Dartmouth football faces latest challenge at Harvard
The Monday after last season's Dartmouth vs. Harvard game, the lead in the Harvard Crimson suggested the best costumes of that Halloween weekend belonged to the Big Green, who dressed up like a football team. The 20-7 loss the team endured at Memorial Field was one of their more demoralizing defeats of the season.
Coming off its first win of this season, Dartmouth hopes to make Harvard look like the pretenders on Saturday.
The numerous fans who will make the trip to Cambridge expect a few Big Green offensive tricks to lead to the treat of a visitor's victory.
In beating Ivy League-leading Cornell last weekend, Dartmouth (1-5, 1-2) finally snapped its 10-game losing streak dating back to last season, and placed itself near the middle of the League standings. The Big Red were also the last team to defeat Harvard (4-2, 2-1), which has since won its last two contests.
The mercurial Crimson destroyed Columbia and played closely with powerful Colgate. But they have also had a difficult time in losing to Cornell and narrowly escaping from weak competition like Fordham and Princeton.
More than anything, Harvard's season has been marked by games that last into the final minute. Its previous five contests were decided by eight points or less.
"They've been in a lot of close games and they've won the majority of them," Dartmouth Head Coach John Lyons said. "I've seen all the teams in the Ivy League on film and I think they have the best set of athletes."
Judging by statistics, one could make jokes that Dartmouth's offense has been like a ghost because it is invisible or because it's all in the imagination. But after the offense scored its typical two times to hold off Cornell, a more apt comparison would be to a goblin costume: it's not pretty, but it works.
Big Green quarterback Brian Mann '02 enjoyed his first game without an interception against the Big Red in completing 16 of 23 passes. Mann's season-long completion rate stands near 58 percent.
In part this is because Dartmouth's passing game remains primarily in the five-to-10 yard range. No Big Green receiver has 200 yards through six games, but five receivers have caught more than 12 passes.
Nonetheless, the wide receiving trio of Matt DeLellis '02, Damien Roomets '02 and Matt Davis '03 have all factored into several big plays this year. They have been especially successful when all three are on the field and the Green run the hurry-up offense.
Starting tailback Reggie Belhomme '00 found the end zone for the first time last weekend on a 12-yard run through a gaping hole in the defense. He plowed over a defender at the goal line for the score.
But Belhomme said no one was more surprised about the free running space than he. Due to injuries to the offensive line and reserve rushers, there have not been enough large holes or fresh legs to sustain Dartmouth's running game.
Belhomme's 2.9 yards per carry is around the bottom of the Ivy League, as is Dartmouth's 62.8 yards per game on the ground.
Despite the negative appearances, the Green are just as capable as most teams in the Ivies of several big gainers and a few unexpected touchdowns. It is not unlikely that this will be the first week Belhomme rushes for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
Dartmouth may be able to run because Harvard's defense can't stop them. After all, the Crimson allowed 30 points to the Forham Rams, 27 of which came in the second half.
However, Harvard held Columbia and Princeton to a combined 13 points. The question becomes which defense will show up against the Green.
The front line of Chris Nowinsky, R.D. Kern and Brian Howard received recognition for stopping the Lions' star running back Jonathan Reese. The defense pressured Cornell's star quarterback Ricky Rahne, sacking him twice and intercepting him three times.
Will Mann or Belhomme fare any better?
Sweet and sour
Harvard's offensive efforts have been very consistent.
Except against a very weak Fordham defense, in no game have the Crimson bettered 25 points. Excepting a poor performance in its win against Princeton, Harvard has scored at least 21 points every time out.
The team is pretty likely to score between 21 and 24 points against the Green as well.
"On offense they're very balanced," Lyons said. "Their quarterback is very accurate and does a good job mixing things up throwing the ball. They've [also] been successful running it."
On paper, the Crimson's running game outdoes its passing. Harvard's senior quarterback Brad Wilford, only a first-year starter, has been competent throwing the ball.
Completing 55 percent of his passes and with 1,020 yards in the air, Wilford's numbers are comparable to the sophomore Mann. Harvard's signal-caller has thrown four touchdowns and has also been picked off four times.
In short, Wilford is likely neither to win nor to lose the game for the Crimson in the air.
What he is likely to do is to run the ball or hand off to tailback Chris Menick, and watch the team gain yardage. The running game has gained close to 200 yards in five games, and has accounted for 11 touchdowns.
Menick averages 5.4 yards per carry, totaling 676 yards rushing this year. Wilford has scored five TDs on the ground.
Running backs Chuck Nwokocha and Troy Jones have accounted for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Harvard's top receiver is Terence Patterson, who has 30 catches for 304 yards. He is also a threat on the ground. Against Columbia, Patterson took a reverse 30 yards for a touchdown. He has averaged 13 yards on six carries.
The Big Green defense showed its mettle last week, sacking Cornell's Rahne seven times, and holding the Big Red in the second half.
To reiterate the theme of past commentaries on the subject, the defense has been the team's cornerstone all year.
Seniors Kyle Schroeder, Steve Varney and Tom Reusser have led the front line, linebackers and defensive backfield to consistent, if not stellar play. Dan Piening '00 has occasionally been a monster as a pass rusher.
The Green held Cornell under two yards per carry in addition to severely pressuring the quarterback.
"Last week we didn't turn it over and we got three turnovers," Lyons said. "That was key."
While the defense hasn't always stymied the opposition, it has allowed Dartmouth to remain in most games.
Because such parity exists within the Ivy League -- the best teams are separated from the worst by very narrow levels of talent and work ethic -- many observers look to an x-factor as the decisive issue in who wins or loses.
In this game, the x-factor could be the Dartmouth special teams, which last week blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
For Harvard, it's kicking game has been very good this year.
One might also look at who needs the game more. Does Harvard, still in the race for the Ivy title, want to win more than Dartmouth, already relegated to a spoiler role?
Perhaps, but Cornell needed last week's game -- look how that turned out. As to the x-factor, it can be argued either way.
What may make the difference Saturday is the Dartmouth spirit. The Big Green are a traditional football power, and they traditionally have more fans at Harvard Stadium than does the home team.
"I think that was one of the keys last week," Lyons said of the large Homecoming crowd that attended the Cornell game. "The crowd gave our team some confidence. Having the crowd support really helped our players."
Despite losses in Hanover to Harvard, the Green haven't lost in Cambridge since 1989. It will be close this weekend, but the streak will live on.
Prediction: Green 23, Harvard 22