable group of untried sophomores and juniors. I couldn't envision Harvard winning four games over the course of the entire season, let alone in the first four contests.
At that time, I picked Cornell to run roughshod over the rest of the Ivies. On paper, the Bid Red had too much in too many places not to sweep to sole possession of the Ivy title.
And I wasn't really that far wrong in evaluating the Big Red. It was just that I was miles off target when it came to evaluating Harvard.
Harvard's 21-15 margin over Cornell is deceptive: The game wasn't nearly as close as the point spread might indicate. Cornell got its final score on a desperation last-second touchdown heave by beleagured Cornell quarterback Mark Allen. The real score was 21-9.
And even that is not a real indication of how completely the Crimson outplayed Cornell on Saturday. Had it not been for three costly mistakes by the Crimson's usually-reliable quarterback Jimmy Stoeckel, Harvard would have blown the Big Red out of the stadium by halftime.
The errors all occurred in the second quarter, a period in which the Crimson defense was frustrating Cornell's offense at every turn. Cornell quarterback Mark Allen abandoned his ball-control game plan, and began throwing on first down situations in a desperate effort to pierce the Harvard defense.
Had any of these miscues not taken place, Harvard's margin at halftime could easily have been 14-3, 21-3, or 28-3, instead of a precarious 7-3. And by rights, the Crimson should have disposed of the Big Red before the final 30 minutes began.
But even with these mistakes hindering the Crimson's scoring, Harvard was in control from the opening moment of the game when Pat McInally's kickoff boomed four yards deep in the endzone and put the Red in a hole.
Harvard actually won the opening toss but elected to open the game on defense. Crimson captain and safety Dave St. Pierre explained the unorthodox move. "We felt we were the number one defense in the country, so we wanted it on the field not on the bench," St. Pierre said after the game. "And it worked out. I really think we were sticking out there today, and when you're hitting like that, people are bound to make mistakes."
Harvard didn't have a monopoly on hard hitting. In fact, the Cornell game was probably the toughest that Harvard will engage in this year. Crimson guard Bob Kircher summed it up best after the game: "In my four years here I have never been in a game where there was hitting that hard," he said.
So Harvard proved me and all the other sceptics wrong. I have been won over to the fact this is a very special football team, a team, as Restic said after the game, that "didn't come up here to find out if it could play with a team like Cornell, but came up here to go after them."
As I was leaving the press box after the game, a stunned Cornell supporter turned to me and said in an awed tone, "This was the best Cornell team I've seen here in a long time. The only way Harvard is going to lose now is if they let themselves get caught off guard."
He was right. While not too many people saw that fleeting moment in the first quarter when the sky lightened, a lot of us have now seen the light about the Harvard football game.