Football prepares for massive showdown with Harvard

by Alexander Agadjanian | 10/29/15 7:01pm

Three hundred and sixty three days ago, Dartmouth was in a situation very similar to the one it faces today. Playing against another in-conference undefeated team and its biggest rival, the Big Green faltered, however, and lost its grip on a potential Ivy League crown. One year later, the annual clash against Harvard University has arrived once again, though the stakes are even higher. In the most anticipated matchup of the conference season, the No. 22 Big Green (6-0, 3-0 Ivy) will seek to accomplish what it’s done only once in the last 18 years: defeat Harvard (6-0, 3-0 Ivy) — currently ranked 15th — and take the most pivotal step toward claiming its first Ivy title since 1996.

For the first time since the 19th century, Dartmouth will play a game on a Friday. To add to the aura surrounding this crucial fixture, the Friday night game in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will be nationally broadcast, and will mark the first time two ranked Ivy squads will face off against each other in eight years.

“We hate to say this is the most important week, but two undefeated teams in the Ivy League, [and] someone’s going to come out with a loss,” standout cornerback Vernon Harris ’16 said about the matchup. “This game is very important to us. It’s one of the biggest games we’ve had. So this game is more important than just this season, it’s big [for] the culture of this football team getting back to our dominance of the past.”

Through its first six games of the season, the Crimson has pummeled each of its opponents by an average score of 44 to eight, exceeding 40 points in each of its outings and shutting two opponents out. While not facing an especially challenging schedule, the Crimson’s utter dominance — mirrored only by Dartmouth in the Ivy League — speaks to the all-around strength and talent that the program has possessed for some time now, and which has translated into three of the last four conference titles.

Quarterback Scott Hosch leads the Crimson offense, which ranks the most efficient in the Ivy League with a 6.8 yards per play average. Though he has thrown less than most other Ivy signal-callers, the senior has garnered 9.4 yards per attempt, a mark that leads the conference by a relatively wide margin. Hosch has also thrown for 12 touchdowns in the air — adding to his four on the ground — to pair with just one interception, and has distributed the football to multiple targets.

Seven different receivers have caught balls for touchdowns, and four of them have eclipsed 235 total yards on the season. Senior tight end Ben Braunecker leads the group with 454 receiving yards and five scores this year.

“They play two tight ends — which is somewhat unusual in our league — but two very talented tight ends,” head coach Buddy Teevens said, assessing Harvard’s offense. “One is an NFL prospect, and a couple of guys on the offensive line are being considered professionally as well.”

A strong stable of running backs also helps create a very productive offensive balance for Harvard, as the team has logged the majority of its touchdowns on the ground. Junior Paul Stanton has amassed more than 600 yards to go with nine touchdowns and spearheads the rushing attack that leads the conference with 4.8 yards per carry.

“Year by year, they’re basically the same,” Harris said of Harvard’s offense. “They run their offense, they’re not dictated by the defense… They have a pretty strong offensive line, that’s the core of their offense. [We need to] make sure we can penetrate, and if we’re able [to do that], good things happen from there.”

On defense, the Crimson have been nearly as strong, yielding just 4.1 yards per opposing play and ranking second to only Dartmouth in the Ivy League. Big Green quarterback Dalyn Williams ’16 noted their strength and mentioned the type of defense he and his team will be anticipating.

“They’re going to try to play sound football, they’re not going to blitz much,” Williams said. “[They play] a lot of zone. So we just have to line up as an offense and execute.”

As it enters its most important game in 2015, Dartmouth will try to bounce back from its poorest offensive performance and closest game of the season last week, when it eked out a 13-9 win over Columbia University to preserve its undefeated record.

In large part, the decline in play came from the Big Green accumulating a school record 17 penalty calls for 161 yards — and two other calls that were offset or declined — which precluded the offense from ever attaining proper rhythm or continuity. Moreover, the flags became increasingly questionable, as replays on multiple plays bore out, and occurred toward the end of the game, as seven penalties came in the fourth quarter.

“A lot of [the penalties] had to do with those guys out there throwing the flags,” Williams said. “A lot of those penalties were effort, I don’t know if the coaches necessarily want us to not play as hard as we did. But there were a number of penalties that we had where we hurt ourselves definitely.”

Williams considers it his responsibility to lead the effort to avoid penalties going forward.

“It starts with me,” he said. “I can’t have unsportsmanlike, personal fouls. It’s my job to get guys under control…we just need to be more composed. A lot of those things happened that we normally don’t do because we were kind of in a panic stage. The game wasn’t how we wanted it to be, and we were just playing out of character.”

The penalties hurt, but the unexpected amounts of blitzes and quarterback pressure that Columbia induced had nearly as much of a disruptive effect. Recording six sacks — the most Dartmouth has allowed this season — and forcing a fumble on one, the Lions sent pressure that reached Williams on what seemed like every play. The Big Green quarterback had inadequate time to throw and was forced to escape the pocket often, and as a result of the conditions his accuracy was diminished and Williams missed on several of the deep throws he usually completes.

In the second quarter of the game, a screen play counteracted the pressure well, as it quickly gained 13 yards and jumpstarted a touchdown drive that concluded a few plays later. Williams noted that this type of play call, along with other adjustments, could address similar difficulties the team faces in the future.

“Screens help, and it also helps if you’re running the ball a little more effectively,” Williams said. “It also helps if you set the protection the right way. [Columbia] blitzed a lot more than they showed on film… We just have to make adjustments earlier, and I have to be more proactive in handling that…so I just have to be ready for all the different possibilities.”

Teevens also noted that injuries to his offensive line played a role last Saturday’s struggle.

“We were a little bumped up,” Teevens said. “Dave Morrison [’17], our starting tackle, was out, so we had some less experienced guys in the mix. They certainly did good work, but having a guy that’s been in there for a period of time would certainly be helpful in the coming week.”

Yet as much as the offense struggled due to penalties and opposing pass rush pressure, Dartmouth’s defense remained as consistent and dominant as it was in prior games and ultimately sealed the win with a defensive stand in the final minutes. Though ample experience, depth and talent has paved the way for the unmitigated success the unit has enjoyed this year, Harris points to a specific mindset as particularly helpful.

“Our hugest thing if you look at our defense is pursuit to the ball,” Harris said. “If you look on film, our entire defense is going to be running to the ball… You don’t expect anyone else to make the play, you expect to go in making a play. And if everybody expects to make the play, good things are going to happen.”

Since last Saturday’s game, punter Ben Kepley ’17 was also named the Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week. With the offense not working to its fullest potential, the sophomore had to punt the ball 11 times against Columbia, the most in his career. Notably, Kepley exceeded 50 yards twice, pinned Columbia back to its own six and 12-yard lines on separate occasions, forced seven fair catches, and thus had an instrumental role in the game’s field position battle.