In front of a crowd of just over 12,000 and under cold and dreary drizzling rain, the Crimson lost a reasonable shot at the Ivy League championship.
It was the loss that shouldn’t have happened—not based on precedent, not based on the way the home team played. It was surreal that the dreams of a league title would be squelched this way.
Harvard doesn’t lose to Princeton. The Tigers hold the all-time lead, but hadn’t beaten the Crimson in the last nine consecutive games.
And Harvard shouldn’t lose to Princeton when it plays like it did yesterday. The Crimson played good football for almost the entire game, but it was good football marred by a handful of unfortunate—and ultimately, fatal—errors.
It was surreal that Harvard lost on a day when some of its early-season ailments had been alleviated. Ryan Tyler was back, and with a vengeance. Tyler anchored the team’s receiver corps, pulling in three passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, when sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan connected on a 52-yard long bomb.
O’Hagan didn’t have the chance to dirty up his uniform scrambling, but he did show a capable, strong, and pretty accurate arm—he was 11-of-16 with 183 yards and a touchdown, even when the Harvard offensive line had trouble handling the Princeton pass rush. Significantly, he also finished his second game in a row without throwing an interception.
After two weeks in which he played injured against defensive schemes targeted on stopping him, junior tailback Clifton Dawson returned to good form last week.
This week, Dawson was back to being not just good, but to being Clifton Dawson.
Saturday was yet another Dawson aristeia. After recovering last week, Dawson exploded for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
About halfway through the third quarter, Dawson kept slamming downfield. After a couple passes moved him into range, Dawson scraped four yards out of an impossible line of scrimmage. On second-and-six from the Princeton 29-yard line, Dawson demonstrated what keeps him on Payton Award watchlists, blowing through a series of tackles, dragging a defensive back along, and shrugging off the last vestiges of the defense he had just shredded before rolling into the endzone to tie the game 17-17.
“You hit him, and you think he’s got him stopped at nothing, and he’s got four,” Princeton coach Roger Hughes.
The Tigers started to contain Dawson by the fourth quarter, but the damage had largely been done.
But what was most surreal about the loss was just that, that despite all the good omens, it was still a loss. A handful of unfortunate screw-ups and baffling calls from the sidelines were food for disbelief. That Harvard lost on Saturday raised serious questions, and not about O’Hagan’s arm or Dawson’s health.
Wasn’t Derek Davis’ 72-yard rush on the first place of the game a little unexpected—a little surreal—to watch unfold?
“We have a crash blitz called into their reverse, and our guy misses the tackle and he takes it to the house,” Murphy said. “It was just plays here and there which made the football game, and certainly that was a big one.”
Was it more surreal that Harvard’s special teams also permitted a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that gave Princeton its final lead, and barely missed worse?
“The previous kick return, we were only one block away from having the same thing happen,” Hughes said.
Wasn’t it pretty unbelievable that the Crimson went for a rush up the gut on fourth-and-two from the Princeton five-yard line?
“We had such incredible momentum. They hadn’t come close to stopping us,” Murphy said. “We needed touchdowns, not field goals.”
There were times when the game was like a bad dream—take, for instance, Glenn Dorris’ fumble on a kickoff return to give Princeton the ball on the Harvard 33-yard-line. But this wasn’t a bad dream, at least one from which the Crimson could wake up and snap out of. This was a loss that should never have been.
—Staff writer Samuel C. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.