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NOTEBOOK: Football's Comeback Not Enough to Topple Dartmouth

Through Rain or Shine
Harvard's second-half rally wasn't enough to overcome a 21-0 first-half deficit against an undefeated Dartmouth squad in wet Hanover, N.H.

As the Red Sox clinched the 2018 World Series in Los Angeles this weekend, Dartmouth football may be the next New England sports team to bring home a championship. With a 24-17 victory over Harvard on Saturday, the Big Green moves to 7-0 on the year with a 4-0 mark in the Ivy League. Its largest test of the fall comes next weekend when it travels to Princeton to match up with the Tigers, who have an identical record.

The Crimson now sits at 3-4 on the year, with three losses coming in league play. Clearly, the team is in a rebuilding stage, but it is showing signs of competition with the conference’s juggernauts. Its losses by eight and seven points to Princeton and Dartmouth, respectively, represent the slimmest margins by which both of the league’s undefeated teams have won this season.

RUNNING AGROUND

Facing near-freezing temperatures and wet conditions at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., Harvard opted to maintain its balanced offense in lieu of concentrating on the ground game. However, expected mistakes arose due to the combination of adverse weather and a formidable Big Green defense.

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The Crimson fumbled five times, and four of those times the ball changed hands. The first was recovered by quarterback Tom Stewart for a loss of seven during the visitors’ second drive of the game, which resulted in a punt. The next three giveaways were significant, as they all happened in Dartmouth territory.

The second of this trio proved most costly for Harvard. Facing a 14-0 first quarter deficit, the Crimson opened the second having entered the red zone. The first snap of the period saw running back B.J. Watson gain seven yards to creep up to the hosts’ 13. Then, Stewart targeted Watson on a pass out to his right. Watson cut up to the eight, but that was as far as he would advance, as Bun Straton and Jack Traynor teamed up to force and recover a fumble.

In all, Harvard put up just 142 rushing yards, significantly lower than its average of 218.7 through the first six games. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the quarterback and receiving corps who kept the Crimson in contention on Saturday. Stewart managed a 57.1 completion percentage and threw for 270 yards without an interception. For the third straight week, the team was without Justice Shelton-Mosley — who is shelved for the season with a leg injury — so Stewart spread out his targets, hitting three receivers for over 40 yards apiece.

Stewart was also the team’s most effective ball-carrier when forced to run. Dealing with a wet football, several times it appeared as though Stewart had no choice but to scramble, but he successfully rushed for 76 yards on 11 attempts, including a 22-yard touchdown dash.

“When it’s really hard to run the ball that’s when you have to be a balanced offense,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We always talk about having the ability to run or throw in any situation. I thought Tommy, our staff, and our kids did a really good job against a really outstanding defense that was number one in the nation in total defense.”

RUNNING WILD

Unlike the Crimson, the Big Green did not face any difficulty establishing its ground attack. As it had done all season, Dartmouth allowed a combination of traditional running back Rashaad Cooper and wildcat quarterback Jared Gerbino to go to work against the opposing front seven. And as the pair had done all season, they accumulated a staggering rushing total — this time, an even 300 yards and a touchdown apiece.

The Big Green appeared to telegraph its offensive game plan from the get-go, as the team posted a shocking three passing yards in the first half. The nation’s leading offense in terms of completion percentage and QBR completed just four of 11 attempts in the air all game.

“You get into the second level and nobody wants to tackle a 235-pound guy [Gerbino] with that head of steam,” Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens said. “The balance aspect of it, we didn’t throw the ball well. Harvard against the pass has had some issues, and we just did not throw the ball well. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s raining, and we’re on the sideline for an extended period of time. That got us a little bit out of sync.”

The threat of a long pass kept Harvard’s defense at bay and allowed the Cooper-Gerbino duo to go to work, though. One play halfway through the third quarter demonstrated the Big Green’s ability to sneak a long ball past an unsuspecting defense.

With traditional quarterback Derek Kyler already having completed one pass during the drive and Dartmouth having switched in Gerbino, the Crimson was likely gearing up for a smashmouth rushing attack. Gerbino obliged on his first play, as he was grounded for a loss of one. However, as he took the next snap, the junior went deep to Robbie Mangas for a 30-yard gain. The drive resulted in a missed field goal, but it served to demonstrate the Big Green’s ability to deviate from its run game in situations in which Harvard expended more defensive resources preparing for a carry.

“Number one, they have an outstanding offensive line,” Murphy said. “Number two, you still have to play assignment football because they’re going spin motion, he can hand it off, he can keep it. You still have to defend the pass on the back end, and the combination of those things for any wildcat quarterback, especially someone as good as he is, it’s challenging.”

COMEBACK KIDS

Four times this season, Harvard has made some form of a comeback. Only once has its effort succeeded, and in that case the situation was avoidable — the Crimson gave up a 16-point lead to Holy Cross at Harvard Stadium and had to march downfield for a game-winning field goal.

The other three comeback bids have been against ranked opponents. First, Harvard erased a 16-3 halftime lead in favor of Rhode Island, only to lose by a tally of 23-16. Last week, the Crimson twice eliminated two-possession leads by Princeton, but it was unable to cobble together a final push to down the Tigers. Finally, this past weekend Harvard was shut out, 21-0, in the first half, only to outscore Dartmouth, 17-3, in the second.

There are positives and negatives to be gleaned from this trend — namely, that the Crimson is able to hang with nationally ranked programs in an abnormally difficult schedule and that there is still work to be done to capitalize on opportunities that would shave down large first-half deficits.

“Boy, our kids just fight and fight and fight and fight, and that’s how I judge a team,” Murphy said. “Our kids have just given us everything they’ve had. Because of that, we’ve never been out of a game, right down to the wire every game this year, so I feel really bad for our kids but I feel really proud of their effort.”

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at jack.stockless@thecrimson.com.

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