Challenges on the Field and Off
Beset by an ugly string of off-season incidents, the football team sought to make amends on the playing field. After pounding Holy Cross, 31-14, in a sun-soaked home opener, the team downed Brown, 38-21, and came from behind to edge Lehigh, 35-33. The rout of Brown, the defending Ivy League champion, established Harvard as the likely front-runner in this years title chase, and with 445 rushing yards in his first three games, star running back Clifton Dawson 07 seemed poised to break the leagues career rushing record of 4,715, set 35 years ago by Cornell halfback Ed Marinaro (see "Every Play Breaks a Record," September-October, page 84).
Its a certainty that in 133 seasons of football, no Harvard team has ever reaped so much bad press before its first fall scrimmage. On August 2Ivy League Media Dayhead coach Tim Murphy announced that all-Ivy linebacker Matt Thomas 07 had been stripped of his captaincy and dismissed from the team. Thomas had been charged with breaking and entering, assault and battery, and malicious destruction of property after an altercation with a former girlfriend at Currier House in June. (Under a pretrial pro bationary sentence, he will receive anger-management therapy and alcohol treatment, and perform community service.) Murphy also disclosed on Media Day that Liam OHagan 08, the starting quarterback in nine of last years 10 games, had incurred a five-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Those disciplinary moves were preceded by one-game suspensions imposed on two reserve players for scuffling with a shuttle-bus driver after a team barbecue in April. Then, in early September, the Crimson revealed that Keegan Toci 07, a reserve receiver, had been dismissed from the team. The Boston Globe reported that Toci had presented an irreverent sketch at the teams annual skit night, while an Associated Press wire story said coach Murphy had described Tocis solo turn, which reportedly cited 20 reasons why Harvards Division 1-AA football program would never rise to Division 1-A, as a mean-spirited attack on the training staff, coaching staff, players, strength coaches, and Harvard University in general. The Globe noted that some members of the squad regarded Tocis sketch as less offensive than certain racy, off-color acts presented that evening, and stated that Murphy had permanently canceled skit night. Murphy later told this magazine that further disciplinary action was in the works, but that the College deans office had asked him not to discuss it.
Ive been a head coach for 20 years and Ive never been through anything remotely like this, Murphy said after the Brown game, adding, Ninety-nine percent of the kids that weve had at Harvard have been world-class human beings, the kind that you would literally be proud for your daughter to marry.
Even with two key team members grounded, Harvard garnered the most first-place votes in the Ivy League preseason media poll, substantially ahead of runners-up Pennsylvania and Brown. Ryan Tully 07, another linebacker, was elected to replace Thomas as captain, and Chris Pizzotti, a six-foot-five junior who had missed the 2005 season because of a back injury, was tapped to fill in at quarterback. In the opener against Holy Crossthe first game played on Harvard Stadiums new artificial turfPizzotti completed 10 of 13 passes for 126 yards, but went down with a sprained knee ligament as the second quarter began. With Holy Cross leading 73, sophomore Jeff Witt came off the bench to direct touchdown drives on four of Harvards next five possessions. Clifton Dawson, who would finish the day with 170 yards rushing, scored three of the touchdowns, with Witt passing to senior tight end Matt Farbotko for the other. The hard-charging Crimson defense held Holy Cross to 40 yards rushing, was credited with six quarterback sacks, and stopped two second-half drives inside the 10-yard line. It was a great win in terms of bringing everybody together, said captain Tully, who led the defense with five tackles, a pass breakup, and an interception.
Witt made his first varsity start at Brown Stadium a week later and did creditably, completing 13 of 20 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game with a bruised shoulder at the end of the third quarter. By that time Harvard was leading, 317, and any Brown hopes of averting a seventh straight loss to the Crimson had gone south. Dawson again was a dynamo, rushing for 181 yards, catching three passes, and scoring three touchdowns, all of them in the first half. He scored the second on a tackle-breaking 58-yard sprint, and his third score staked Harvard to a 210 lead before Brown had registered a first down. I knew Clifton was going to shoulder a huge part of the load today, which he did, said Witt after the game. He could run the ball and pick up seven, eight yards on any play. Once again Harvards rushing defense was formidable, limiting Brown to 35 yards on the ground. They beat us up, said Brown coach Phil Estes, whose squad had entered the game with a nine-game winning streak, second longest in Division 1-AA. They were better up front and we didnt get it done.
On the road again the next weekend, the team fell behind Lehigh, 24-7, in the second quarter, then reeled off 28 straight points and hung on to win a 35-33 squeak er, Harvards first defeat of the Moun tain Hawks since 1997. Gunning for Dawson, the Lehigh defense held the workhorse tailback to 94 yards rushingan average of three yards per carry, compared with seven-plus in his first two gamesbut couldnt keep him from scoring three short-yardage touchdowns. The attention to Dawson also created openings for Harvards array of gifted receivers. Pizzotti, unexpectedly returning at quarterback, had 15 completions in 29 attempts for 291 yards and one touchdowna fourth-and-four strike to freshman Matt Luft that covered 42 yards and began the teams second-quarter comeback. Another aerial touchdown came on a flashy 32-yard reverse pass from receiver Chris Sanders 09 to senior Corey Mazza, who had 118 yards on four catches. Today we became a football team, said coach Murphy afterward. To get behind the eight-ball and see the way we responded was tremendously satisfying.
|Roll out the red (and green, and white) carpet: At top, workmen install Harvard Stadium's new artificial turf. Above: putting the finishing touches on the new field, which had its debut September 16 in a game against Holy Cross.
|Photographs by Jim Harrison
Tidbits: The Stadiums new FieldTurf suits Clifton Dawson. I personally thank Harvard for installing this surface, he said after the Holy Cross game. It felt great. You feel faster, you feel confident in your footing. Dawson has bulked up in the past yearhes now listed at 210, as against 190 last seasonbut still has the squads fastest time (4.49 seconds) in the 40-yard dash.
The Dawson watch: As the holder of every single-season and career rushing record that Harvard keeps, Daw son rewrites the record book on a weekly basis. Three games into the season, he ranked first among active Division 1-AA players in career rushing yards (4,073) and career all-purpose yards (5,086). His exploits in the Holy Cross and Brown games earned him successive citations as Ivy League offensive player of the week.
Role reversal: Harvards 210 start in the Brown game was a turnabout. In the teams last two contests, Brown had a 373 advantage in first-quarter scoring, building leads of 210 in 2004 and 160 in 2005. But both games were cliffhangers. A second-half rally gave Harvard a 3534 victory in 2004, and in the first double-overtime tie-breaker in Harvard annals, a field goal by Matt Schindel 08 won it for the Crimson in 2005, 3835.
New faces: Five of Harvards nine assistant coaches are new this year. One is quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Joel Lamb 93, who saw the error of his ways and returned to Cambridge after nine years as quarterback coachand, for the past three years, offensive coordinatorat Yale.
Sign of the times: The games at Brown and Lehigh were the only ones on this years schedule to be played on natural grass. Just two of the eight Ivy teams, Brown and Yale, still retain natural surfaces, and Yale comes to the Stadium for this seasons finale.
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