Football hopes to nip Rose, Crimson in the bud
Well, it's Homecoming again. For those who don't know, Homecoming is a time when alumni come back to lecture undergraduates about how much better Dartmouth football was "back in the day."
For once, they're probably right.
From the high of an undefeated 1996 season, the team seems to have reached the nadir of its rebuilding process, entering this weekend 1-5 (0-3 Ivy), having been outscored 219-125 on the year. With the Harvard Crimson (3-3, 2-1) coming to town, the season doesn't get easier.
Harvard's .500 winning percentage belies how well the team has played this year. In fact, two of its losses have been by a total of three points. Its three wins have come by an average of 14 points.
Harvard's League record puts it in the middle of the tightest Ivy race in years, with five teams tied for first place at 2-1.
Crimson junior quarterback Neil Rose, in his first year as the starter, has surpassed his predecessor, Brad Wilford, in offensive production. Rose has completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 1,657 yards and 10 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
Since becoming the starter in the second week of the season, Rose has thrown for 290 or more yards in all but one game. In that contest, a month ago against Lafayette, he threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns while running for two more scores.
"He has a good arm, he has a very quick release," said Dartmouth Head Coach John Lyons in an interview with The Dartmouth on Wednesday. The Crimson "have a number of big tall receivers that they spread the ball around to."
On the bright side for Dartmouth, Harvard's defense has been about as bad as its offense has been good.
The Crimson have allowed no fewer than 19 points all season, and average 30 points allowed per game. Opposing quarterbacks are throwing for 290 yards per game against a weak defensive backfield.
Of course, the Dartmouth defense is giving up 263 yards passing per game, not to mention 209 on the ground.
If trends hold, this game will be a shootout.
The Crimson's offense -- which ranks ninth in Division I-AA -- revolves around Rose, whose offensive numbers have smelled sweet in Cambridge. In his first game as the starter, Rose threw for a whopping 412 yards in a 42-37 upset win at Brown.
A week later he took Cornell deep for 310 yards, then went for 300 against Lafayette and 292 last weekend versus Princeton.
Rose's favorite target, sophomore wideout Carl Morris, has gained 543 receiving yards on 34 receptions. Fellow sophomore receiver Kyle Cremarosa has proved a successful sidekick, hauling in 21 passes.
Junior wideouts Dan Farley and Sam Taylor, who have caught 20 and 18 balls, respectively, are also part of the Crimson's deep receiving corps.
At running back, a pair of sophomores lead the way for Harvard. Matt Leiszler and his backup Nick Palazzo have run for nearly 700 yards combined and seven touchdowns. Rose has helped his own cause by scoring six touchdowns on the ground, but he has a paltry 1.6 yard per carry average.
When compared with Columbia's Jonathan Reese, who ran for 236 yards last weekend, Harvard's running backs "are not anywhere near as big," Lyons said. But, he warned, "they break tackles."
Finally, it's amusing to note that Crimson placekickers have failed to make a field goal since the second quarter of the team's first game this year, missing eight of nine attempts in total. The Harvard Crimson newspaper has dubbed the team's kicking duo Anders "Oh no, he" Blewitt and Robbie "Wide" Wright.
If the game comes down to a field goal in the final seconds, don't bet on Harvard to win the game.
With the potent Harvard offense sure to put points on the board, Dartmouth's own unit must be able to match the Crimson score for score. Against Columbia last weekend, Dartmouth almost made up a 21-0 deficit -- scoring twice in the second quarter before the special teams allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown that catalyzed the 49-21 loss.
This weekend, the team hopes "almost" becomes "actually."
As with Harvard, the Big Green's fortunes rise and fall with their junior quarterback, Brian Mann. Whereas the Crimson's Rose has blossomed, Mann has taken some steps forward and some steps back.
Of late Mann has reverted to a problem that plagued him in his first season as a starter last year -- throwing interceptions at inopportune moments. Admittedly, there's no good time to throw an interception, but Mann has had the misfortune of throwing them either late in close games or at the beginning of undecided games, as at Columbia last weekend.
Mann has now thrown nine interceptions in five games -- he missed Dartmouth's game against the University of New Hampshire recovering from a concussion -- and has been yanked from two games in favor of backup Greg Smith '02.
"Brian's definitely the guy we're going with," Lyons said, noting "I don't think Greg played any better" off the bench against Columbia than Mann.
Smith threw two interceptions in one quarter in New York.
One player who started the season as a backup but has now moved into a key starting role is tailback Aaron Pumerantz '02. Despite scoring two touchdowns on only nine carries against Columbia, Pumerantz was little noticed as the Big Green sought to make up the early deficit through the air.
For the season, Pumerantz has carried for 377 yards on 83 carries, a 4.5 yard per carry average. His understudy, Mike Gratch '02, made six catches of the backfield against the Lions last weekend, and is good at getting outside the tackles on runs.
A largely unnoticed part of the offense has been standout offensive line play.
Dartmouth quarterbacks have only been sacked six times all year. Some of this is due to short dropbacks on pass plays. Most of it is because the offensive line is the most experienced part of the team.
"It's been the real strength of our team this season," Lyons said. "With the number of attempts we've put the ball up, it's really an outstanding performance."
The Big Green defense got mugged up in Harlem last weekend. Where was the NYPD?
Columbia scored at will in its Homecoming game, running up a 35-14 lead at halftime and extending it by a couple more touchdowns before removing its offensive starters near the beginning of the fourth quarter.
"We weren't getting off blocks, we missed too many tackles," Lyons said. "Nobody played well defensively."
And Columbia played into the Big Green's strength of run stopping.
Harvard, on the other hand, will throw the ball on the Green's suspect defensive backfield. They will try to go over the top -- as Yale did in the first half of its game against Dartmouth three weeks ago -- and they will go underneath -- as Yale did in the second half. They will go inside and outside, as most teams have this season.
"They'll get us spread out, and that's where we've had trouble," Lyons said.
While the Big Green's defensive line should be able to slow Harvard's running game, its most important function will be to rush the passer and disrupt the Crimson air attack.
"We can't give [Rose] all day to throw cause he'll just pick us apart," Lyons cautioned. The defense must "get in his face a little bit."
Defensive end Dan Hutchinson '01 and linebacker Matt Walker '02 will lead this effort. They each have four of the team's 12 sacks.
The Harvard defense has problems similar to Dartmouth. The unit starts only three seniors, and has a freshman at linebacker and a sophomore at free safety.
The Harvard wide receiver who caught two touchdowns against the Big Green last year, junior Andy Fried, now lines up at right cornerback.
"Statistically anyway they've given up some points," Lyons said. "People have thrown the ball against them."
What he would never say but The Dartmouth can is that, if the world ended today, Dartmouth would still score on Harvard tomorrow.
But can the Big Green win?
It's possible. After all, Dartmouth defeated favored Cornell 20-17 at last year's Homecoming, snapping a 10-game losing streak. And the Dartmouth faithful will be back in force at Memorial Field to support their downtrodden warriors.
For several weeks until Columbia, the team seemed to be preparing for a breakout game.
Several half games, such as the first half against Holy Cross, demonstrated the offense's potential. The whole Holy Cross game showed what the defense is capable of.
At Columbia, both sides of the ball fell apart. Perhaps against Harvard, the Big Green can put them back together again and maybe mix in some special teams as well.
Either way, win or lose, everyone will still hear about it from the alums.