What a difference two weeks can make.
Just that long ago, the Harvard football team was undefeated and poised to make a run for its second Ivy League championship in three years. After defeating Princeton in a dramatic 43-40 overtime victory on Oct. 25, Harvard and Penn stood tied atop the Ivy standings with three league wins apiece.
With both teams entering an easier part of their schedules, it seemed a certainty that the Ivy title would once again be decided in a head-to-head matchup.
Now, that much anticipated game has arrived. While the Quakers (8-0, 5-0 Ivy) have held up their end of the bargain, the Crimson (6-2, 3-2) has not.
In the last two weeks, Harvard has sputtered, losing to two perennial Ivy cellar dwellers. The week after the game against Princeton, Dartmouth’s aerial attack confounded the Crimson secondary and propelled the Big Green to a 30-16 victory. Then, in a 16-13 loss last weekend at Columbia, the defense played valiantly, but the Harvard offense barely mustered anything against a Columbia defense that had been eaten alive in previous weeks.
While the Crimson played poorly, Penn carried on with business as usual, defeating Brown and Princeton to clinch at least a share of the Ivy League crown. With a win either this week in Cambridge or in their season finale against Cornell, the Quakers will capture the title outright for the second straight year. Harvard, in contrast, must sweep Penn and Yale and hope the Big Red can knock off the Quakers next weekend if the Crimson wants even a share of the Ivy title.
“This is the first time this senior class will not be playing for [an outright] Ivy League title against Penn,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “It’s definitely different and certainly not how we envisioned it.”
How the Crimson will respond to this adversity remains to be seen. For a program that has been in contention for championships in each of the last three years, the circumstances heading into this year’s game are foreign.
“It’s very disappointing,” junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “We lost to two teams we should have beaten and now the Ivy League championship is out of our hands.”
Fitzpatrick’s situation provides Harvard with another subplot. After breaking his hand Oct. 11 against Cornell, Fitzpatrick returned to action against Dartmouth, only to re-aggravate the injury and miss last week’s contest against Columbia.
While neither the quarterback nor the coaching staff is ready to declare whether he or junior backup Garrett Schires will start, Fitzpatrick has been taking limited reps in practice all week and will likely see significant action against the Quakers.
“He’s definitely rusty,” Murphy said. “He’s doing better but we’ll just have to see what it looks like on Saturday.”
No matter who the Crimson signal caller is tomorrow, he will be throwing to an extremely depleted receiving corps. With juniors Rodney Byrnes and James Harvey out with injuries, freshman Corey Mazza will be forced into starting duty alongside junior Brian Edwards and sophomore tailback Ryan Tyler, who will see more action at wide receiver.
Senior Adam Gordon, whose previous responsibilities have consisted almost exclusively of being the holder for placekicks, and sophomore Corey Waller are also likely to see time when the Crimson goes to four- and five-receiver formations.
Penn comes into the game with no such troubles. With its win last week—its 14th straight overall—the Quakers jumped to No. 8 in the Sports Network/CSTV I-AA poll, the highest ranking ever for an Ivy League School.