A Rugged Start

An Ivy win and a terrible injury mark Harvard football's early season.

At Rhode Island, junior powerhouse Charlie Booker III rumbled for gains of 50 and 57 yards en route to a game- and career-high 139.
At Rhode Island, junior powerhouse Charlie Booker III rumbled for gains of 50 and 57 yards en route to a game- and career-high 139.Photograph by gil Talbot/Harvard athletic communications
Junior defensive end DJ Bailey (99) registered one of five Harvard sacks against Brown quarterback Nick Duncan.
Junior defensive end DJ Bailey (99) registered one of five Harvard sacks against Brown quarterback Nick Duncan.Photograph by Tim O’Meara/The Harvard Crimson
Capping a 98-yard drive, sophomore back Lavance Northington (2) dove into the end zone for the Crimson’s third touchdown against Brown.
Capping a 98-yard drive, sophomore back Lavance Northington (2) dove into the end zone for the Crimson’s third touchdown against Brown.Photograph by Tim O’Meara/The Harvard Crimson
Pick six! Against Brown, senior defensive back Tanner Lee clutched Harvard’s first interception of the season, which he turned into a game-breaking touchdown.
Pick six! Against Brown, senior defensive back Tanner Lee clutched Harvard’s first interception of the season, which he turned into a game-breaking touchdown.Photograph by Tim O’Meara/The Harvard Crimson

On Saturday, September 16, at Meade Stadium in Kingston, Rhode Island, players from the Rhode Island football team leaped in ecstasy at the final gun, having pulled off the season’s first shocker: a 17-10 win over perennial Football Championship Subdivision power Harvard. But there were at least seven other schools whose players, coaches, and fans were jumping for joy—those of the rest of the Ivy League. The defeat at Rhode Island was the Crimson’s third in a row, stretching across two seasons and encompassing the 21-14 humbling in the 2016 Game at the hands of underdog Yale. That triumph, which was the first victory for the Elis in the series in 10 years, had made the long offseason awfully blue. In the 2017 preseason media poll, the Crimson had been tabbed co-favorite with co-defending champion Princeton, but the Rhode Island game seemed to expose flaws on both sides of the ball. Was this the season in which high-and-mighty Harvard—winner of at least seven games for 16 consecutive years—would get its comeuppance?

As football announcers sometimes say when indicating that a long gain is about to be called back by a penalty: Hold the phone. Thanks to some legerdemain by coaching maestro Tim Murphy, the Crimson bounced back the following Saturday with a convincing 45-28 win over Brown, a victory that had added import because it was an Ivy contest. The next week, playing at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium, Harvard manhandled overmatched Patriot League foe Georgetown 41-2.

At least for the record, Murphy had not shared the preseason optimism expressed by the media poll. “We are absolutely not deserving of that accolade or prediction,” he told The Boston Globe before the opener. Entering his twenty-fourth season on the Crimson sideline, the coach was cognizant of the All-Ivies he had to try to replace: man-mountain offensive linemen Max Rich and Larry Allen Jr. (the latter, a member of the class of 2018, is taking a year off from school); sure-handed tight end Anthony Firkser; and defensive-line sackmeister James Duberg.

No foe was shedding any tears for Murphy. Harvard had a battle-tested quarterback in fifth-year senior Joe Viviano and other splendid offensive weapons, the most dangerous being a pair of slippery junior wide receivers, Justice Shelton-Mosley (who is also one of the league’s most dangerous kick returners) and Adam Scott. The defense was anchored by three seniors: linebacker (and 144th Crimson captain) Luke Hutton, quarterback-harassing defensive end DJ Bailey, and hard-hitting cornerback Raishaun McGhee. If the team seemed not as imposing or complete as recent predecessors, including the 2016 group that finished 7-3 overall and 5-2 (good for third place) in the Ivy League, then Murphy surely had men in the pipeline. He always does.

The opener at Rhode Island was marred by a frightening injury that will resonate the rest of the season. The Crimson had scored first. Harvard’s 5-foot-9, 200-pound junior running back Charlie Booker III rumbled 50 yards to the Rhode Island four; when the attack failed to get the ball into the end zone, junior Jake McIntyre booted a 38-yard field goal. Now the Rams had the ball. On third-and-15 from the Rhode Island 31, Rams quarterback Tyler Harris dropped back, looked left and aimed a pass for receiver Marven Beauvais, who was covered by Crimson defensive back Ben Abercrombie, a freshman from Hoover, Alabama. Beauvais made the grab for an 18-yard gain and was knocked down by Abercrombie. Both men initially stayed on the ground. Beauvais got up; Abercrombie did not. After a somber six-minute delay, he was taken away on a stretcher and transported to Rhode Island Hospital, where he would undergo spinal surgery.

On the first play following the stoppage, Harris found receiver Aaron Parker all alone behind the Harvard defense for a 51-yard touchdown. C.J. Carrick booted the extra point. Rhode Island 7, Harvard 3. Moments later Carrick drilled a 21-yard field goal. Rhode Island 10, Harvard 3.

Then it was again Booker time. On first and 10 from the Harvard 35, the burly back barreled 57 yards to the Rams’ eight. He would finish with a game- and career-high 139 yards. Booker, a Houston product, emerged in the Crimson backfield last year after recovering from early-season hamstring woes; he scored the first touchdown in the Yale game on a 27-yard jaunt. His specialty is shedding tacklers and heading to the outside and upfield. Call it the Booker Bounce. “Sometimes when I get stuck in a pile at the line of scrimmage,” he says, “I know that a lot of defenders will converge on the inside, so that will leave the outside open.”

On the play after Booker’s long run, 5-foot-10, 180-pound freshman Aaron Shampklin, out of Long Beach (California) Polytechnic, glided into the end zone. McIntyre booted the extra point. Harvard 10, Rhode Island 10.

The draw was short-lived. On the Rams’ next possession, Harris, avoiding Crimson defenders with aplomb, again connected with Parker, this time for 39 yards. Five plays later, Harris slid off left tackle for a one-yard touchdown run. Rhode Island 17, Harvard 10.

That’s the way it ended. In the second half, the Crimson had its chances to knot things up, most notably at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Viviano took Harvard on a 12-play, 76-yard drive that at its farthest reached the Rhode Island seven. During the series, Viviano was finally able to connect with Shelton-Mosley for two completions, one of 10 yards, another of 20. Shelton-Mosley made the second grab with a Rams defender hanging all over him. But the drive’s final play was a botched handoff from Viviano to Booker, which resulted in a five-yard loss and the ball going over to Rhode Island on downs.

In all, the Crimson incurred three offensive-holding calls and 10 penalties for a loss of 80 yards. Viviano was sacked five times and otherwise spent much of his day trying to evade aggressive Rams defenders. He finished a respectable-sounding 17-for-32 passing for 192 yards.

That was not good enough to keep his starting job. The following Saturday at the Stadium, against Brown, Murphy pulled a stunner, naming as the opening quarterback a freshman, Jake Smith out of Ithaca (Michigan) High and Exeter. Smith is the first Crimson freshman to start at the position since 2001, when Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 got the call. As Murphy explained afterward, “The bottom line is that Jake had performed the best as a quarterback in practice over the last two weeks.” Pointing to his team’s sluggish offense in the latter part of last season and against Rhode Island, Murphy added, “We needed a jolt.”

The coach’s choice was vindicated on Harvard’s second offensive series when Smith nimbly led the Crimson 62 yards in five plays, the last two a 31-yard toss to Scott and a 16-yard Booker touchdown blast. A few minutes later, though, Smith was trapped behind Harvard’s goal line and tackled for a safety.

Usually teams tally a touchdown or at least a field goal after registering a safety, but here the Crimson defense flipped the script and made the play of the game. On third and five at the Brown 34, Bruins quarterback Nick Duncan dropped back and threw to his left. Tracking it like a laser, Harvard senior defensive back Tanner Lee snagged the pigskin and cantered 39 yards the other way into the Brown end zone. The interception was Harvard’s first of the season and one of three on the day. The Crimson now had a 14-2 lead.

During his tenure Murphy has been renowned for “taking the temperature of a game.” With 9:31 left in the second quarter the thermometer dictated another quarterback switch—back to Viviano. “Based on the first couple of series, I felt like Joe would give us the best opportunity to maximize our chances of winning this game,” said Murphy. The place where Viviano had to begin was hardly propitious: the Harvard two-yard line. In nine plays Viviano took the Crimson 98 yards to pay dirt, the big plays being tosses of 31 and 27 yards, respectively, to Scott and fellow junior wideout Henry Taylor. The capper came when sophomore running back (and former high-school quarterback) Lavance Northington, working from the wildcat formation, took a direct snap and ran six yards for a score. McIntyre kicked the extra point. Harvard 21, Brown 2.

With the Crimson defense throttling the Brown running game (23 yards on 20 attempts) and sacking Duncan five times, Viviano set about building the lead. By late in the third quarter it reached 38-9. Murphy pulled Viviano—he finished 11 of 13 passing for 150 yards—and reinserted Smith. In the fourth quarter the freshman (five of seven passing) threw his first touchdown toss, a five-yarder to a fellow Exeter product, junior tight end Cecil Williams, who made his first touchdown catch. Four late Brown touchdowns against a Harvard defense turned over (like the offense) largely to the subs made the final score look more respectable than it was.

As Murphy announced afterward, the game ball was ticketed for Abercrombie. Before the playing of the national anthem, the scoreboard had showed a video that included heartfelt greetings to him from members of Harvard men’s and women’s athletic teams; it can be viewed on gocrimson.com and on YouTube. On their helmets this season the Crimson players will wear decals reading “BA.” Said Tanner Lee, like Abercrombie an Alabama product: “The season’s now about winning games but also for a lot of us about putting a championship ring on Ben’s finger.”

The following week in the nation’s capital, Harvard was barely challenged in whipping Georgetown for the fourth straight year. The highlight came early in the first period, when Shelton-Mosley fielded a punt at his nine-yard line, identified a seam and, set up by a wall of blockers, streaked to a touchdown. The 91-yard return was the longest in Crimson history, surpassing the 89-yard effort of Hal Moffie ‘50 against Holy Cross in 1948. Smith again started at quarterback and went 16-for-30 passing. Booker powered to two touchdowns, the Crimson defense forced four turnovers and McGhee had Harvard’s second interception return for a touchdown in as many weeks, a 23-yarder. All in all, a good warmup for the cauldron of the Ivy campaign.

Tidbits: Harvard has not lost a home opener since 2000, and it has not dropped an Ivy League opener since 2010. Murphy is 19-5 in Ivy openers…. Of the home states of players on the Crimson’s opening-day roster, California was most represented, with 17, followed by Texas (14), Georgia and Massachusetts (eight each) and Alabama (seven)….At season’s start, nine former Harvard players were on NFL active rosters or practice squads.

Read more articles by Dick Friedman

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