John Harvard's Journal | Sports
A Hard Road
In hoping to rebound from an uncharacteristically mediocre 5-5 record in 2017, coach Tim Murphy put forth a multi-pronged plan for the 2018 Harvard football season, the Crimson’s 145th. Its major elements: First, bolster his offensive and defensive lines. “We have a saying here: It’s what’s up front that counts,” declared Murphy as he entered his twenty-fifth season on the Crimson sideline. Second, get the ball as often as possible into the hands of senior All-Ivy wideout and kick returner Justice Shelton-Mosley, whose production had dropped to a paltry 3.6 receptions a game in ’17. Third, bank on the continuing maturity of quarterback Jake Smith, who was coming off a promising freshman year.
But as that eminent pugilist Mike Tyson once observed, “Everybody has a plan—until they are punched in the mouth.” By the fourth week of the 2018 season, Murphy’s squad had taken several hard punches. Harvard had a 2-2 record (1-1 in Ivy League play), but a two-game losing streak. The inconsistent Smith seemingly had regressed and had been supplanted by senior Tom Stewart. Senior Charlie Booker III, an All-Ivy running back last season, was hobbled and still hadn’t seen the field. The Crimson also had not developed a signature tight end of the caliber Harvard has had in recent years. (Five were on NFL rosters at the season’s start.) Most devastatingly, in the fourth game—a dispiriting 28-24 loss at Cornell—Shelton-Mosley suffered a severe leg injuryon a punt return. When he would return was uncertain. The Crimson attack faced the prospect of navigating without its most dynamic weapon, the player whom opposing defenses had to worry about most (see “Happy Returns,” September-October, page 28).
Sign up for Harvard Magazine’s football e-mail and follow the Crimson all season long! Dick Friedman will provide the latest news, game summaries, and insights.
Besides internal challenges, Murphy had to face an external one: the extreme competitiveness of Ivy football, from top to bottom. There are no longer any easy games, no breathers. The days of marking Columbia as a guaranteed win are over, particularly since former Penn coach Al Bagnoli began upgrading the program in 2015. It’s not quite parity—but every team has talent, some of it outstanding.
In the first two weeks, though, Murphy’s plan appeared to be working just the way he had drawn it up. In the opener against San Diego at Harvard Stadium, a star was born. In the Crimson’s 36-14 win, running back Aaron Shampklin scored three first-quarter touchdowns, on runs of 64, 23, and 22 yards. In the fourth quarter, the 5 foot, 10-inch, 180-pound sophomore from Paramount, California, tacked on another TD, on a 13-yard jaunt. Running behind a pair of 285-pound seniors, center Ben Shoults and guard Larry Allen Jr., Shampklin, who has speed, moves, and a surprising ability to break tackles, finished with 178 yards on 15 carries: an eye-popping 11.9 average. His four touchdowns were one shy of the Crimson single-game record set by Tom Ossman ’52 against Brown in 1951. For his outstanding effort, Shampklin was named Ivy League Player of the Week.
Besides Shampklin’s breakout day, there were other salubrious takeaways from the victory. Smith (13 of 21 passing) was solid and decisive; the Crimson committed no turnovers. Shelton-Mosley had seven catches for 127 yards, plus a 43-yard kickoff return. The defense bent but rarely broke. Freshman punter Jon Sot averaged a stellar 46.7 yards a boot, placing three kicks inside the Toreros’ 20.
The next week Harvard journeyed to Brown for a Friday Night Lights contest (the first of three this season) and came away with a hard-fought 31-17 win. Shampklin continued his tear, running for 93 yards on 15 carries. Smith was 23-for-30 passing, albeit with a couple of worrisome interceptions. But the victory belonged to the defense, anchored by senior linemen Richie Ryan and Stone Hart, which limited the Bears to 32 yards on the ground. In the second quarter, senior defensive back Cole Thompson picked off a pass by Brown quarterback Michael McGovern and took it 27 yards to the house. That score gave the Crimson a 21-3 lead, but the Bears didn’t quit. The game wasn’t clinched until the fourth quarter, when Smith led the Crimson on an 87-yard drive that culminated with a 22-yard scoring flip to senior wideout Adam Scott.
The Crimson was not able to complete the Ocean State exacta. Rhode Island came into the Stadium for a Friday-night game and departed with a 23-16 win. Once the doormat of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Rams have evolved into a fast, athletic team. In the first half they built a 16-3 lead while stifling Harvard, holding the Crimson offense to one yard rushing on 12 carries. Early in the second half, Harvard mustered two field goals by Jake McIntyre. (The junior from Orlando, Florida, was six-for-seven on field-goal tries in the first four games, especially important because the Crimson’s red-zone touchdown performance was a miserable 2-for-11.) But after a 34-yard McIntyre boot made the score 16-6, Rhode Island’s Ahmere Dorsey took the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown—essentially, the game-winner, although in the fourth quarter another promising Crimson sophomore back, Devin Darrington, ran for a 36-yard touchdown. (Murphy refers to Darrington and Shampklin as “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.”)
On the road again, the Crimson went back to Ivy competition and for the second year in a row suffered a disheartening defeat at Cornell. The toughest hit came in the first period when Shelton-Mosley returned a punt 13 yards and was brought down by the Big Red’s Nathaniel Weber and Malik Leary. On the tackle Shelton-Mosley’s left leg was twisted; he needed to be helped off the field. His day done, he appeared on the sideline in sweats and with an air cast on his leg.
Toward the end of the first half, with Smith struggling to move the team, Murphy yanked him and inserted senior Tom Stewart (who also had briefly replaced Smith in the Rhode Island game). Stewart did a creditable job, throwing two touchdown passes, one to Scott, another to senior Henry Taylor. The latter gave the Crimson a 24-14 lead with a little more than 10 minutes remaining—seemingly, breathing room. Instead, Cornell pushed over two quick touchdowns and held off a late drive engineered by Stewart. The coughed-up lead wasted an 11-tackle day by defensive back Thompson, as well as another magnificent outing by Shampklin, who slipped, stutter-stepped, and streaked to a game- and career-high 191 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown.
One more non-conference game—against Holy Cross—loomed before the brutal portion of the Ivy schedule, featuring back-to-back games against the early season’s two dominant teams, Princeton and Dartmouth. The Crimson would have to go some to justify the Ivy Media preseason poll, which placed Harvard third, behind Yale and Princeton. It would be a rugged road to The Game on November 17 at Fenway Park.