SEASON RECAP: Repeat Title Just Out of Reach After Strong Finish

Late surge gives Harvard a shot at first, but Brown refuses to cooperate

Joshua D. Samuelson

With former star quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick now taking snaps in the NFL, junior running back Clifton Dawson did more than his share to pick up the offensive slack, leaving defenders in the dust and powering the Crimson offense to a season-ending four-ga

The most difficult decision Harvard coach Tim Murphy made all season didn’t come in the form of a halftime adjustment, fourth-down play call, or defensive strategy.

Instead, the decision on who would replace legendary Crimson quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 proved to have the most impact.

Sophomore Richard Irvin was tapped as the starter for the season’s opening game, though Murphy maintained the Tulane transfer would split time with fellow sophomore Liam O’Hagan.

In the season opener at Holy Cross, Irvin threw an interception on his first drive that was returned for a touchdown. O’Hagan entered the game, led the team to a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, and locked up the starting job in a 31-21 win.

The next week, O’Hagan continued his excellent play, leading a last-minute touchdown drive to force overtime in an eventual 38-35 double-overtime win over Brown.

But the Crimson was bitten by an injury bug that ravaged the receiving corps, losing senior Rodney Byrnes in the opener and senior Ryan Tyler and junior Corey Mazza in the season’s first few games.

After a difficult loss to No. 15 Lehigh, Harvard hit the low point of its early season in a 27-13 loss to Cornell. Star junior running back Clifton Dawson gained just 39 yards and O’Hagan threw three interceptions for the second week in a row while passing for only 95 yards. Yet despite some questions, O’Hagan remained in the starting role.

The team turned the ball over five times in the Cornell loss, its first Ivy defeat since 2003 and first to the Big Red since 2000.

“Nobody was clicking,” captain Erik Grimm said.

“We couldn’t really point fingers in one direction and say ‘the defense needed to do this, the offense needed to do that,’ but we really had to come together as a team and start executing,” he added.

One loss is not always a death sentence in the Ivy League race, and the team rebounded with a turnover-free performance the next week to down Lafayette on the road, 24-17. The following Saturday, a Princeton team that also harbored championship aspirations came to Harvard Stadium. In a back-and-forth game, the Tigers used a fourth-down stop on their own five-yard line and a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 7:21 to play, winning 27-24. It was the first time Princeton had defeated the Crimson since 1995. With two league losses, Harvard appeared to be languishing in the Ivy race with four games to play.

The Crimson got well the next week, crushing Dartmouth 42-14, and received an unexpected boost when Brown knocked off unbeaten Penn, putting Harvard in position to gain a share of the Ivy title by winning out and benefitting from a Brown loss.

“The frustrating part,” Murphy said after the Dartmouth game, “is that we’re literally one play away from being tied for first, a 5-2 team.”

Nonetheless, a rejuvenated Harvard squad showed it was back in the hunt when it dismantled Columbia 55-7. The Crimson then demolished preseason favorite Penn in Harvard Stadium 29-3 behind three touchdown catches by senior fullback Kelly Widman and a 12-yard scoring scamper by O’Hagan.

With its title hopes still alive, the team traveled to Yale for The Game needing a win and a Brown loss to last-place Columbia to lock up a share of the crown. Harvard did its part, winning 30-24 in epic, comeback fashion in a historic 122nd playing of the rivalry. But Brown also took care of business, handling the Lions 52-21 to lock up the championship.

After the thrill of beating Yale wore off, some recognized what could have been.

“There was definitely the exhilaration of beating Yale, and that day and that weekend that’s kind of all you thought about,” Grimm said. “But it does seep into your head that it was a little bittersweet. I mean, we were that having another Ivy League championship.”

Returning to the pinnacle of the Ivy League will fall on next year’s team. By the end of the season, there was plenty for Harvard to be pleased with.

“You’re going to remember the Harvard-Yale game for the rest of your life,” Grimm said. “And a triple-overtime victory­­­—you can’t beat that.”

—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at