For the third straight year under coach Tim Murphy, the Harvard football team finds itself undefeated entering the fourth week of the season.
But this year has been far from ordinary. Injuries to four key offensive starters—including senior quarterback Conner Hempel and junior running back Paul Stanton—have forced other players to step up. And they have responded in major ways, propelling the Crimson (3-0, 1-0 Ivy) to its current mark with big performances.
When struggling Cornell (0-3, 0-1) visits Harvard Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Crimson will hope that a similar team effort results in its second conference victory of the young season.
“I think that the long term challenge is to beat the very best teams in our league, and it would be great to have those [guys who are injured],” Murphy said. “But at the end of the day you’re going to have years like that. You just have to fight through adversity, you have to adapt, and you have to adjust.”
Both Hempel and Stanton—in addition to the potent aerial targets of senior wide receiver Ricky Zorn and tight end Tyler Hamblin—will remain sidelined this week. In their absences, the Crimson will turn to some faces that are becoming increasingly familiar.
Thrust into the spotlight with the injury to Hempel, junior quarterback Scott Hosch has demonstrated marked improvement over his three games. After an ill-advised throw resulted in an interception in his first appearance, the quarterback has not been picked off since.
Hosch featured a variety of throws in last week’s 34-3 win against Georgetown, finding the likes of junior wide receiver Andrew Fischer for quick screens as well as tight ends on posts over the middle of the field. The junior finished with only five incompletions, 293 passing yards, and one touchdown.
The team’s most reliable offensive option, however, has been senior running back Andrew Casten. Thanks to consistently strong blocking from an experienced offensive line, Casten has taken pressure off the young quarterback by plowing for seven touchdowns this season—including four last Saturday against Georgetown.
“If you get the running game established, you can usually get the passing game established,” Murphy said. “With our zone read run game, we obviously get a lot of people open on play-action passes.”
The winless Cornell enters Saturday’s matchup fresh off a demoralizing 51-13 defeat against visiting Yale. Hosch will likely be encouraged by the five passing touchdowns thrown by Bulldogs quarterback Morgan Roberts.
The graduation of second team All-Ivy quarterback Jeff Mathews has made the Cornell offense less prolific this year. Forced into a quarterback rotation between junior James Few and freshman Jake Jatis, the Big Red has averaged less than 11 points per game and has yet to score a rushing touchdown.
“When Jeff Matthews was the quarterback, it never seemed like the game was out of reach, no matter how many points you scored,” Murphy said. “In some respects, it will be a little bit easier to focus on what we have to stop.”
The matchup with Cornell will provide another chance for some of the Crimson’s relatively inexperienced defensive starters to continue improving. After surrendering an early field goal against Georgetown, Harvard shut out the overmatched Hoyas for the remainder of the contest.
The emergence of junior linebacker Matt Koran, who ranks first on the team with 19 tackles, represents a major reason for the Crimson’s success.
“The past couple years I’ve maybe gotten 10, 15 plays each game, and this is the first year I’ve had a significant role and gotten numerous plays,” Koran said. “I definitely think they’re leaning on me a little bit more this year.”
Despite Cornell’s weaknesses, Saturday represents yet another test for the Crimson. And with the annual showdown with Princeton just two weekends away, both the offensive and defensive units will embrace the reps that come with a competitive conference game.
“We know that [Cornell is] going to come out with a little bit more edge this week, after having a bad week last week,” Hosch said. “They’re going to come after us pretty hard, so we’re going to have to keep our A-game.”
—Staff writer David Steinbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.