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After a preseason filled with the greatest of expectations, the Harvard football team finally gets a chance to prove itself when it opens its season against Columbia tomorrow afternoon at Harvard Stadium.
The Lions seem the perfect test for a Crimson team that, in its crucial fourth year under Coach Tim Murphy, finally appears ready to compete for an Ivy League championship. Columbia shocked the Ancient Eight last season when its 5-2 league record (8-2 overall) was good enough for second in the league behind undefeated Dartmouth.
"This game should give some indication of how we'll do this season," said sophomore quarterback Rich Linden, who is now the unquestioned leader of Harvard's offense. "Columbia's definitely a good team."
Last year it was largely the Lions' defense that led it to eight wins and earned Coach Ray Tellier Division II Coach of the Year honors. But the defensive line will have to cope with the graduation of several of its key components, particularly defensive end Marcellus Wiley.
The 6'5, 270-pound First Team All-Ivy lineman-who moonlit as a running back and managed to lead the team in touchdowns-was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of last season's NFL draft.
Columbia also loses two other All-Ivy defensive players in outside linebacker Rory Wilfork, a First Teamer, and defensive end Mike Jennings, a Second Teamer. The entire defensive line returns just one starter, senior Matt Kuhn.
Columbia's inexperience up front should enable Harvard tailbacks sophomore Chris Menick and junior Troy Jones-saddled with the responsibility of following Eion Hu '97-to hit the right holes and give Linden some real estate to work with.
The problem is that the Lions return a talented secondary, led by senior All-Ivy cornerback Roy Hanks. Hanks victimized the Crimson last season when he picked off senior Jay Snowden's pass in overtime to seal the Lions' 20-13 victory.
The other corner spot is filled ably by senior Michele Bellanca, who intercepted six passes of his own last season.
"Columbia claims to have the best defensive backfield in the Ivy League," Menick said.
"Columbia lost some good football players on defense, but they've returned some good players too," Linden said. "They have a great secondary and a very good offense."
That offense will feel the repercussions of Wiley's loss almost as much as the defense. He was a crucial component of Columbia's red zone offense; although Wiley carried the ball just 32 times, he ended up in the end zone on five of those carries.
Tellier will still rely heavily on the running game and will depend on junior tailback Jason Bivens as his go-to. Bivens averaged just 2.7 yards per game last season, but at 5'7 and 175 pounds, he is able to dart through opposing lines and will benefit from another year of experience under his belt.
"Columbia has a potent offense, like they did last year," said senior defensive end Chris Smith. "We'll have our hands full containing Bivens."
The Lions' passing game is somewhat of a question mark. Columbia has an able quarterback in senior Bobby Thomason, but with the graduation of wideout David Ramirez-who led the team in receiving yards last season with 573-as well as the numbers one and two tight ends, the receiving corps is largely untested.
With less pressure on its secondary, Harvard's much-heralded defensive front four and linebackers-third in the nation against the run last season-should have an easier time stopping Bivens and fullback Bert Bondi, himself also a receiving threat in short yardage situations.
Harvard's defense returns all 11 starters and will be the Crimson's cornerstone this season. The defensive schemes that had to be learned last year must be mastered if Harvard is to contend.
"We've repped every defense we've got, so we can play it against anybody in the league," Kacyvenski said. "There were a lot of new people last year, so everyone was scrambling a lot to learn the defense. This year we can be a lot more complex."
Perhaps more important than the nuts and bolts and the on-paper matchups of this game are the many X-factors involved. Columbia has had several minor injuries during the preseason that have prevented Tellier from running full-squad practices. How the dearth of practice time will affect the Lions' chemistry remains to be seen.
Furthermore there is a revenge factor to consider. Harvard led last season's matchup 13-0 at halftime before surrendering the lead. Its players have a mandate to prove that they can take a lead and hold it.
"We went up 13-0 last year and ended up blowing it, Kacyvenski said. This year we're not going to stop until the end of the game."
The preseason Ivy League coaches poll, which predicts a second place finish for Harvard, would suggest that this year will be different than last. The presence of 17 seniors on the team, members of Murphy's first recruiting class, would suggest that this team has a new attitude.
"As far as the seniors go, this is the last chance we're going to have for the rest of our lives, Smith said. We're certainly not going to leave anything on the field."
All that remains is for this team to finally justify its press clippings.
"We've been practicing for three weeks already," Menick said. "We're ready to kick some ass."
FOOTBALL GAME PREVIEW
(0-0-0) Ivy, (0-0-0) Overall
Head Coach: Tim Murphy
Captain: Brendan Bibro
Site: Soldiers Field
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
On Radio: WHRB 95.3 FM
Tickets: In Coupon Book
Last Meeting: Columbia won 20-13 at Wien Stadium
Series History: Harvard leads 42-12-1
Head Coach: Ray Tellier
Captains: Jay DuPertuis Matt Kuhn
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