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Today's Harvard-Princeton game is the season's first elimation game.
Because both Harvard (2-3, 0-2 Ivy) and Princeton (1-4, 0-2) have dropped their first two Ivy League games, the loser will be resigned to a spoiler's role for the rest of the season.
But while this game has similar meaning for both the Crimson and the Tigers, the two teams are going into today with very different outlooks.
Harvard comes off a 28-25 victory over Holy Cross in which the Crimson exploded to a 21-0 lead then held on for dear life thanks to big plays by the defense and a clutch touchdown from the offense.
Sophomore safety Derek Yankoff intercepted two passes, one near the end of each, half, and the second one sealed the game for Harvard. Freshman quarterback Rich Linden earned Ivy League rookie of the week honors with two touchdown passes in his first start, including a 46-yard strike to Colby Skelton two minutes into the fourth quarter.
Senior tailback Eion Hu ran 33 times for 106 yards and scored twice on the ground, bringing his career total to 24 rushing touchdowns and 25 overall, within four of Harvard's career mark.
"I feel better each week," said Hu, who has battled a hamstring and two knee injuries. "I'm very happy to be feeling this way for the Princeton game. I hope we run the ball up and down the field so that the offensive line and I gain confidence."
Also injured is junior quarterback Jay Snowden, the regular starter. He sprained his left shoulder two weeks ago against Cornell and sat out last week's game.
"Jay's feeling fine," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. "He's had a good week of practice."
The Crimson has generally out played its opponents this season, with two fewer turnovers, more total yards, more first down, and more time of possession. Because all of its games have been close, Harvard could string together a few wins if it starts to make clutch plays consistently. A win today would mean the first back-to-back wins in the same season for Harvard since 1991.
Harvard's defense remains hot, ranked fourth in Division I-AA against the run and 14th overall. The Crimson had a season-high five sacks last week and held the Crusaders to only three out of 17 third-down conversions. The defense also has produced Harvard's two other Ivy rookies of the week, freshmen Aron Natale and Isaiah Kacyvenski, a two time winner.
Princeton, on the other hand, comes into today's action on a three game losing streak, having lost each game by six points or less. Another loss would put the skid at four, the first time a Princeton team has dropped that many consecutive games since 1986 and the first time ever for coach Steve Tosches.
The ice-cold Princeton offense has used three different centers and three different quarterbacks. Last week, that helped contribute to several fumbles on the snap, and the Tigers ended up losing four of their eight fumbles.
Princeton did more than lose just that; they lost the game to Bucknell 10-6 despite giving up minus-28 yards rushing and only 66 total yards on defense. Senior Dale Bartley was named Ivy League defensive player of the week because of his five tackles for loss, three sacks and fumble recovery. The Bison won despite going only one for 17 on third-down conversions and tailback Rich Lemon gaining only five yards on 19 carries.
Harvard does not plan to change its offensive attack at all, however.
"They've been extremely tough against the run, the past two games," Murphy said. "As usual, we have to mix it up and be able to throw."
"We want to dominate them up front," captain Sean Riley said. "They are a very good defense with good athletes, but they are a little bit small."
Princeton also has a good, experienced secondary, but "we have to challenge them and make them prove it," Riley said.
Defensively, Harvard plans to stop Princeton senior tailback Marc Washington, who has averaged 98.2 yards rushing per game. "We want to put them in third-and-long situations," Murphy said. "We will put more defenders on the line that they can block and then dare them to throw."
Last year, Princeton beat the Crimson 14-3 on two touchdown passes from Brock Harvey to Kevin Duffy. The Tigers thoroughly dominated the game, gaining 378 yards to Harvard's 257 and having possession for 13:26 longer. They also held Hu to only 48 yards on 16 carries.
Today at 1 p.m., Harvard will try for a more memorable result as it plays its last game ever at Palmer Stadium, which was built in 1914 and stands behind only Harvard Stadium as the oldest in the country. Next year, Princeton plays all 10 games on the road while a new 28,000-seat arena is built.
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