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With four seconds left on the clock, the Crimson's hopes at a perfect record in the Ivy League and three straight victories rested on the foot of freshman placekicker Robbie Wright. They ended off the fingertips of Cornell's 6'6 wide receiver and kick-blocking specialist Joe Splendorio, wobbling past the right goal post.
Cornell had erased a 28-point halftime deficit and was ahead, 29-28. But Harvard junior quarterback Neil Rose led his team from its own 26-yard line through a series of clutch passes to sophomore split end Carl Morris and huge runs by junior tailback Matt Leiszler down to the Big Red 10. The Crimson had first-and-goal with 37 seconds left and one timeout, but Harvard Coach Tim Murphy dismissed a shot at the end zone to kick the field goal.
As Wright lined up for the 27-yarder, the parallels to last year were all too ominous.
In that tilt at Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell quarterback Ricky Rahne and the Big Red charged back from a 13-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to give Cornell a lead 26 seconds left in the game. The Crimson drove down the field to set up a potentially game-winning 40-yard field goal attempt. But Splendorio denied the attempt by Mike Giampaolo '00 to win the game.
Splendorio's feat last year was fresh in the minds of both coaches.
"It's impossible not to [think about it]," Murphy said.
"What's more important is if they think about last year," Cornell Coach Pete Mangurian said. "That may be part of it too. Those things stay in your mind."
Unlike last year, Murphy had options at the end of the game. He had no choice, but to live or die by Giampaolo's foot at Cornell. On Saturday, however, the Crimson could have taken a couple of shots at the end zone before turning the game to its freshman placekicker.
Harvard's offense--dormant throughout the second half--certainly had the momentum in the last drive. Instead of capitalizing on the momentum Rose established down the stretch, Murphy told him to kneel the ball, use the final timeout and set up for the game-winning field goal attempt.
Yet with 37 seconds on the clock, the Crimson could have run anything from its playbook--a fade to Morris, challenging Cornell's seemingly porous secondary with a slant underneath or even a hand-off to Leiszler or Palazzo.
"We absolutely did [think about taking a shot at the end zone], but we figured it was such a chip shot," Murphy said. "I thought real hard about it, but I said I'd kill myself if we turned the ball over when we get a chip shot field goal to win the game."
However, the placekicking game has been a real liability for Harvard all season. Wright missed two field goals earlier in the first half that could have extended the Crimson lead to over thirty points.
Overall this year, Harvard kickers have successfully made only one field goal in seven attempts, including this past game's blunders. Murphy had already replaced the season-opener starter, sophomore Anders Blewitt, with Wright after two games.
With the amount the Crimson kickers have struggled this year, it is curious that Murphy would have placed so much trust in the leg of Wright, despite the kick being a so-called "chip shot".
"It's obvious that the ability to kick a field goal is a real weakness for us right now," Murphy said.
With the way the Big Red have stuffed the Crimson's last ditch field goal efforts by placing their tallest players on kick blocks, Cornell has exploited that weakness to its fullest.
"It looked like a decent kick to me," Murphy said, "The kid just jumped up and blocked it."
Granted, Wright should not bear the brunt of the blame for the loss. It takes a team effort to surrender a 28-0 halftime lead, and Splendorio made a spectacular play to tip the kick wide. Moreover, the inexperienced Wright cannot be reasonably expected to handle so much pressure.
The Crimson, however, now has a real problem on its hands and certainly Murphy will be a lot more hesitant to send in his field goal team when Harvard needs points.
This doubt can change the entire complexion of a game, change the strategy on both sides of the ball and allow the opponent to prey upon that weakness. Right call or not, Murphy showed immense confidence in the freshman's right leg.
Expect a fade to Morris next time.
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