The plan seemed logical enough before the season started. The Harvard football team would destroy Columbia in the season opener, getting off to a good Ivy League start, then face a real test a week later against Colgate.
Things did not go according to plan, however. Last Saturday, Columbia (1-0, 1-0 Ivy) shocked Harvard (0-1, 0-1 Ivy) 24-0, and tomorrow's showdown at Colgate (1-1) is suddenly a struggle for survival.
The Red Raiders are likely the best team Harvard will play all year, and coach Tim Murphy said they definitely have the best offense among Harvard's opponents. But the biggest blow the Crimson could sustain this week has already been inflicted.
The unbelievable run of injuries Harvard has sustained this year got worse when junior tailback Chris Menick-who set school records for rushing yards and touchdowns last year-broke his thumb and injured his ankle during practice. Harvard has already lost junior defensive end Brian Daigle, senior running back Troy Jones and junior fullback Damon Jones for the season, although Menick should be able to return in a few weeks.
"It does get to where you just shake your head," Murphy said. "Last year we were almost completely healthy, but we've had more than our share of injuries. We've just got to outwork and outhustle other teams."
Harvard will use sophomore Chuck Nwokocha and junior Josh Belczyk at running back this week. Although Nwokocha has great speed, he is only 5-6, 160, and he must show he can bear a heavy workload. Belczyk has even more to prove because he has only 10 career carries.
The Crimson wasn't supposed to have this many questions on offense, but Columbia's defensive front four exposed Harvard's offensive line. Colgate's line can also cause problems, as its three sacks and 17 tackles for loss in a 35-14 drubbing of Towson State proved.
Because the offensive line couldn't contain Columbia's pass rush, junior quarterback Rich Linden spent most of last Saturday afternoon on his back. He had only 60 passing yards last week but will need a far better total with such an untested running game.
"We wish we'd have Menick out there, but we're confident in the backups we have," Linden said. "I think there'd be something wrong with us if we threw in the towel after the first week. You almost wouldn't have it any other way."
The bright spot for Harvard is that Colgate's defense tends to give up points in bunches. In its season opening 45-35 loss to UConn, Colgate gave up 327 passing and 140 rushing yards. The Huskies scored 24 points in the second quarter and 14 in the fourth, and it had two wide receivers with more then 100 receiving yards. Last week, Towson State scored all 14 of its points in the third quarter.
Colgate makes its living on offense, however, with a freeze-option attack similar to the one Syracuse runs with Heisman-contender Donovan McNabb at quaterback. Against a far more predictable Columbia attack, Harvard gave up two rushing touchdowns--although they were both one-yarders--and the coverage broke down on a touchdown pass.
Colgate junior quarterback Ryan Vena, who was held out last week with a right shoulder injury but will return against Harvard, was the Patriot League player of the year as a freshman and sophomore.
"He's their Doug Flutie," Murphy said. "He can do some incredible improvisational things."
Because the opposing defense must honor the fullback dive, the quarterback keeper, and the tailback, it has trouble covering receiver Corey Hill, who has 13 catches for 224 yards in Colgate's first two games.
"You have to play an assignment instead of a reaction defense," Murphy said. "You have to very disciplined, and you can't afford to slip up."
Hill has caught a pass in a school-record 33 straight games, and he even threw a 32-yard touchdown pass last week. In each of Colgate's first two games, five different Red Raiders scored touchdowns, and a bevy of running backs share the carries. Columbia's offense split the workload last week and had the benefit of fresh legs late in the game, when Harvard's defense was tired.
Although Colgate presents a huge challenge on paper, Murphy said Harvard needs to focus on itself more.
"We Have to play harder and sharper," Murphy said. "I have confidence in our team, and I think we can win if we give a great effort."
Tomorrow's 1:00 p.m. contest will show Harvard character and will also show whether last week's bludgeoning was a fluke or something Harvard fans should get used to. Murphy seems resigned to the fact that things will be different from last year's 9-1 season, but he expects Harvard to play hard and be competitive.
"Our defensive line last year had about 120 games collectively," Murphy said. "This year's has almost none, Although I think that [newness] will wear off. I think last week was an aberration in this regard: it should have been close, although Columbia was a very good team. We just didn't play hard."