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Preview: Football Antsy to Play, Opens Season at San Diego

Something In Your Eye
Running back Aaron Shampklin stiff arms a San Diego opponent in the 2018 rendition of the competition. Harvard won the contest, 36-14, and has never lost to the Toreros in the three meetings of the two squads.
To close out the 2018 season, the Harvard football team wrapped up a three-game win streak that culminated in a thrashing of Yale in front of a friendly crowd at Fenway Park. But that was 44 weeks ago, and 44 weeks is a long time — one of the largest offseasons in college football. Three weeks longer than the University of San Diego, the team the Crimson will fly across the country to challenge on foreign turf Saturday afternoon.

In that space of time, between the rambunctious victory over it’s perennial rival to the fielding of a new team, Harvard has had nothing but itself as a tackling dummy. And for the last two weeks, while other teams took the field, the Crimson players watched from their common rooms.

“We get a little antsy, we start building that anticipation, we start getting real hungry,” said captain defensive back Wesley Ogsbury. “Everybody else is playing, we’re just sitting and practicing, practicing, practicing. We’re getting hungrier and hungrier.”

That hunger, the desire for live action, is palpable in every player on the team.

“Our team is hungry,” junior quarterback Jake Smith said. “We’ve been pushing for excellence everyday in practice. It’s been a long preseason just practicing against each other and we can’t wait to get out on the field. We’re ready to actually get out there and get some live action.”

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The team Harvard will field on Saturday will look very different from the one that exited The Game victorious in November 2018. The team has since graduated 31 seniors.

“We lost some outstanding kids in the offensive and defensive line, those are never easy to replace,” coach Tim Murphy said. “So we’ll be relatively young on both the offensive and defensive side of the line.”

The youth on defense will likely materialize as an all-sophomore defensive front. The coaching staff is specifically eyeing sophomore end Truman Jones, sophomore tackle Jacob Sykes, sophomore tackle Chris Smith, and several other sophomores for the other end.

The youth doesn’t concern the captain.

“We just recruit guys that are hungry,” Ogsbury said. “It doesn't matter how old they are or how much experience they have.”

Inexperience is not endemic across the entirety of the defense. Ogsbury himself leads leads the team, and the defense more closely, as the 146th captain of Harvard football. The defensive back finished third in the nation last season in interceptions, averaging .6 per game. In keeping with tradition, Ogsbury serves as the sole captain for the team.

“The first thing about Wes is you’ve got to lead by example and nobody works harder,” Murphy said. “The second thing is nobody is more competitive. He’s done an outstanding job, our kids really respond to him.”

A definitive strong point for the Crimson entering the season is the special teams unit. Sophomore Jon Sot returns as a punter. As a freshman, Sot led the conference in average punt distance at 41.1 yards.

In case of closer proximity to the endzone, the team returns senior place kicker Jake McIntyre. Harvard fans may remember him as the man who booted the field goal as time expired to secure an exciting victory against the Holy Cross in 2018. The Crimson staticians will remember him for years to come. The veteran is tied for first in program history in two categories — most field goals in a season and career field goals. With a whole season to kick, McIntyre will undoubtedly move into sole possession of these program records, and others for which he already ranks top five.

Three days before the Ivy League teams launch the 2019 season, Harvard football exudes confidence. Ogsbury said the team has the personnel to “take it all the way.” Smith said he’s confident with the guys surrounding him on the offensive front. Only the Ivy League preseason poll voters are doubtful of the Crimson’s capabilities.

In early August, Harvard was vote fourth in the Ivy League Preseason Poll, behind Yale in first, followed by Dartmouth and Princeton. Yale returns senior wide receiver Reed Klubnik, ranked fifth in the FCS last year for yards per game, averaging 114.3. Klubnik also stands as the only player of the league on the Walter Payton Award Watchlist.

Rounding out the bottom half of the preseason poll were Penn, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown, in descending order.

“My message is always we can beat anybody we play,” Murphy said. “Not because we’re entitled to beating anybody, but we work really hard, we’ve got good athletes, and we’re going to compete like hell.”

More salient than anything is the confidence of this Crimson team. The first test of that confidence comes from the West. San Diego, two games into its season, has yet to log a single victory. The goose egg in the win column does not seem to be indicative of the teams strength.

The Toreros’ two losses came from Cal Poly, and No. 4/5 UC Davis. The loss to UC Davis stands out particularly bright on the schedule due in part to the manner in which San Diego lost. A pass to running back Emilio Martinez was knocked out of his hands, in the end zone, with two seconds to play. San Diego athletics described the sequence as, “[i]nches away from one of the biggest wins in program history...”

“[The Toreros] outplayed Cal Davis and Cal Davis is the number four ranked FCS team in the country,” Murphy said.

San Diego is undoubtedly an offensive juggernaut. Quarterback Ried Sinnett already has 655 yards through the air with five touchdowns to match. His main targets are Dalton Kincade and Michael Bandy. The latter of which is a name familiar to the Harvard defensive backs, which ceded to 202 yards on 12 passes to the wideout in 2018. The Toreros averag 34.5 points per game, and 474 yards to match. Last season, the Crimson scored more than 35 points only three times.

“It all starts with defense,” Murphy said. “That’s always been my philosophy. If you can’t play defense, I don’t care how good your offense is, even in the PAC 12, you’re in big trouble. Bottom line is, you’ve got to get off the field. You’ve got to make stops. That’s going to be one of the keys to this game.

On defense, San Diego brings a physicality to their contests. One visible even from the film.

“They’re physical and they play a lot of man-to-man defense and they match pretty well,” Smith said. “I’ll be looking to see how those matchups play out. I’m ready to play some physical football with my boys.”

The two squads have met on the gridiron three times before. Harvard has won each of those contests, and has gone 7-0 against members of the Pioneer League overall. Additionally the Crimson boasts a strong advantage in season openers, winning 15 of the last 18.

“[San Diego has] good players and they’ve won 24 consecutive league games,” Murphy said. “We certainly will have a very tough opponent in our opener, 3000 miles from home.”

—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at cade.palmer@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @THC_CadePalmer.

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