Football looks to get back in race
Dartmouth and Harvard started out the season in similar fashion. After losing their first two contests, the teams were struggling not only to win but to find themselves. Indeed, they were lost in the New England Wilderness, walking side by side down the losing path.
But when the inevitable fork in the road came, the two squads took different paths. Harvard chose the winning path, picking up three straight wins and springing to the top of the Ivy League. On the other hand, Dartmouth still stands at the fork, trying to figure out whether they can be a winning team or whether they will continue to remain a disappointment.
As a result, when the two teams collide at Memorial Field tomorrow it will be a clash of first-place Harvard (3-3, 2-1) against last-place Dartmouth (2-4, 1-2).
For Dartmouth to beat the Crimson, they must play better than they have all season. The offense needs to be crisp, the defense stifling and the special teams effective. At certain points this season, all three units have played up to their abilities, and at other times, they seem to be like the Budweiser frogs, out of sync and looking for rhythm.
"There have been moments when we have shown that we can be a really good football team," Big Green Head Coach John Lyons said. "But those moments have been offset by the times when we haven't played well at all. It's been frustrating."
One of the reasons for Dartmouth's struggles has been the inconsistency of the offense. Last week in the fourth quarter against Cornell, the offense was dominating and was able to pick up yardage with every snap of the football. But the truth remains that the Big Green are last in the Ivy League in every offensive category. As Bill Clinton would say, "It's the offense, stupid."
But its not just the offense. Special teams miscues cost Dartmouth last week's contest against Cornell, and despite keeping the Big Green in almost every contest, the Dartmouth defense has been prone to giving up the big play. These mistakes snowball into one giant hurdle when mixed in with the offensive woes.
"I think that the defense understands that if they give up a lot of points, we are going to be in a tough position because of the trouble we've had scoring points. Last year, we won because of the kicking game and defense, and this year we've made mistakes in those areas and they have cost us."
One advantage the Big Green will have on their sideline Saturday is emotion. Nobody can forget the 24-0 drubbing Harvard dropped on the Big Green last year during Homecoming, and that should serve as incentive this year.
"Everybody remembers what happened last year, because they dominated us, and I think our guys will be ready to play." Lyons said. "That team was a dominant football team. This year's Harvard team isn't dominant, but I can see why they were the preseason Ivy favorites. They are a good football team, and have the best combination of quarterback, running back and receiver in the Ivy League. "
Furthermore, Lyons knows that sitting at 2-4 and only one game out of first place, the Big Green can only exceed expectations.
"The bottom line is we have nothing to lose."
Will the real Mike Coffey show himself? The past two weeks, the senior quarterback has had terrible first halves that have seen him go a collective three-for -18, and then look impressive and more relaxed in the second half. Just like Dartmouth, consistency has been Coffey's major problem all year. While his stats aren't impressive (140 yards per game), the Big Green quarterback has avoided turning the ball over, throwing an Ivy League low three interceptions all season.
After a horrific start to the season, Crimson quarterback Rich Linden rebounded with his first two touchdown passes of the season last week at Princeton. Linden has struggled all year, completing just half of his passes for 110 yards per game, but has demonstrated in recent weeks why he was an all-Ivy pick last year.
The Big Green's running back by committee system had its best outing of the season against Cornell, but Dartmouth still lacks both a power running game and a finesse running game. The combination of Eric Davis '99 and Reggie Belhomme '00 is averaging only two yards per carry with a season-long run of 18 yards. As a result, Dartmouth is dead last in rushing in the Ivy League, picking up just 76.7 yards per contest. To beat Harvard, the Big Green must have a 100-yard rusher, something they have not accomplished all season.
Despite returning a first-team All-Ivy running back, Harvard's rushing offense ranked next to last in the nation for the first three weeks. However, Chris Menick and company have righted the ship, and have done it in a big way. Menick has piled up over 100 yards in each of his last four games and is now the second leading rusher in the league. That spells bad news for the Big Green, who have allowed five of six opposing backs to cross the century mark on the ground.
In the last two weeks, Coffey has allowed Mike Poncy '00 to demonstrate his play-making ability by getting him the football. Against Cornell and Yale, the junior wideout made key third-down grabs that kept Big Green drives alive. Adding Poncy into a mix that contains senior Adam Young's team-leading 21 catches and fifth-year receiver Damon Ferrara's three touchdowns, this unit is clearly the Big Green's most productive offensive unit.
Terrence Patterson emerged as a top threat in the Ivy League last year against Dartmouth by burning the Big Green defense for three first-half touchdowns. Patterson has continued to be dangerous with 24 catches and one rushing touchdown. He and sophomore receiver Josh Wilske are both averaging 40 yards receiving per game. The Crimson receivers will be tested by a stingy Dartmouth secondary.
There is no doubt that Dartmouth's offense has struggled this year, and the easiest place to put the blame is on the offensive line. This unit has not been exceptional, but in the past few weeks they have played much better as a group. Last week against Cornell, Coffey had plenty of time in the pocket and as a result looked very composed. Harvard is not as physical as they were last year, which is good news for Dartmouth.
It seems like a broken record when talking about the Harvard offense's early struggles, and the offensive line is no different. Although they struggled early after losing two key seniors to graduation, the Crimson front five did not allow a sack in the past two contests and the rushing game is steadily improving courtesy of more blocks from the line.
The rotation up front for the Big Green has been solid, getting enough heat on the passer to help force 10 interceptions. Seniors Brent Crombie and Adam Kane have been impressive, combining for 3.5 sacks on the season and 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Kyle Schroeder '00 has played hard all season and is the line's leading tackler. Expect the Big Green to try and take advantage of Harvard's youth up front with different formations.
Harvard's defensive line has been impressive all season long. Led by senior captain Brendan Bibro, the Crimson's front four have put pressure on the opposing quarterback in every game, accounting for nine sacks in the past two weeks. If Dartmouth is unable to keep Crimson rushers out of the backfield, it could be another long day for the Big Green.
What hasn't been said about Jon Gibbs '99 and Steve Varney '00? Gibbs leads the team in tackles with 80 on the season, with Varney just two tackles back. Together, the two linebackers have recorded 10 tackles for losses. Perhaps the biggest credit to them has been the play of outside linebacker Kyle Rogers '99, who has benefitted from their talent. Rogers is fifth in tackles and second with six tackles for losses.
While Dartmouth may have the best linebacking unit in the league, Harvard probably boasts the best linebacker in the league. Isaiah Kacyvenski has earned both Rookie of the Year and All-Ivy honors in his first two seasons, and this season has been no different as the junior linebacker leads the Crimson in tackles for the second straight season. The other two backers, Scott Larkee and Joe Weidle, are seasoned veterans. However, Harvard is giving up over 200 yards per game running the football.
Coming off a four-interception performance last week, the Big Green secondary must be licking its chops at the sight of the struggling Crimson passing game. Led by the play of senior Brad Verber and sophomore Brad Eissler, this unit has been devastating to opposing offenses, intercepting 10 passes while allowing only three touchdowns. It should be no surprise if Harvard throws less than 20 times tomorrow, trying to beat the Big Green on the ground.
The Crimson's secondary ranks third in the Ivy League against the pass, but has not been exceptional. They have benefitted from a strong pass rush that has forced opposing quarterbacks to throw bad passes. As a result, senior free safety Derek Yankoff leads the team with two interceptions. The rest of the secondary is very good with Aron Natale at safety and Glenn Jackson at cornerback.
Dartmouth's place-kicking problems cost them the game last week, but until recently, kicker Alex Csizinsky '00 had been kicking well for the Green. His counterpart, Wayne Scholbohm '00, leads the league in net punting. The return game is improving for the Big Green, but still needs to rise above seventh in the Ivy statistics. Dartmouth has not returned a kick for a touchdown in three seasons.
Returning kicks has not been a problem for the Crimson. Harvard ranks second in the league in both punt returns and kickoff returns and Patterson has one kick return to his credit this season. Place-kicking by committee has been successful for the Crimson, but their punting ranks last in the league, with a mere net average of 27 yards per punt.
As strange as it may sound, this year's 2-4 team has a better chance of beating Harvard than last year's 8-2 squad. But the key word is chance, as Dartmouth will need to play a perfect game in order to beat the Crimson. Dartmouth's offense can ill afford the slow starts that have characterized the Big Green's season. In six games, Dartmouth has scored only twice in the first quarter. To beat Harvard, the Big Green must score early and then pound the ball on the ground. That will keep the defense off of the field and allow them to be more effective. If Dartmouth falls behind, a steady dose of Linden, Menick and Patterson will prove to be too much for the Big Green.
This game could wind up closer than many may expect. The Big Green played their best football of the year in the final 15 minutes last week at Cornell and should be able to capitalize on that momentum. Unfortunately, they catch a very good Harvard team that is beginning to catch its stride. This game could be a race to the finish, but Harvard already has a running start.
Final Score: Harvard 20, Green 13