Nearly a year after topping Yale with the fanfare of ESPN’s GameDay in the background to secure the Ivy League title and post its third undefeated season in a century, the Harvard football team is poised to make history. Again.
Should the Crimson win Saturday, not only will it be one game away from back-to-back perfect records for the first time in school history, but it will be the first Harvard team to clinch three consecutive Ancient Eight championships.
To solidify its place in the history books, however, the 2015 squad will need to go through a Penn team that, even when struggling, has managed to make this week nine contest a dogfight.
On Franklin Field last year, the Quakers entered the penultimate contest of the season with just a single win and as heavy underdogs to the undefeated Crimson. But three quarters in, Harvard trailed by seven to a scrappy Penn team, playing for pride in coach Al Bagnoli’s final home game.
Were it not for a career-high rushing day from then-junior running back Paul Stanton and a 17-point fourth quarter performance by Harvard, the Quakers might have pulled off the biggest upset of the 2014 Ivy League season.
Now coached by Ray Priore, Bagnoli’s defensive coordinator, Penn (5-3, 4-1 Ivy) will enter its matchup with Harvard (8-0, 5-0) as underdogs once more. However, given the way the Quakers have looked in the latter half of the season, an upset Saturday in Harvard Stadium is a very real possibility.
“The best way I can put it is, [Penn is the] most improved team in the league,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said. “They’re probably playing the best football of any team in the league, including Harvard, at this stage.”
Spurred by the confidence of winning four straight league games, including last week’s overtime victory over Princeton, the Quakers will be playing as much for a share of the conference championship as for vengeance for 2014’s fourth-quarter meltdown. Harvard currently sits alone atop the league, but a loss to Penn would almost certainly mean a shared title.
The Crimson is coming off a close victory of its own, a gritty contest against Bagnoli’s new team in New York that saw Columbia score 13 unanswered points in the final quarter. The visitors managed to hang on to a 24-16 advantage as time expired, but the Lions’ late no-huddle scoring drives exposed flaws in Harvard’s veteran defense.
“We have the potential to be a great defense every time we step on that field, and we need to make sure that everyone has that attitude when we take the field,” captain Matt Koran said. “I think that might have been lacking a little bit in the fourth quarter against Columbia…. They caught us off guard, so we need to be prepared for everything that will come at us and play lights-out defense.”
Koran and company will have their hands full with dual-threat Penn quarterback Alek Torgersen, who has averaged 250 yards through the air and nearly 60 yards on the ground through the past four games.
The Quakers’ offense is designed to utilize Torgersen as a rusher as well as a passer, which may present a challenge Saturday. The Crimson has struggled at slowing mobile quarterbacks in the past few weeks, allowing Columbia quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg and Dartmouth play-caller Dalyn Williams to scramble for first downs when Harvard dropped back seven or eight defenders into pass coverage.
“You’re not tackling a 5’10” 210-pound guy,” Murphy said. “[Torgersen’s] a 6’3”, 230-pound dual-threat quarterback, so you have to account for him on every play.
For Harvard’s offense, returning to a balanced attack will be key to extending the win streak to 23. Senior quarterback Scott Hosch averaged 300 passing yards in the last two contests, but the improved pass attack has come at the expense of the ground game. Harvard failed to break the 100-yard rushing mark against Dartmouth and Columbia after averaging over 200 rushing yards per game through the first six weeks.
This imbalance comes partially from an injury-riddled offensive line, which will play for the second-straight week without three-year starting lineman Anthony Fabiano, who suffered a broken toe against the Big Green, and partially from the strength of opposing defensive lines.
Resurrecting a productive run game may prove difficult against Penn, who bring another talent-studded front seven anchored by linebacker Tyler Drake, who leads the league in sacks and ranks third in tackles.
But even with the momentum Penn carries into Harvard Stadium on Saturday, the visitors will need to play a nearly flawless game to hand the Crimson its first loss since 2013.
“Our offense is fully capable of putting up 40 points every single game, they’re going to go out there and get the job done this week, and our defense, I’ve never been more confident in a group of guys than I am now,” Koran said. “We’re very confident all the way across the board.”