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Right now, Harvard football is knotted up with Penn and Yale in the Ivy League standings, two heavyweights who have only taken one loss in the conference and look to be the only other teams who could potentially steal the league crown from undefeated Princeton. The Crimson (5-2, 3-1) will play both those rivals in this final three-week stretch of the season, but this weekend, it will have to wait to prove its conference mettle, as it takes on struggling Columbia (3-4, 0-4) at home on Saturday.
After a lopsided loss to the Tigers two weekends ago, the Crimson kept its championship hopes alive by putting away another conference rival, Dartmouth, last Saturday, a game that the team played without starting signal-caller Charlie Dean. The senior and Odessa, Fla. native was banged up from the loss against Princeton but is expected to return this season. His back-up, senior quarterback Luke Emge, capitalized on the rapport he built over four games last season with senior star wideout Kym Wimberly and managed the Dartmouth game admirably overall, throwing for 196 yards on 17 attempts, a touchdown to Wimberly, and one interception. The defense held the lead despite the Big Green’s unconventional two-quarterback scheme, which has historically given the unit fits.
“We'd been really working on our aggressiveness and our physicality, honing in on our techniques and also just making sure that we had no mental mistakes,” said junior lineman and defensive stalwart Thor Griffith of the victory.
If Dean is back behind center on Saturday, the Crimson will likely return to a more balanced offensive attack after leaning heavily on its running game last week. Luckily, it may have an easier time gaining yards through the air against the Lions, who come to Cambridge on the heels of three consecutive losses. In two of those games, against Penn and Yale, they allowed more than 300 passing yards in 20-plus point losses; in the other, a close bout against Dartmouth, Columbia erased a 15-point deficit in the second half only to lose on a 32-yard field goal as time expired. The Lions have struggled to play complete football games during their month-long skid, as they were shut out in the first half against the Quakers and in the second half against the Bulldogs.
Columbia will place its offensive hopes on senior quarterback Caden Bell, who has been forced to air the ball out more in his past two games as the team mounted late-game comeback attempts. Bell took over for junior quarterback and former Ivy League Rookie of the Year Joe Green midway through the game against Penn, instantly making an impact to the tune of 2 touchdowns and a 72 percent completion rate on 18 attempts. But against Dartmouth and Yale, Bell’s numbers dipped, as he went 16 for 23 against the Big Green and then just 22 for 41 in the blowout loss to the Bulldogs.
In contrast to Harvard, whose offense has mainly run through Wimberly and senior running back Aidan Borguet, Columbia’s air and ground attacks have seen a rotating cast of playmakers emerge. In their Oct. 8 win against Wagner, senior running back Ryan Young had a career-best showing, gashing the Seahawks for 117 yards, which he followed up two weeks later with an even better performance against Dartmouth. Yet the Lions have also given ample opportunities to junior Joey Giorgi, a slightly taller and quicker back who led the team in carries against Yale. Giorgi also has become involved in the passing game, which is spearheaded by the wide receiver duo of Bryson Canty and JJ Jenkins, who rank fourth and sixth in Ivy League receiving yards, respectively.
Despite their versatility in personnel, the Lions will likely still face an uphill battle to score points against a Harvard defense that has momentum on its side. Save for two touchdown drives at the tail end of the second quarter against Dartmouth, the Crimson was suffocating against the Big Green, especially in the run game. Dartmouth managed to gain only six rushing yards during the entire second half, an effort that was anchored by strong performances from senior linebacker Jake Brown, who racked up eight tackles, as well as senior defensive lineman and team captain Truman Jones. Jones added to this season’s growing collection of memorable special teams plays when he blocked an extra-point against the Big Green, the seventh block for the Crimson.
Time of possession, the turnover battle, and third-down defense will be X-factors in this contest, as Harvard will try to add to its middling four takeaways on the season against a team which has the worst turnover differential (-10) in the Ivy League. Whether Harvard can jump out to a lead and rely on Borguet to keep the offense on the field will also be indicative — the two games that the Crimson have dropped this season are also the only two games in which the senior failed to eclipse the century mark on the ground, a sign of just how dominant he has played but also the extent to which the offense relies on him. Finally, the Harvard defense has allowed teams to move the chains on third downs at a concerning 43.8 percent clip, which could portend for especially poor results against the Lions offense, which converts an even half of those opportunities, good for tenth in the FCS.
“The first thing that we have to do is limit their yardage on first and second downs, so that we avoid those third and shorts,” Griffith explained. “Then if we get in those situations, it’s about hunkering down and making sure they can’t get to the inside run.”
The spotlight will be on the defensive lineman with a superhero’s name and the rest of his squad, as Harvard’s 1 p.m. bout against the Lions will be aired on ESPN+.
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