Season Preview: Football Looks For Third-Straight Ivy Championship
Now entering its 136th season of football, Harvard looks to put an exclamation point on a decade that has seen the Crimson dominate. Under the tutelage of Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Head Coach for Harvard Football, the Crimson has posted a national-best 69-20 record with two perfect seasons and four Ivy League championships including two straight and three in the last five years.
Coming off its second consecutive championship, Harvard returns 15 starters with eight on the offensive side, five on defense and both of its special teams' specialists.
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A year ago, Harvard maintained its own record-setting pace for supremacy within the Ancient Eight. Harvard (9-1, 6-1 Ivy) became just the eighth team in history of the Ivy League to come back from a loss in its league opener to win the championship. The championship marks Harvard's second consecutive Ancient Eight Championship and its first title repeat since 1982-83. The Crimson has now won three league titles in the past five seasons and four in the last eight seasons. Harvard finished the season ranked 14th in the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches Poll.
Since 2000, Harvard has posted the second-highest winning percentage (.775) in the Football Championship Subdivision and seventh highest in all of Division I. Over the past five seasons, Harvard is 41-9. Harvard is 36-6 at Harvard Stadium dating back to 2001 while winning 16 of its last 17 games there.
The Crimson has registered at least seven wins in each of the last eight years, making Harvard the first team in the history of Ivy League football to post such a string of successful seasons. Two years ago, Harvard became the first Ivy team to post a string of seven such seasons together. The current stretch is the Crimson's best eight-year run since a 28-year streak of seven-plus win seasons came to an end in 1911. The program has won 64 games over the past eight seasons for the best stretch since a stretch from 1908-1915 when the program also won 64 games.
Looking back on its success, Harvard has reached double figures in points in 61 straight games and 98 of its last 99. The Crimson is 39-1 when leading at halftime since the 2003 season and 265-5-1 all-time when scoring 30 or more points. Harvard is 32-10 in its last 42 road games since the start of the 2000 season. The Crimson is 24-7 in Ivy League road games during that span.
A defense that has been ranked near the top of Division I in each of the past five seasons was no different in 2008 as Harvard ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 11th nationally in scoring defense. In all, Harvard finished the season ranked among the nation's leaders in six different statistical categories including turnover margin (10), total defense (17), passing efficiency (17) and passing offense (18).
Despite the overwhelming success, the Crimson will be looking to fill several key positions with the loss of an unprecedented 12 All-Ivy League performers (six on each side of the ball) to graduation - a number that includes two All-Americans and four All-New England honorees. All told, Harvard returns 28 Major H award recipients with 13 on each side of the ball and two special teamers but 26 letterwinners left to graduation.
"One thing I really stress is success in the past is no indication of success in the future," says Murphy. "We know there are expectations. We embrace them."
Harvard has five returning All-Ivy selections back on the offensive side of the ball including two-time All-America lineman James Williams.
The story on offense will certainly center on Harvard's signal caller. Last season, Harvard enjoyed the rare situation of having two all-conference quarterbacks on its roster. The graduation of Chris Pizzotti and Liam O'Hagan is glaring as each signed a professional contract in the offseason. Pizzotti was the 2008 Ivy League player of the year who as a starter had a 20-2 career record.
Still, Harvard has playing experience in the wings with junior Collier Winters, who played in six games as a true freshman before missing last season due to injury. Blessed with impressive scrambling ability, Winters is a good fit for Harvard's spread attack. His surrounding talent is impressive- especially at wide receiver where the Crimson boasts five players who have started games.
Harvard's wide receiving corps is the arguably the nation's deepest with Matt Luft, Marco Iannuzzi, Chris Lorditch, Levi Richards, Adam Chrissis and Mike Cook all looking to make impacts. Luft is the most decorated of the bunch with a pair of all-Ivy mentioned but each member of the group has started a game in his career while combining for 229 receptions for 3,405 yards (14.9 ypr) and 23 touchdowns despite missing a combined 22 games due to injury including Cook who missed all of 2008.
Harvard also welcomes back a trio of talented backfield runners with all-leaguers Cheng Ho and Gino Gordon being joined by Ben Jenkins, who started six games a year ago thanks to a breakthrough spring game of 2008.
Williams continues to earn notoriety as an elite offensive tackle with his selection as a pre-season All-America. He will be joined on the front line by strong man Alex Spisak who earned all-league accolades in his first year as the team's center in 2008. John Paris and Ben Sessions have both started games during their careers.
On defense, tackle and former all-leaguer Carl Ehrlich is the 136th captain, and he provides the cornerstone of what has consistently been one of the toughest defenses in the FCS. He will be aided on the front line by the return of Chucks Obi - an intimidating all-league defender who missed the 2008 season. Ryan Burkhead also returns after he collected three sacks a year ago.
The Crimson graduated six all-leagues last season but returns an impressive defensive backfield in all-league selection Collin Zych, Ryan Barnes, two-year starter Derrick Barker and Ivy Rookie of the Year Matthew Hanson. A shut down corner, Hanson led the team with four interceptions and tied for second in passes defended with 10. Harvard has boasted three All-Americans and eight All-Ivy Leaguers in its defensive backfield since 2006.
Joining those four in the secondary will be a trio of athletic and versatile covermen. JB Monu played in seven games a year ago; John Fahnenstiel has been a key contributor on special teams since his freshman year; while Anthony Spadafino played in all 10 games last year and recorded 19 tackles with a fumble recovery.
Barker earned notice as a pre-season All-American this year after leading Harvard with 11 passes defended. Barnes had a tremendous season that saw him record 50 tackles and 10 pass breakups despite missing two games with injuries. All three of his interceptions came against Penn - two of them in the end zone - in a 2008 victory. Zych meanwhile, had a breakthrough season as a hard-hitting safety as he ranked second on the team with 72 tackles including 48 solo stops.
Conor Murphy quietly returns as one of the team's top defenders and he will anchor the linebacking corps. Murphy started every game a year ago and collected 33 stops with three for a loss. He will be joined in the rotation by fellow seniors Sean Hayes, Nick Hasselberg and Jon Takamura while junior letterwinners Anthony Rotio and Ben Graeff also figure on playing time.
Harvard again figures to be in good shape with its kicking game in 2009, thanks to the return of two talented players.
Senior Patrick Long was named All-Ivy League in 2008 after tying a single season school record with 13 made field goals. He also led the league in kickoff average and touchbacks to help set the stage for the defense.
He was named the Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking a pair of field goals and averaging over 65 yards per kickoff in a 25-24 win over Holy Cross in the opener. Long recorded career-long field goals on successive kicks at Lafayette, kicking a 41-yarder in the first half and a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter to make the longest field goal at Harvard since 1993. He also earned honor roll accolades after converting field goals of 34 and 30 yards in a win at Dartmouth. His record-tying 13th field goal of the year came against Yale in a 10-0 victory.
Fourth-year man Thomas Hull is the incumbent punter. He averaged 35.2 yards per punt for the season. Hull had a a 53-yarder in a win at Dartmouth and a 57-yarder at Penn as part of two 50+ kicks in the win. In tough conditions, Hull placed two kicks inside the 20 against Yale.
Harvard will search for a replacement as holder for the twice-graduated Andrew Berry. On kickoffs, Marco Iannuzzi and Adam Chrissis figure to see the bulk of the action as return men.
Fans will note that Harvard's 2009 schedule consists of the same opponents that the Crimson faced in each of the last four years.
Seven of the 10 games will be against Ivy League opponents as the Ancient Eight continues to see the gap between the league champion and the last-place schools tighten. The three nonleague games, meanwhile, are against the consensus choices as the top three teams in the Patriot League, including the season-opener at a Holy Cross squad that has been tabbed as that conference's favorite by some prognosticators.