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Warning: If You Punt Against Harvard, Cover the Middle

Football Notebook

By Michael Stankiewicz

The key to a good baseball team is strength up the middle--the catcher, second baseman, shortstop and centerfielder.

And the same applies, apparently, to a punting team. The Harvard football team has taken advantage of its opponents' weakness up the middle to block four punts in the last two games, directly accounting for three of the Crimson's four touchdowns in that span.

Two weeks ago, it was Andy Sullivan bursting up the middle to block a Fordham punt, which was returned 32 yards by Jim Reddinger for the game's first score. Later in the game, Sullivan would be in on another blocked punt, which was credited to linebacker Joe Gordian.

When it came time for analyzing game films last week, Harvard was in for a pleasant surprise. Princeton's blocking scheme on punts was the same as the Rams--strung out along the line and weak up the middle.

Sure enough, on Princeton's first punt attempt of the afternoon, Gordian broke through the middle of the line and took on punter Chris Lutz's personal protector. Right behind Gordian was Reddinger, who took the kick square in the midsection and deflected the ball into the end zone, where he landed on it for his second touchdown of the season.

"They string it out on punts to account for everybody on the line," Gordian said, "but that leaves the middle weak. We're taught to hop the inside leg and go for the point of the kick. And the first person through is responsible for occupying the personal protector."

"[Blocking punts] has been a part of our philosophy going in and every week, we pore over the films to look for a weakness," Harvard Coach Joe Restic said. "We were fortunate enough that we had people through that had a little speed and a good jump on the ball and were able to block it."

With the Crimson clinging to a 10-7 lead in the second quarter, it was Gordian's turn again. This time, he was the one who broke free into the backfield and managed to deflect Lutz's kick with his left palm off to the sideline, where the ball settled at the Princeton 11-yard line.

In the confusion that followed, a swarm of Harvard players and Lutz converged on the ball. Almost scared of being featured on a football "bloopers" film, nobody reacted to the ball, until Gordian finally scooped it up and then stood in place for a moment. Still surrounded by several Crimson players, Gordian finally turned towards the Princeton goalline--evoking images of a compass reorienting itself towards the North Pole--and rumbled past and over the beleaguered Lutz and into the end zone.

"I didn't want to run the wrong way and go into the record books," said Gordian, who had lost his bearings because he was surrounded by so many Harvard players.

Scoring Leaders or Tackles Leaders?: One result of all this defensive celebrations in the end zone has been a very surprising scoring leaderboard for the Crimson. Following kicker Scott Johnson (34 points) and halfback Andy Bell (18) are junior running back Matt Johnson (12), Reddinger (12) and Gordian (8), who also registered a safety against Fordham.

But this only highlights the offensive unit's inability to register any point production this year. While Harvard is rushing for more than 170 yards per game behind Johnson and sophomores Robb Hirsch and Kendrick Joyce, quarterbacks Tom Priore and Adam Lazarre-White have been punchless. And the offense has registered only nine touchdowns in its first six games.

"Our defense is playing good enough to win. Our kicking game? I'm very, very pleased with that part of it," Restic said. "Offensively, we have to throw the ball better."

But Restic added that it's hard to blame Lazarre-White, who is under almost constant pressure whenever he drops back to pass. Missing the right side of the line, Tom Callahan, Mike Zweber and Darrin Duda, the Crimson struggled in the trenches. Also not on the field was Lazarre-White's favorite receiver, Andy Lombara, who sprained an ankle in the second quarter.

"Missing one side of your line, you're working a game plan one way and you don't have the passing game going, you're talking about a tough assignment," Restic said. "I never had that happen to me before."

Gordian Knot II or Fumin' Neumann?: It was Gordian who got the individual honors for Harvard's defensive effort, earning Ivy League, ECAC I-AA and I-AA National Defensive Player of the Week accolades. The linebacker and Harvard's acting captain registered eight tackles and one sack in addition to the blocked punt.

But it was defensive end Spencer Neumann who dominated the line Saturday, consistenly forcing his way into the Princeton backfield to tackle running back Erick Hamilton or sack QB Joel Sharp. Neumann finished with 11 tackles and four quarterback sacks.

Who Created This Mess?: It was a strange convergence of results that produced the five-way tie for first place in the Ivy League, and the Harvard-Princeton game had nothing to do with it.

First came the score from Ithaca, N.Y., where the Big Green had utilized three Dean Durkin field goals to take an 11-6 decision from the undefeated Cornell Big Red. Then the shocker, a late touchdown gave Brown a 24-17 decision over also-undefeated Penn in Providence. And finally, the expected Yale blowout over Columbia, 31-7, produced the logjam at the top of the league standings. Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Penn and Yale all lie at 2-1 with four games remaining to be played.

The easiest paths to the title? Cornell and Dartmouth, which both have games against Brown and Columbia remaining on their schedules.

Turning Over a New Leaf: Harvard has outfumbled its opponents by a 23-14 margin this season. But on the interception side, Harvard sports a 10-4 advantage. If you include the blocked punts, the Crimson holds a 28-27 turnover advantage.

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