After an ugly loss to Holy Cross in the 2011 season opener, things looked bleak for the Harvard football team. But nine games and nine wins later, Harvard sat unscathed atop the world of Ivy football. And like Beethoven with his symphonies, the Crimson saved its best win for its last, its ninth: in Harvard’s Ode to Joy, the squad trounced the Bulldogs 45-7 to finish the Ivy League season a perfect 7-0.
In the process, seemingly every week, some new program record was matched or broken. In the end, the Crimson had scored 374 points in 10 games, a modern-era Harvard record.
For Crimson coach Tim Murphy, despite beating every Ivy opponent by at least 10 points, the characterization of the 2011 season as a Crimson cakewalk is off base.
“Guys like you, guys who write for The Crimson and The Boston Globe, say we breezed through our schedule,” said Murphy after Saturday’s Spring Game. “Well, I guarantee you the Brown game didn’t feel like a breeze. The Princeton game didn’t feel like a breeze. The Cornell game didn’t feel like a breeze.”
Murphy, in a sense, is right. Those games were close until they weren’t (the Crimson topped Brown, Princeton, and Cornell by 17, 17, and 10, respectively). But more importantly, Harvard finished three games ahead in the conference standings in a seven-game season. If that’s not domination, I don’t know what is.
But with this past Saturday’s Spring Game, and with the 2012 squad beginning to take shape, you have to ask the question: Can they take the Ivies again? Will there be an encore performance in the fall?
In my mind, the answer is yes.
The offense might still be too strong for any Ivy opponent to handle. With the biggest question—the wide receiver corps—seemingly answered with the emergence of players like sophomores Ricky Zorn and Matt Brown, the Crimson attack is poised to be deadly once more in 2012.
Junior quarterback Colton Chapple, who as a backup had arguably the best two-game stretch of any quarterback in Harvard history, is back under center. The running back tandem of junior Treavor Scales and freshman Zach Boden, who combined for 1300 yards last season, will return with an additional year of experience. But most deadly may be the Crimson’s two tight ends, junior Kyle Juszczyk and sophomore Cam Brate, players that no one seemed to have an answer for all season long.
On the other side of the ball, the D-Line looks to be a force once more, led by junior Nnamdi Obukwelu, who Murphy believes could be “one of the top two or three players in the entire league.” The Crimson has talent in the secondary as well.
But the path to a repeat won’t be easy.
For one, the rest of the Ivy League has only gotten stronger since 2011. First in line to the Ivy throne appears to be Penn, the 2010 and 2009 champion. A young Quakers team couldn’t handle the Crimson last season in a 37-20 loss, but Penn returns the dangerous quarterback-running back combination of seniors Billy Ragone and Brandon Colavita. Perhaps more concerning to the Crimson will be Cornell and its quarterback, reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year Jeff Mathews.
And of course, there’s Yale, which punched below the belt and lured away a healthy chunk of Harvard coaches, taking with them secrets of the Crimson program.
On top of that, many of the Crimson’s stars are hitting the road. The team loses defensive tackle Josue Ortiz ’11, the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, the Czar of the Line of the Scrimmage. Under Ortiz’s brutal regime, the Crimson allowed a league-low 89.7 rushing yards per game.
And it’s not just Ortiz that’s moving out. That 2012 roster will be missing shutdown corner Matt Hanson, stalwart left tackle Kevin Murphy, captain Alex Gedeon, and quarterback Collier Winters, a man who directed three straight victories over Yale.
But in the end, despite these issues, Harvard has all the tools to pull off a repeat. It’ll be a bumpier, more winding, and more unpredictable road to the top than last year, that’s for sure, but the Crimson has the horsepower to do it.
“I know we’ll be the favorites, which no one is really ever excited about,” Murphy said. “All of those [Ivy League] teams are going to be much better teams, starting with Yale. So it’ll be a challenge.”
—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.