John Harvard's Journal
Next Man Up
Since last November23, when Harvard thrashed Yale, 34-7, in New Haven to cap a 9-1 season and earn a share of the Ivy football championship (its fifteenth), the offseason had been tumultuous, for football and the Harvard program. The National Football League was rife with scandal. There were concerns about violence and brain injuries. Football was perhaps in its worst odor since the fatality-filled (19 deaths) season of 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt, A.B. 1880, LL.D. 1902, summoned representatives of the Big Three—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—to the White House and compelled rules changes that rescued the game. (Filmmaker Ken Burns’s otherwise exemplary documentary The Roosevelts, which aired on PBS even as the Crimson was playing its opener, somehow failed to mention T.R.’s pigskin diplomacy.)
Some 109 years later, the hits kept on coming. Before Harvard’s 2014 season was even one period old, three key returning starters from last fall’s juggernaut—second-team All-Ivy quarterback Connor Hempel ’15, leading rusher Paul Stanton Jr. ’16, and leading receiver Ricky Zorn ’15—had been sidelined by injuries. Yet the scoreboard barely reflected their absence. Despite a few hiccups, coach Tim Murphy’s squad won its first three games, defeating Holy Cross 41-18, Brown 22-14, and Georgetown 34-3. In doing so, the Crimson uncovered resilience, depth, and talent to carry into the meat of the season.
Health was a major issue even before two-a-days began. The direst development came in February, when Murphy underwent an emergency triple-bypass operation. He was forced to take an eight-week leave, his first such absence in a 28-year career. But in the Ivy League’s preseason teleconference, Murphy (who turned 58 in October) declared that he was hale and rarin’ to start his twenty-first season as Harvard’s head coach, a tenure second only to that of his immediate predecessor, Joe Restic (23). “I feel a bit like a NASCAR race car that has run a few good races but now I’ve got a brand-new engine and I’m ready to run again,” Murphy said. His time off, he added, had been “really humbling. It reinforced that I love…being the football coach at Harvard and working with these kids.”
During the teleconference Murphy (with a coach’s typical trepidation) professed perplexity about his team’s prospects. “Our strengths are probably a little bit opposite what they were last year,” he said. “Last year we had a lot of question marks on offense and we had lots of answers on defense. It might be a little bit polar opposite this year.” This seemed to minimize the presence of such senior holdovers as defensive back and captain Norman Hayes (56 tackles, two interceptions in 2013; see “Run Backward, on a Mission,” September-October, page 35) and the unit’s lynchpin, the ferociously focused six-foot-three, 235-pound defensive end Zach Hodges, last year’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, who led the team in sacks with 6.5.But by the early moments of the opening game, played at the Stadium on a 49-degree evening against ancient and honorable rival Holy Cross, it was the offense that suddenly faced urgent question marks. Stanton and Zorn did not even dress for the game. Filling Stanton’s spot was Andrew Casten ’15. No dropoff here: the five-foot-eleven 210-pounder rumbled for 153 yards (on only 17 carries) and three touchdowns. Casten’s gains exceeded by two yards his total for all of 2013.
At the outset, there was little hint that anything was amiss. Hempel led the Crimson on a six-play, 47-yard opening drive that culminated with Casten barging in from the three for a touchdown. But when the offense next took the field, it was without Hempel, who was suffering from back spasms. Junior Scott Hosch replaced him. The boyish-looking six-foot-three 205-pounder was the definition of “untried,” having never taken a varsity snap. But he performed creditably for the remainder of the half and into the third quarter, even capping a 73-yard drive by taking it to the end zone himself from seven yards out.
It appeared that Murphy’s preseason worries about his defense were warranted when Holy Cross quarterback Peter Pujals opened the third quarter by engineering an 11-play, 71-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown and an 18-14 Crusaders lead. But Harvard had been substituting freely and now its forces were fresher. Moreover, back in trotted Hempel. Mixing Casten’s rushes with passes to tight ends Ben Braunecker ’16 and Ryan Halvorson ’17, Hempel ultimately connected with running back Anthony Firkser ’17 for a five-yard touchdown that again put Harvard in front, 20-18.
It took only another 24 seconds for the game to turn irrevocably. Crimson foes now routinely double-team Hodges, which opens opportunities for his defensive linemates. (Hodges had two sacks anyway.) Junior defensive end James Duberg sacked Pujals and forced a fumble. Duberg’s classmate, linebacker Matt Koran, fell on the ball at the Crusaders’ 18. (After his 10 tackles, Koran would be named Ivy defensive player of the week.) On the next play, Casten ran it in. Harvard 27, Holy Cross 18.
Then yet another junior, defensive back Eric Medes, forced and recovered a fumble at the Harvard 48. Five plays later, it was Casten again going over, from the three, for 34-18. “When you’re playing a good team, you can’t shoot yourself in the foot,” said Pujals afterward.
Most good backs get stronger as the game wears on. On this night Casten was a very good back. When Harvard got the ball again, he made his most brilliant dash. Taking a handoff from Hempel at the Harvard 23, he blasted through a hole created by a pulverizing offensive line anchored by 300-pound All-Ivy center Nick Easton ’15. “Our guys up front were blowing guys off the ball,” Casten said afterward. True, but once he got past the line, he created a bit of magic, cutting back past the Crusaders. “Somehow, I made the safety miss,” he said. He gained 52 yards on the play. After two more Casten rushes, Hempel tossed to Halvorson, who made a nifty grab at the pylon for the final touchdown.
Casten said that the last time he scored thrice in a game was for Red Bank Catholic in a playoff game against Bergen Catholic in New Jersey. (He became the first Crimson back to score three rushing touchdowns in a game since Treavor Scales ’13 did so against Dartmouth in 2012.) For this Jersey boy, the appropriate theme song on this evening might have been the Four Seasons’ “Oh, What a Night.”
The next week brought another game under the lights, this time at Brown Stadium in the first Ivy game of 2014. (One more night game and the Crimson would qualify for the Texas high school Class 5A playoffs.) This time, Hempel did not even dress. But Stanton was back—and how!—barreling for 123 yards on 21 carries, and scoring the momentum-turning touchdown. Hosch sputtered but eventually found his rhythm, completing 24 of 34 passes for 234 yards with no interceptions. Twelve of those completions went to his classmate, junior wide receiver Andrew Fischer, who amassed 115 yards and a touchdown. Meantime, a bend-but-don’t-break defense shut the Bruins down for the final 23 minutes.
The pattern was similar—perhaps distressingly so—to that of the Holy Cross game. Midway through the third quarter, the Crimson trailed 14-6 and the mostly partisan Bruins crowd of 13,511 was loaded for its Bears. As Pujals had done the week before, Brown quarterback Marcus Fuller was bamboozling the Crimson defense with short dropbacks that neutralized the pass-rushing of Hodges, who was shut out of the sack column for the night. But that left other Harvard defenders free to plug holes: senior linebacker Connor Sheehan (6.0 tackles for the game) and a bunch of juniors: Koran and defensive back Scott Peters (5.0 tackles apiece), plus defensive back Sean Ahern and tackle Doug Webb (4.0 tackles apiece). They helped the Crimson gain the field position that set up the game-turning play.
On third and eight from the Brown 43, Hosch handed the ball to Stanton, who bolted off right tackle, then cut back. Seconds later, he was in the end zone. (Brown coach Phil Estes later lamented what might have been: “We had the right defense called, and should have blown it up right at the point of attack.”) Senior Ben Falloon kicked the point to make it 14-13.
On Brown’s next series, Duberg (for the second straight week) made a play, stuffing Bruins back Andrew Coke on a third-and-two. With 13:47 left in the game, Harvard got the ball back…on its own three-yard line. Now Hosch showed his resourcefulness. He wasn’t worried, later saying, “I know if we can execute, we can move the ball.” Making like John Elway, he got the ball down to the Brown five, the key play coming on a beautiful crossing pattern executed by Firkser that resulted in a 34-yard gain. On third and goal from the five, Hosch was harassed but coolly tossed the ball out of harm’s way, allowing senior Andrew Flesher to kick a 16-yard field goal that gave the Crimson a 16-14 lead.
On the Crimson’s final drive—87 yards that chewed up 4:37—Fischer deftly worked the Brown flanks and hooked up with Hosch for five receptions. With third and goal from the Brown three, Hosch faked a pitch and ran it in himself to give Harvard a 22-14 lead. Moments later, junior defensive back Chris Evans salted it away with an interception.
Fischer’s 12 catches doubled his previous game high, achieved twice (in 2013 against San Diego and the prior week against Holy Cross). He credited his rapport with Hosch to “lots of reps in practice,” adding that “we came into the game clicking.”
The next week, the injuries to Hempel and Stanton were sufficiently aggravating to keep them from making the trip to Washington, D.C., for Harvard’s first football game ever against Georgetown. Again, Casten was ready. “I always have that ‘next guy up’ mentality,” he said afterward. With Hosch methodically running the attack (20-of-25 passing) and the offensive line gouging enormous holes, Casten ran for 139 yards and topped his performance against Holy Cross by scoring four times in a 34-3 win. His four rushing touchdowns were one shy of the Crimson single-game record set by Tom Ossman ’52 in 1951 against Brown.
From these first three games, Crimson supporters found much to like, especially the efforts of the fill-ins. But there were concerns: the first-half funks; the absence of a deep passing game; and a kicking unit that was making each extra point and field goal an adventure.
More ominously, defending co-champion Princeton, led by quarterback Quinn Epperly (2013 Ivy League Player of the Year), again was scoring in bunches, while Yale, recently somnolent, was giving every sign of a great awakening, especially with an overtime upset of Army.
In other words, just as in olden times, it might again come down to the Big Three. Somewhere, T.R. was smacking his lips.
Tidbits: In Harvard’s Norman Hayes and Yale’s running back Deon Randall, The Game this year for the first time will boast two African-American captains.…A crowd of 15,132 attended the opener against Holy Cross on Friday, September 19. That was down from the 17,256 who had shown up for the 2013 home opener against Brown, played on a Saturday night. The victory over the Crusaders ran the Crimson’s record in home games under the lights to 8-0.…Preseason polls tabbed Princeton to win the Ivy League, with Harvard a close second. Dartmouth was third, followed by Penn and Yale….Penn’s Al Bagnoli has announced that this season, his twenty-third with the Quakers, will be his last. His final game at Franklin Field on November 15 will, somewhat fittingly, be against the Crimson: with Bagnoli’s retirement, Harvard’s Tim Murphy will become the dean of Ivy football coaches.