Unbelievably Good

What's upwith Ryan Fitzpatrick? Might this soft-spoken junior from Arizona be the most talented quarterback to play football for Harvard since the glory days of all-American Barry Wood '32? "The guy's amazing. He's as good as I've seen," declared Brown coach Phil Estes after watching Harvard trample his Bruins, 52-14, in the teams' Ivy League opener. Fitzpatrick—"a one-man wrecking crew," in Estes's phrase—had run for two of the Crimson's seven touchdowns and passed for four more. "He's big, he's strong, he's tough, he's fast, he's confident," says Tim Murphy, now in his tenth season as Harvard's head coach. "Because of his versatility and his ability to read defenses, Ryan will allow us to be in every football game we play. He's very difficult to defend, because he's a good thrower who is also mobile, and he's one of those players who can make something out of nothing at times."

Fitzpatrick himself appears underwhelmed by his accomplishments. "I still have a lot to learn," he said after passing and running for 471 yards in total offense—a new Harvard record—in this season's first contest, a 43-23 drubbing of Holy Cross at Worcester's Fitton Field. "That wasn't our best game on offense," claimed Fitzpatrick, "and that's what's so exciting. I think we're going to have an unbelievably good offense this year." After the Brown blowout, he was still insisting that "our offense hasn't yet played up to its potential."

In two seasons as understudy to the record-setting Neil Rose '02 ('03), Fitzpatrick saw action in 14 games and was the starting quarterback in five of them. While Rose put up big numbers, his backup was shining as well. As a freshman, Fitzpatrick entered the Princeton game in the final quarter and ran an 80-yard scoring drive that gave Harvard a 28-26 win. With Rose nursing a shoulder injury, Fitzpatrick started the following game and was the prime mover in an electrifying second-half surge that wiped out a 21-0 Dartmouth lead, preserving an unbeaten season for the 2001 team. Last fall, when Rose was slowed by a spinal disc injury, Fitzpatrick started against Lehigh, Cornell, Northeastern, and Princeton, and came off the bench to spark come-from-behind victories over Brown and Yale. His 137-yard rushing day against Brown made him the first Harvard quarterback in a decade to run for more than 100 yards in a game, and his play against Yale helped win him an all-Ivy honorable mention. All things come to him who waits, and with Rose working as a portfolio manager at a Honolulu investment firm, Fitzpatrick now has the management of the Harvard offense all to himself.

This year's offensive unit boasts big, agile linemen, a clutch of speedy receivers, backs who can catch the ball as well as run it—and the cool hand and fleet feet of Fitzpatrick. "Throw it all together with our no-huddle tempo," says Tim Murphy, "and it's a lot for a defense to handle." Way too much for the defenses of Holy Cross, Brown, and Northeastern, which gave up a total of 1,591 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 123 points.

The one-man wrecking crew was at it again in the season's third game, a 28-20 victory over Northeastern, a tough nonleague foe. Fitzpatrick threw two scoring passes to wide receiver Brian Edwards '05 and ran for two touchdowns himself. At Holy Cross, in his first game as a starter, Edwards had caught seven passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. He had an even better day against Northeastern, gaining 180 yards on seven catches and setting up his second touchdown reception with a 25-yard run on a nifty double reverse.

With 359 aerial yards at Holy Cross, and 361 against Brown, Fitzpatrick vaulted into fourth place among Harvard's all-time single-game passing leaders. If he stays healthy, his passing and total-offense stats could eventually eclipse most of Rose's records, and he might well become the first Harvard passer to throw for 6,000 yards in a career (Rose had 5,949). At this writing, with the better part of two seasons ahead of him, Fitzpatrick has 2,442 passing yards to his credit, and sports a completion percentage of .635 (Rose owns the career record of .624). Besides a strong and accurate arm, he has a keen "field sense" and a reflexive ability to evade would-be tacklers. "I haven't seen many people contain him yet," says Brown coach Estes. "He just knows where trouble is happening, and he finds a way to get out of it." At Holy Cross, Fitzpatrick's footwork made him the game's leading rusher, with 112 yards.

Fitzpatrick will have cause for celebration when the football team holds its annual postseason banquet at the Harvard Club of Boston on November 24. That will be his twenty-first birthday. But if all goes well over the next several weekends, there may be much more to celebrate.


Tidbits: The Ryan Fitzpatrick Show is not the whole story. An experienced defensive line has been formidable against both the run and the pass. The defensive secondary yielded 379 aerial yards to Holy Cross, 201 to Brown, and 241 to Northeastern, but had three interceptions in the Brown game. Senior safety Chris Raftery ran back the first of them for Harvard's initial touchdown.

Dante and his brothers: Fitzpatrick had thrown 193 passes without an interception until a sophomore defensive back named Mark Balestracci picked off a 30-yard heave in the final quarter of the Holy Cross game. "Obviously you don't want them to make that interception, but if anyone had to make it, I'm glad it was him," said Mark's brother—Harvard linebacker, captain, and tackling leader Dante Balestracci '04 (see "Dante the Disruptor," September-October, page 92). The next weekend brought a Stadium visit by a third Balestracci: Thomas, a Brown freshman and reserve wide receiver.

New faces: Corey Mazza, a freshman wide receiver, had three catches against Holy Cross and four more—one of them for a touchdown—against Brown....Tailback Clifton Dawson '07, a transfer from Northwestern, rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown at Holy Cross.

Ancient history: Not since 1932, when coach Eddie Casey's eleven started off with 66-0 and 40-0 victories over Buffalo and New Hampshire, had a Crimson squad scored as many as 95 points in its first two games....And Harvard hadn't beaten Brown by as much as 38 points since 1901.     

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