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The Harvard defense had just allowed 588 yards in four quarters of football, but you still weren’t worried.
Princeton running back Jon Veach had just posted the game of his life, running through holes the size of Hummers, but you still weren’t scared.
The Crimson defense hasn’t been consistent, but it has been something better—clutch—and it was the definition of clutch on Saturday.
The Tigers—still reeling from missing the potential game-winning field goal seconds earlier—got the ball to open the overtime period.
Facing first-and-10 on the 25, Princeton coach Roger Hughes called a running play for Veach, who was immediately stuffed to set up second-and-nine.
The Crimson needed two big-time stops, and it got them from just the two prime-time players you’d expect.
Veach carried again on the next down, but as he crossed the 23-yard line, the 5’10 back smashed straight into junior linebacker Bobby Everett. Everett stood him up, then bulldozed him into the ground for his 15th tackle of the day.
On the next play, quarterback Matt Verbit dropped back to pass, but was forced to scramble. You get one guess who pulled him to the ground on the biggest third-down stop in recent Harvard history—the one-and-only Dante Balestracci.
“We have nothing to be ashamed about,” Hughes said after the game. “It’s just when the game is on the line, we need to have players to step up and win the game. Today Harvard had more of those guys.”
Two of them were playing linebacker.
Not only did Everett and Balestracci combine for a ridiculous 31 tackles (four of which went for a loss), their tackles always seemed to come at the most critical times.
I don’t know much about defensive schemes, but I do know this. Whenever things seemed about to get out of hand, one of those two guys would come out of nowhere, throw a white jersey to the ground, and keep Princeton from ever really thinking it was in control.
Everyone’s come to expect this from Balestracci, but Everett assumed the Buchanan Award finalist’s role so many times yesterday that the public address announcer was having a tough time keeping the twosome straight. And you felt bad for him, because they did kind of start to look alike, the 6’2 No. 48 and the 6’1 No. 43.
The only difference was that Everett (nine solo tackles, six assisted, three-and-a-half tackles for loss) had an even better day than the senior captain (four solo, 12 ast, a half TFL). It was, by all accounts, Everett’s breakout performance.
Still, with the unit suffering yet another injury to a starter—this time senior Benny Butler left the game with a cracked rib—it wasn’t pretty. It’s impossible to give up 588 yards and be pretty.
But all season, whenever things get too close, the defense performs some miracle as if on cue. And that’s why you weren’t scared in overtime on Saturday.
“We gave up some big plays, and that’s something we need to work on,” Everett said. “But when it came down to it, we knew we weren’t going to lose that game.”
Of course not, because Harvard may not be consistent, but it is clutch.
After the defense held the Tigers to a field goal in the first overtime period, the offense took the field. Harvard coach Tim Murphy ran freshman Clifton Dawson four straight times—enough to raise his game total to 40 carries—down to the four-yard line where the Crimson faced third-and-goal.
Harvard called a time out and Murphy and offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini pulled out a clutch play. Garrett Schires then threw a clutch pass, and Rodney Byrnes—with two defenders hanging on him—made a clutch catch in the front of the end zone to win the game.
Sorry for the repetition, but that is the only word that describes this team accurately. In the last three seasons, Harvard has never lost a close Ivy League game, but it has won tons of them.
Why? Ask the coach.
“I’m not sure we outplayed them today,” Murphy said. “Our kids just found a way to win.”
His kids always seem to do just that.
—Staff writer Lande A. Spottswood can be reached at email@example.com.
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