Ryan Fitzpatrick '05,the football team's multi-talented quarterback, is a gamer. After breaking a bone in his throwing hand in the season's fourth game, he reinjured it when he returned to action three weeks later. Sidelined again for a fortnight, Fitzpatrick started the Pennsylvania game, only to suffer a torn knee cartilage and a sprained ankle when a Quaker linebacker laid him out in the third quarter. Yet there he was at Yale Bowl the following weekend, throwing four touchdown passes in a 37-19 blowout of the Bulldogs. "He couldn't run, he was playing on one-and-a-half legs," said head coach Tim Murphy. "It was just a tremendous, gutsy performance."
Harvard's third consecutive victory over its Connecticut rivals topped off a 7-3 season and left the Crimson in a tie with Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth for second place in the Ivy League. Pennsylvania, the defending champions, had clinched a share of the Ivy title two weeks earlier and had capped an unbeaten season with a 59-7 rout of hapless Cornell.
Had Fitzpatrick remained undamaged, Harvard might have challenged Penn for the title. With a high-scoring offense, and an able defensive unit headed by all-Ivy linebacker and captain Dante Balestracci, the Crimson looked invincible at the outset. After one-sided pastings of Holy Cross (43-23) and Brown (52-14), the team rocked on with a 28-20 upset of Northeastern—then ranked tenth in the NCAA division I-AA ratings—and a 27-0 shutout at Cornell.
It was at Cornell's Schoellkopf Field, with its unforgiving artificial turf, that Fitzpatrick injured his hand. Junior Garrett Schires replaced him and played creditably as Harvard overhauled Lafayette, 34-27, and nipped Princeton in a 43-40 thriller. Tailback Clifton Dawson, a freshman transfer from Northwestern, made his mark in the Lafayette game by running for 218 yards and four touchdowns. Against Princeton, the hard-running Dawson picked up 183 yards and three more touchdowns. With the Tigers clinging to a 40-37 overtime lead, Schires pulled out Harvard's sixth win of the season by drilling a four-yard scoring pass to receiver Rodney Byrnes '05, who outleapt two defenders to come down with the ball in the end zone.
Harvard had tallied 227 points, or an average of 37.8 per game, in its first six outings. Not since 1892 had a Crimson team been comparably prolific. But now things went awry. Against Dartmouth, a victim in seven previous meetings, Harvard amassed 545 yards in total offense but could manage only a pair of touchdowns and a field goal. Capitalizing on a bunch of spectacular catches by rangy receivers, the Green left the Stadium with a 30-16 upset. The megrims continued at Columbia a week later. Schires had an off day, and two interceptions in the final two minutes wiped out a tenuous 13-9 Crimson lead, giving the scrappy Lions a 16-13 victory and effectively quashing any fugitive hopes of an Ivy title for Harvard.
The team gave Penn a tussle the following Saturday, but began badly by yielding 22 points in the first 16 minutes. Starting at quarterback for the first time in more than a month, Fitzpatrick injured his leg in the second half but went on to direct a ferocious fourth-quarter rally that fell just six yards short of a tying touchdown. Penn's 32-24 victory guaranteed the Quakers an undisputed league title for the fourth time in six years.
When Fitzpatrick was at full strength, his remarkable running ability gave Harvard's offense an added dimension. At Yale, where he took the field wearing a knee brace and with his left ankle heavily taped, it was clear that his footwork would not be an element in the game plan. Nor did it need to be. Well guarded by his offensive line, Fitzpatrick mixed handoffs to Dawson, who gained 174 yards on 32 carries, with dropback passes. "I felt like Dan Marino back there, just surveying the field," he said later. Throwing well, he completed 13 of 22 passes for 230 yards and four picturesque touchdowns. They came on a 26-yard strike to freshman wide receiver Corey Mazza in the second quarter; a 10-yard toss to Rodney Byrnes just 25 seconds before halftime; an 11-yarder to reserve tight end Kelly Widman '06 in the third quarter; and a game-breaking 79-yard bomb to wideout Brian Edwards '05 in the final period.
Yale's league-leading offense, which had scored 40 points or more in five of the team's games, put up eye-popping numbers: 30 first downs and 555 yards on 98 plays. Alvin Cowan, the versatile Eli quarterback, completed 34 out of 64 passes for 438 yards (a Yale record) and two touchdowns; receiver Ralph Plumb had 15 catches. But Harvard's defensive unit came through in the clutch, holding Yale to a pair of field goals in the first half and mounting two stalwart goal-line stands. With Yale on the 3-yard line, 5-foot-8 cornerback Benny Butler '04 made the defensive play of the game, deflecting a fourth-down pass to 6-foot-7 pro prospect Nate Lawrie. And with less than 90 seconds to play, it was the defense that administered the coup de grâce, scoring Harvard's last six points on senior cornerback Gary Sonkur's 37-yard runback of an intercepted pass.
Tidbits: On the fortieth anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy '40, the Harvard and Yale bands joined to spell out "JFK" and play "America the Beautiful" before the start of The Game....The attendance of 53,136 was the Bowl's largest since 1987, when Harvard won by a similar score (37-20)....In games played since the Ivy League's inception in 1956, Harvard now leads Yale, 24-23-1.
For the record: Fitzpatrick became the third Harvard quarterback to pass for four touchdowns against Yale. Larry Brown '79 did it in 1978 and Neil Rose '02 ('03) in 2001....Clifton Dawson ran for more than 100 yards in each of the last six games. His 1,187 yards rushing is Harvard's second-highest single-season total. Only three other Crimson backs have ever gained more than 1,000 yards, and Dawson is the first freshman in Harvard and Ivy League annals to do so. He also scored 12 touchdowns....The 27-0 shutout of Cornell was the first that Harvard had posted in Ithaca since 1893....This year's 10-game scoring total of 317 points is exceeded only by the 327 scored in 2000.
Déjà vu: Dartmouth rained on Harvard's parade in 1903, upending the Crimson, 11-0, in the first game played at the Stadium. This fall's Stadium centennial celebration was marred as well by a Big Green victory....In the Princeton cliffhanger, the Tigers missed what would have been a winning field goal in the final minute of play. The same thing had happened with seven seconds remaining in the 2001 game....Harvard has won eight straight against Princeton, the longest winning streak in a series that goes back to 1877.
Encore: Captain Dante Balestracci, a superlative linebacker, is the league's first player to earn first team all-Ivy honors four times. He led the defensive unit with 96 tackles and was magnificent in the Yale game, making eight tackles, blocking an extra-point attempt, and bulling for a first down on a fake punt that set up Harvard's first touchdown. Balestracci received the team's Crocker Award, presented to its most valuable player....Five other Crimson players made the all-Ivy first team: freshman back Clifton Dawson, guard Joe Traverso '04, linebacker Bobby Everett '05, and defensive backs Benny Butler and Chris Raftery '04. Though his injuries sidelined him for three games and parts of two others, Ryan Fitzpatrick earned an honorable mention. An economics concentrator from Gilbert, Arizona, and Dunster House, Fitzpatrick will captain the 2004 team.