Seven minutes into the second half of the highly anticipated Harvard-Princeton football game, something strange caught my eye. Two balloons—one orange, one black—escaped from a child’s hands in the Princeton stands and drifted up, up, and away.
I looked down from the soaring balloons just in time to see senior Crimson quarterback Scott Hosch hit senior receiver Andrew Fischer on a fade route in the end zone. Touchdown, Harvard.
The drive was just the third of five consecutive series that would result in the Crimson (6-0, 3-0 Ivy) pulling away from a 7-7 deadlock with Princeton (4-2, 1-2) en route to a 42-7 thrashing of its most recent victim.
Take a number, Tigers coach Bob Surace, and get in line behind the other five Harvard opponents who may have thought they were solidly in play at some point in their matchups before halftime. Opponents which, a quarter or two later as the scoreboard became increasingly lopsided, would realize that day would not be a winning day—not against an offense that has yet to score fewer than 40 points in a game, and certainly not against a defense that allows an average of less than eight points per contest.
In a way, those balloons symbolized Princeton’s chances of leaving Allston with a victory. While the black and orange inflated bags of helium were securely in the child’s hand, it was indeed a ball game, and a downright riveting one for the crowd of 17,444 in Harvard Stadium, the highest attendance of the season.
This game had been touted by Harvard coach Tim Murphy and players all week as the first real test of the season, and the opening half did not disappoint in competitiveness—or in theatrics. The first quarter alone saw nine drives, four fumbles, and two forays each by Harvard and Princeton past the opposing team’s 40-yard line with no points to show for the effort.
Sure, Surace was probably upset that the Tigers’ excellent field position—two of Princeton’s possessions began in Harvard territory—didn’t yield any points, but the home team had its own problems too.
On the opening kickoff, rookie receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley caught the lateral from Fischer and returned it down to midfield before coughing up the Crimson’s first fumble of the game—and the season. Two Harvard drives later, on the cusp of field goal range, Murphy elected to attempt a fourth-down conversion that culminated in a sack.
The final Crimson drive before halftime ended in a touchdown, the result of a play so well designed that senior tight end Ben Braunecker, the eventual recipient of the scoring pass, slipped and fell into the end zone, and still managed to make the grab for the go-ahead score. Despite this, if I were Surace, I would probably have been pretty pleased going into halftime trailing by just seven—previous opponents had headed into the break down an average of 28.5 points.
Then, the Crimson offense found its third gear while the Harvard defense continued to show why it leads the FCS in scoring defense. Two Tigers three-and-outs later and two Harvard touchdowns later, it was 21-7, advantage home team.
For whatever reason—perhaps his hands had gone numb from hanging onto the balloons too long or perhaps he saw the futility in supporting a losing team—it was on the next Crimson drive that the child released the black and orange balloons. As Fischer hauled in another touchdown and the balloons soared away, so did Princeton’s chances.
In a lot of ways, 42-7 is misleading—it suggests a blowout, a steamrolling over a poorly matched opponent that my dad fondly refers to as a “cream puff.”
It would be unfair to term Princeton a cream puff, however. After all, this was a squad that did force four fumbles and recover two, Harvard’s first lost fumbles of the season.
But two turnovers do not a victory make against this Crimson team, and Surace found himself in a remarkably similar position in the fourth quarter to all the other coaches who have faced Murphy’s team this season: looking at a score indicative of a blowout, hopes of a comeback floating into the stratosphere.
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