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The Promised Lande: Playcalling Smothers Crimson Offense

By Lande A. Spottswood, Special to the Crimson



ITHACA, N.Y.—It seems a little silly to travel six hours to play one quarter of football, but that’s exactly what Harvard coach Tim Murphy had his offense do on Saturday.

The Crimson effortlessly racked up 213 yards and three TDs in the first 15:39 to take a 20-0 lead. It was on its way to another 50-point performance. Ryan Fitzpatrick was primed for another 450-yard output.

But then his own defense tripped him up.

Led by a strong front seven that shut down the run, the Harvard defense made Cornell one-dimensional. It forced turnovers. It stuffed fourth-and-ones. It mocked an overmatched Big Red offense, letting them drive tantalizingly close to the endzone before smirking and saying, “No way.”

And it was all really fun to watch, except for one thing—when the defense plays extremely well, the offense can’t.

I know that sounds dumb, but think about it. Once Harvard gets a good lead, Murphy goes conservative.

The “four-minute” offense takes over indefinitely—pending only a comeback by the other team—and the Crimson begins to battle the clock instead of the opponent.

In Ithaca on Saturday, there was no comeback. The defense was too good, so the offense was not. If the defense was “gorges,” the offense was “plains,” and it made the two teams seem much more evenly-matched than they really were.

“We were maybe three or four plays from winning, or being [close], in this football game,’’ Cornell coach Tim Pendergast said.

But Cornell wasn’t close. They were only as close as Murphy let them be.

It wasn’t the Big Red defense that shut down the Harvard offense the final three quarters, it was Murphy, and that wasn’t anything new.

The Crimson entered the game ranked fifth nationally in scoring offense (41.0 ppg), but had only scored 13 points in the fourth quarter. Either Murphy is really afraid of turning the ball over, or he is just too darn nice to run up the score.

But that wasn’t clear to everyone on Saturday, especially the media that regularly covers Cornell.

Not familiar with Murphy’s affinity for conservative play, one reporter asked Fitzpatrick what the Big Red defense had done differently to shut down the Crimson after the first quarter.

The reporter thought that Cornell had figured out Harvard’s offense, found a flaw and taken advantage of it. Come on. It takes incoming freshmen two years to figure out how to play in Murphy’s complicated offense, so it would probably take lowly Cornell more than a quarter to figure out how to stop it.

Still, Fitzpatrick politely answered the question. “Um, well, I think we were a little more conservative in the second and third quarters,” he said.

Yeah I think so. Murphy was trying to so hard to run out the clock, you were tempted to ask him if he were a Red Sox fan trying to get the game over in time for the 4 p.m. first pitch.

And not only was it boring, it wasn’t working.

Playing without a multitude of offensive lineman and with an injured Ryan Tyler, Harvard struggled to run the ball successfully when it was running on every down.

Even though Fitzpatrick attempted a grand total of just seven passes once the Crimson led by three TDs, Harvard didn’t have a single drive longer than three minutes. If you take out Corey Mazza’s 64-yard TD reception—the only second-half reminder of the Crimson’s big-play character—there was no drive longer than 18 yards. In the final three quarters, there were only five first downs, compared with six three-and-outs.

But it didn’t matter to Murphy. As long as the defense preserved the win, his offense didn’t need to build on it. In the end, the Crimson was 4-0, and I guess that’s all that really matters—not national rankings or Fitzpatrick maintaining his position as the top statistical QB in Divison I-AA.

But it would still be nice for Harvard to win some of these games 55-0 just because it can.

—Staff writer Lande A. Spottswood can be reached at

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