Eighty-three years. That’s how long it’s been since the Harvard football team began its season 7-0 and didn’t finish undefeated. That squad lost its final game to Yale, 3-0.
The Crimson (7-0, 4-0 Ivy) has a few more weeks before The Game, but it will attempt to preserve its perfect record when it takes on Columbia (0-7, 0-4) on Saturday at home.
With a 23-12 win over Dartmouth last week, Harvard is now alone atop the Ivy League and in control of its destiny to win the Ancient Eight championship for a second straight year.
Despite the Lions’ dismal record, captain Norman Hayes recognizes the importance of staying motivated given that a league loss would seriously hinder the Crimson’s quest to reclaim the title.
“Our coaches are drilling into our heads, each and every day, that it’s about us now,” Hayes said. “We just have to focus on what we do best and go out and execute each day.”
The Crimson’s offense, banged up early on, returned back to full strength two weeks ago against Princeton, but appears to be plagued once more by injuries. Senior fullback Andrew Casten suffered an injury during the Princeton matchup and didn’t even make the trip to Hanover, while senior quarterback Conner Hempel hurt his shoulder last week against Dartmouth and left the game for the second quarter before coming back early after halftime to close the game.
Casten’s status for Saturday is uncertain, and junior running back Paul Stanton said Wednesday that he’d likely be “taking all the reps.” Hempel is unlikely to play Saturday, according to Murphy.
With Hempel presumably out, junior Scott Hosch will probably be under center for the Crimson, a position familiar to him, as he started four games when Hempel was sidelined with a back injury.
Even without Hempel and Casten, Harvard’s offense shouldn’t have too much of a problem moving the ball against Columbia’s defense, especially with Hosch handing off to Stanton, who has recorded 100-plus yardage rushing games for the last three weeks and has scored in every game he’s appeared in.
The Lions’ defense ranks last in the league, giving up 532 yards of offense a game, something Murphy attributes more to Columbia’s struggling offense.
“I think the thing that’s kind of lost in their struggle of a season has been that despite their offense being ranked second-to-last in all of the FCS, their defense has played well, almost at times miraculously well when you consider the amount of time they spend on the field in conjunction with the lack of overall depth that they have,” Murphy said. “You put it all together, and to hold several really top teams in the Ivy League under 30 points is really impressive.”
Key to the Crimson’s success this season, given the uncertainty at nearly every skill position on offense due to injuries, has been the defense. Harvard has allowed an average of less than 11 points a game, and Lions quarterback Trevor McDonagh will likely be scrambling out of the pocket early and often against a squad that has 18 sacks thus far.
The Crimson secondary came into the year with question marks all around and has answered nearly all of the questions—seven games in, Harvard’s pass defense leads the league.
“We were very inexperienced coming into the season, but we knew how good we could be if we execute, communicate pre-snap and make sure that everyone is on the same page,” Hayes said. “So it’s all about believing in the program, believing in the system and in our schemes and just going out and playing and having fun.”
Against a team that averages points in the single digits, it would be easy for Harvard to underestimate the importance of the game, but in an Ivy League system that doesn’t feature playoffs, every Ancient Eight game holds serious title implications.
“There’s a natural tendency to look ahead, but we just don’t allow it,” Murphy said. “It’s that simple. We need to focus on today, and if there’s a lack of focus, we get it refocused really fast.”
—Staff writer Samantha Lin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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