And at first, last Saturday looked no different, as the Crimson put up a touchdown and a field goal in the second quarter to post a 10-0 lead heading into halftime. It would have been 13-0 but for a blocked Matt Schindel field-goal attempt as the second quarter expired.
Still, there was no reason to suspect that Harvard wouldn’t post another two dozen points on the scoreboard. The Crimson was averaging 37 points and 427 yards per game. The Big Green defense gave up an average of 25.7 points and 377.7 yards per game. The math simply added up to another Harvard blowout.
But that blowout simply never happened. The Crimson added just three more points in the second half while Dartmouth crept back into contention with two touchdowns. Only by virtue of a missed extra point, a failed two-point conversion and clutch Harvard defense was the squad able to avoid a stunning upset.
“We’ve been so consistent offensively this year—and maybe it’s a lot to ask—but the bottom line for us is to continue to have success, we have to execute,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said, “and what execute means is that everyone has to do their job at the same time, and we didn’t have enough guys doing that today.”
The problem for the Crimson wasn’t necessarily garnering yardage, although the Big Green defensive line did an admirable job of keeping star running back Clifton Dawson from his typical 100-yard, three-TD outing. The sophomore was held to just 69 yards—only the second time this season he has failed to break the century mark—and no touchdowns. As a result, Dawson’s departure in the beginning of the fourth quarter due to a muscle injury was not the backbreaker for the offense that it might have ordinarily been.
But neither did it explain Harvard’s poor execution. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick put up impressive numbers, completing 25 passes for 300 yards, but the only score was a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Brian Edwards in the Crimson’s more characteristically productive second quarter. Time and again, balls slipped through grasping fingers and passes fell inches short or long.
“I honestly don’t know what to tell you,” Edwards said. “We weren’t connecting on our passes. We weren’t running great routes. They’re a talented team, and I have to give them credit, but we just weren’t all on the same page today.”
Nor was poor field position to blame for Harvard’s inability to find the endzone. On the contrary, the Crimson consistently started its drives closer to midfield than to the goalposts. Harvard’s average starting field position was its own 35-yard line—and yet the Crimson averaged only 30 yards gained per possession.
“I think it was a combination of a good job of defensive playcalling by Dartmouth. We dropped some balls, we missed some throws, we had some penalties, and the combination of those things yielded 10 points instead of probably 17 or 20,” said Murphy of his team’s sub-par first-half output. “You make too many mistakes, we didn’t deserve to have any more points than that.”
Harvard seemed to be waiting for something to click into place, like an 80-yard Dawson run or as a long Fitzpatrick-to-Edwards bomb.
But Saturday there was no obvious turning point, just a long second half of incomplete drives that left Harvard gasping for the one-point victory. It was the Crimson’s lowest point total since a 16-13 loss to Columbia a year ago.
With barely two minutes remaining in the game and the Big Green within one, Harvard recovered the onside kick to claim excellent field position once again. All the offense needed to do was pragmatically milk the clock and get a first down to seal the win.
The latter task, which would seem to be no trouble for Fitzpatrick’s dominating offense, proved problematic. The Crimson was unable to push past the first-down marker on either third or fourth down, opening up the door for some last-minute Dartmouth dramatics. Any other Saturday, it would be practically a given that Harvard’s offense would keep control of the ball instead of leaving the outcome in its opponent’s hands.
But by that point it was apparent that this wasn’t like the six previous Saturdays,
“We’ve been so completely efficient all year offensively, that sometimes everybody just assumes that you put it on automatic pilot,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.