NEW HAVEN, Conn.—Senior strong safety Andy Fried held on to the football at Harvard’s own 17-yard line Saturday like he would never give it up.
The Harvard defensive back had just secured a 35-23 victory over Yale after intercepting a T.J. Hyland pass. For the first time in Fried’s career, the Crimson had defeated Yale and ended the season on a winning note.
“It was the perfect ending to a perfect season,” Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said.
Of course, Fried’s interception meant much more than just one victory. It nullified years of heartbreak. It meant that Harvard had gone undefeated in Ivy League play for the first time since 1997. And more impressively, it meant that for the first time since 1913, the Crimson would finish untied and undefeated.
Undefeated. It’s a word that captures the essence of the entire Harvard football season. Harvard had been down, out, injured and outplayed, but never defeated.
After falling behind to Brown in the first game of the season, the Crimson came out firing at the end of the game to finish with a 27-20 victory. Then, overcoming the losses of senior running back Josh Staph and defensive end Phil Scherrer, among others, Harvard put away both its non-conference opponents, Lafayette and Northeastern, with strong play from backups on both offense and defense.
Harvard’s first road game, against Cornell, was a test for the defense.
The Crimson had given up 29 second-half points to the Big Red last year in its most crushing loss. This time around, senior end Marc Laborsky and the rest of Harvard’s defense held Cornell scoreless until the game went into garbage time.
The Crimson claimed a 26-6 win, emphatically answering all doubters.
It was after that game that I first wrote a column mentioning the possibility of an undefeated season, especially considering the “doormats” approaching: Princeton, Dartmouth and Columbia. Although I was wrong in assessing those teams—all at the peak of their seasons when met by the Crimson—Harvard remained, you guessed it, undefeated.
Princeton played the toughest of the three, knocking out Harvard quarterback Neil Rose midway through the game and gaining a half-time lead. But under the tutelage of the seniors and with help from junior wideout Carl Morris, backup freshman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick paced Harvard to a 28-26 victory.
With Rose still unable to play a week later, the team faced its biggest challenge against Dartmouth. Harvard had lost several skill-position players to injury in the past couple of seasons, but never its record-breaking starting quarterback.
Harvard fell behind 21-0 to the Big Green by the half. Murphy’s halftime speech just may have turned this 2001 Harvard squad into the stuff of legend.
Harvard came firing back in the third quarter, scoring three times in four minutes, once on a touchdown pass by Carl Morris. An Anders Blewett field goal put Harvard ahead, completing one of the greatest comeback victories in school history. From that time forward, “undefeated” held a new, special meaning.
Rose returned triumphantly in the next game against Columbia, which had just won two straight games. He led Harvard to a huge 38-point first half before finally leaving with yet another injury. No worries, though—the Crimson just inserted another freshman, Garrett Schires, to take the snaps. The 45-33 victory was the Crimson’s seventh straight win.
Everybody was healthy in time for the big match of the year against undefeated Penn—a team that had vanquished the Crimson three years in a row.
Harvard was clearly the more battle-tested team of the two and after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, the Crimson stormed back to take the game and the Ivy League title.
Saturday, this Harvard team of destiny once again faced adversity, in the form of the Yale Bulldogs and the pressure of trying to make history. The Elis played some of their best football Saturday, scoring 23 points and picking off Rose twice.
But Harvard was, well, undefeated.
This is a season to savor for a while and nobody deserves it more than the seniors on this team. They’ve endured the endless talk about the 1997 team and the sharp criticism for losing so many close games.
But the people who made the difference on the field against Yale were those same seniors.
Players like Dan Farley and Sam Taylor—roommates, best friends and the team’s No. 2 and 3 wideouts. They’ve provided excellent blocking and sure hands, deflecting attention away from Morris and getting 8-10 catches of their own per game.
Or cornerback Willie Alford, a three-year starter who broke up a fake-punt pass play and scooped up a fumble against Yale. In a conference where the passing game is getting more wide open and the receivers are getting bigger, Alford has been one of the top cover men in the league.
And then, of course, there are both lines. On the defensive side, Phil Scherrer, Kyle Sims, Ryan FitzGerald and Laborsky shut down the run, sacked opposing quarterbacks and caused turnovers like no other defensive line of the past five years. Offensively, Steve Collins, Danny Kistler, Justin Stark and Jason Hove led the Crimson to the Ancient Eight’s top rushing attack and made sure Rose always stayed vertical in the pocket.
The final “senior” star player (save Rose, who’s returning since he still has eligibility) is fifth-year tailback Josh Staph, who put up another 100-yard effort Saturday. Despite being low on the depth chart, often injured and not even invited to camp twice in a row, Staph has managed to play his way to 492 yards rushing and eight touchdowns this season.
“He epitomizes the program,” Murphy said Saturday. “He’s the Cinderella story.”
The 2001 Harvard football team was no Cinderella. But it was a helluva story.