Sports | Football
Harvard 41, Holy Cross 18
“Our strengths are probably a little bit opposite what they were last year,” said Harvard football coach Tim Murphy at the Ivy League’s preseason football media teleconference. “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.”
In the 2014 season opener at Harvard Stadium, a Friday night game on September 19, Murphy might have discovered yet another surprising strength within his offense as the Crimson scored 27 unanswered second-half points to beat Holy Cross, 41-18. With last year’s top runner, junior Paul Stanton Jr., held out because of injuries, the untested Andrew Casten ’15 stepped in at running back and Harvard barely missed a beat. The senior rumbled for 153 yards (on only 17 carries) and three touchdowns. Casten’s gains exceeded his total for 2013 by two yards. “In the second half we executed what we talked about at halftime,” Murphy said afterward. “Get takeaways, get rhythm on offense.”
As an opening-game measuring stick the Crusaders were perhaps inexact, as they already had three games under their belt. Coach Tom Gilmore’s team arrived from Worcester under the charge of sophomore quarterback Peter Pujals, who had riddled the Crimson last fall, throwing for 345 yards and four touchdowns in Harvard’s 41-35 victory.
Through 35 minutes on a 49-degree evening, Pujals again had Harvard on the run, deftly mixing his plays and uncannily converting third down after third down. Though the Crimson scored first when Casten, capping a six-play, 47-yard drive, barged in from the Crusaders’ three, Pujals riposted with a time-consuming 19-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Holy Cross missed the extra point, but when Harvard’s offense took the field it was without starting quarterback Connor Hempel ’15. A second-team All-Ivy in 2013, Hempel was suffering from back spasms.
He was replaced by Scott Hosch ’16, who had never taken a varsity snap but performed creditably for the remainder of the half and into the third quarter. There was the good—a 73-yard drive that Hosch himself ended with a seven-yard touchdown run—but also the bad, including a wayward pass that Crusaders free safety Luke Ford picked off late in the half. The interception set up a last-play 35-yard field goal that cut Harvard’s lead to 14-12.
When Pujals opened the third quarter by engineering an 11-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to put the Crusaders up, 18-14, it looked like Murphy’s preseason worries about his defense were warranted. However, Harvard had been substituting freely and now its forces were fresher. Moreover, Hempel trotted in. Last year’s leading receiver, Ricky Zorn ’15, had been held out due to injuries, like Stanton—but not to worry. Mixing Casten’s rushes with passes to tight ends Ben Braunecker ’16 and Ryan Halvorson ’17, Hempel ultimately connected with sophomore running back Anthony Firkser 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. Junior defensive end James Duberg sacked Pujals to force a fumble, and linebacker Matt Koran ’16 fell on the ball at the Crusaders’ 18. On the very next play, Casten ran it in. Harvard 27, Holy Cross 18.
On the next series, defensive back Eric Medes ’16 forced and pounced on another Holy Cross fumble at the Harvard 48. Five plays later, it was Casten again going over, this time from the three: 34-18. “When you’re playing a good team,” said Pujals afterward, “you can’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
Most good backs get stronger as the game wears on, and 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 ripped open by a pulverizing offensive line anchored by the 300-pound, All-Ivy center Nick Easton ’15. “Our guys up front were blowing guys off the ball,” Casten noted after the game. True, but once he got past scrimmage, he created a bit of magic himself, cutting back past multiple Crusaders to record a 52-yard gain. “Somehow, I made the safety miss,” he said, with admirable understatement. 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 had scored three touchdowns in a game was for Red Bank (New Jersey) Catholic High School in a playoff game against Bergen Catholic. Only time will tell if he will enter the pantheon of Crimson running backs. But for one night, anyway, he was, if not the answer, then at least an answer, and a good one.
Since last November, when Harvard thrashed Yale 34-7 in New Haven to cap a 9-1 season and earn a share of the Ivy championship (its fifteenth), the offseason had been tumultuous, for the sport and the program. The NCAA was roiled over perceived high-handed treatment of student-athletes and the NFL was rife with scandal. There were general 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, compelled rules changes that rescued the game. (Filmmaker Ken Burns’s otherwise exemplary documentary The Roosevelts, airing on PBS even as the Crimson and Crusaders cavorted on Soldiers Field, somehow failed to mention T.R.’s pigskin diplomacy. See "The Roosevelts, and Harvard.)
For Harvard, the most cataclysmic development came when Murphy underwent an emergency triple-bypass operation in February. He was forced to take an eight-week leave, his first such absence in a 28-year coaching career. In an Ivy teleconference, Murphy, who turns 58 this October, declared that he was hale and rarin’ to start his twenty-first season as Harvard’s head coach, a tenure second only to the 23 seasons of his immediate predecessor, Joe Restic. “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.”
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the change in Harvard football since its early days as the backgrounds of said kids. In 1914, when the Crimson started the season as two-time defending national champions, the team leader was a local boy, All-American back and dropkicker Charles E. Brickley, A.B. 1915, a product of nearby Everett, Massachusetts, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Of the 39 players on that squad, 24 were from Massachusetts, the rest from only 12 states plus Hawaii (then a territory). This year’s captain is defensive back Norman Hayes from Tucker (Georgia) High and the Crimson squad draws its players from 32 states. (With running back Deon Randall captaining Yale, both colleges have African-American captains for the first time.)
This was the eighth straight season the Crimson has played a Stadium night game and Harvard is unbeaten under its home lights. (Fun fact: artificial illumination first appeared on Soldiers Field in 1916, when coach Percy D. Haughton installed lights for a practice.) Holy Cross is an ancient and honorable foe. The schools first played in 1904 (Harvard won 28-5) and have tussled 68 times, including every year since 1980. Last week the universities announced an extension of the rivalry through 2025, taking off only ’15 and ’17.
weekend roundup: All eight Ivy teams opened their seasons against nonleague foes. The other game results:
Brown 3, Georgetown 17
Columbia 7, Fordham 49
Cornell 12, Colgate 27
Dartmouth 35, Central Connecticut State 25
Penn 31, Jacksonville 34
Princeton 29, San Diego 39
Yale 54, Lehigh 43
Coming up: Ivy action gets under way next Saturday, with Harvard visiting Brown in the weekend’s only league contest, yet another night game, starting at 6 p.m. (One more under the lights and the Crimson can qualify for the Texas high-school Class 5A title.) Preseason surveys had last year’s co-champ Princeton edging Harvard for the title, with Dartmouth a strong third. Grain-of-salt warning: last year, Princeton did not figure in the prognostication. But the Tigers and their splendid quarterback Quinn Epperly conquered Harvard 51-48 in an epic triple-overtime game at the Stadium and were not defeated in Ivy play until the final weekend, when they fell at Dartmouth, 28-24, allowing Harvard to share the league title.
The Harvard-Holy Cross score by quarters:
Holy Cross 6 6 6 0 — 18
Harvard 7 7 13 14 — 41