“This senior class is very typical of the senior classes who have come before them in the best possible context,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “By that, I mean they’re tough, high character guys who will go out into this world and will accomplish some really great things.”
The Quakers and the Crimson (4-4, 2-3) enter the contest on nearly equal footing. In this, the 90th meeting between the teams, both have the same season record, the only difference being that Penn lost to Yale and Harvard dropped one to Princeton.
Notwithstanding the singular difference of divisional opponents, the Quakers and the Crimson are on opposite trajectories at the moment. Penn has won its last two contests, dismissing Cornell and Brown in consecutive matchups by a total of three points. Harvard, on the other hand, is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, having dropped each of the most recent three contests by within the margin of a single score. The most recent heartbreak came in overtime to Columbia last weekend.
“That game we never dreamed of losing,” junior quarterback Jake Smith said. “It just goes to show you that you’ve got to take every opponent in the Ivy League seriously. I think everybody in the locker room is pretty pissed off about the way that we’ve been playing because we know that we can do so much better. We really want to get this one.”
When one compares the nature of these victories and defeats, the implications for this week’s contest become clear. The Crimson, over the course of the season, has won three of its four home games. The only loss came at the hands of Dartmouth and its last-second prayer of a throw that was tipped into a Big Green receiver's hands as time expired.
The Quakers, on the other hand, has proved the inverse when competing outside the walls of Franklin Field. The squad has managed only one victory in four contests when on the road. That singular win came in the form of a four-point triumph over Lafayette in week two.
On the ground, senior running back Karekin Brooks leads the visitors. Over the course of the season, the veteran has logged 806 total yards, averaging 115.14 per game. Brooks will be lining up against the nation’s best first-down defense and the league's best rushing defense in Harvard.
“They run the football very well,” Murphy said. “They’re one of the top rushing teams in the Ivy League. They stay on the field a lot and with few exceptions, they score a fair amount of points.”
The quarterback situation for Penn remains more volatile than its nearly one-man backfield. Quarterback Nick Robinson has traditionally been the man to take first snaps behind the center. He’s been solid on the season, completing 154 passes, for an average of 221.75 yards per game, throwing three touchdowns, and surrendering four interceptions. In the Quaker’s homecoming contest with Cornell last weekend, Robinson was limping around the field and eventually pulled by Coach Ray Priore.
Enter junior quarterback Ryan Glover. It took Glover one drive to throw a 40-yard touchdown pass to tie the contest. With less experience this season, Glover has completed only six passes but for 79 yards and a touchdown. His running stats are similar stinted. He’s carried the ball five times for 68 yards.
The third-year was only one of three Penn quarterbacks to throw a touchdown in the Cornell contest. Robinson tossed a strike in the second quarter and so too did sophomore Owen Goldsberry in the fourth. The sophomore’s went 80 yards to Eric Markes.
Hauling in the majority of the trio’s passes are sophomore wide outs Ryan Cragun and Rory Starkey. Cragun leads the team, averaging 108 yards per contest with 756 total yards. The second favorite target is Starkey, who has 498 yards and four touchdowns to his name.
“I think this is one of the less explosive offenses we’ve faced,” captain Wes Ogsbury said. “They have some good skill players but from what I've seen, not the explosiveness, not the complicated play calling from some other offenses particularly like Dartmouth and Princeton. But that doesn’t change anything for us. We’re going to prepare the right way and try to hold them to as little points as possible.”
Against this offense, the Crimson will field a defense that leads the nation in team sacks with 4.63 per game and in fumbles recovered with eight. Senior Brogan McParland boasts a league-leading seven sacks while teammate junior defensive lineman Nasir Darnell has forced three fumbles. Both Darnell and junior linebacker Jordan Hill are tied at the top of the Ancient Eight with two fumble recoveries.
“This week is just like every other week,” Ogsbury said. “We’re trying to minimize big plays, stop the run, and let everything else fall into place.”
Leading the Harvard offensive front is junior quarterback Jake Smith, junior running back Devin Darrington, freshman back Aidan Borguet, senior receiver Cody Chrest, and senior receiver Jack Cook.
“The flat out honest reality is we need to score more points,” Murphy said. “You might have to go back 20-something years to see a Harvard team score one touchdown in eight quarters.”
The squad will face off against a hot Quaker defense. Last week, defensive lineman Emili Prince earned 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Over the course of the season, the defender has dropped teams a total of 45 yards with his 11.5 tackles for loss and 52 overall tackles. Senior linebacker Zach Evans leads the team in tackles with 69 and one interception.
On special teams, the Crimson holds the strong advantage. Between two kickers, Penn has made only two field goals on the season in six attempts. Meanwhile, Harvard leads the nation in blocked kicks and blocked punts. With three of his own, sophomore safety James Herring leads the country in blocked punts.
“James Herring is a tremendous football player,” Murphy said. “He has great instincts and he’s applied those instincts to being able to block punts. He’s just got a great knack for it.”
While the Ivy League title is likely secured for Dartmouth, if the Crimson wins out, it has an opportunity to tie Yale for the league’s third place position. This one contest is the sole hurdle Harvard must clear before next weekend’s rendition of The Game.
“The only way you can really focus is by focusing on the task at hand,” Murphy said. “Every game is a new week. Our mantra is ‘our next game is our biggest game.’ So, our biggest game is Penn.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @THC_CadePalmer.