With two of its three out-of-conference tuneups out of the way, crunch time is quickly approaching for Harvard football (2-1, 1-0). Since the Ivy League opts not to participate in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, the seven regular-season contests are the sole determinant of conference glory, so from here on out, nearly every snap will matter. The gauntlet will begin on Friday night, when the Crimson will play its second Ivy League matchup of the season, a 7 p.m. clash in Ithaca, N.Y., against Cornell (2-1, 0-1).
“We understand that without having a playoff … every Ivy League game matters a lot,” said senior defensive lineman Truman Jones, who was selected by his teammates to serve as the 148th Captain of Harvard Football this season. “This is that point in the season where it’s time to buckle down and all the work that we’ve put in in the preseason and these earlier out-of-conference games will come to fruition.”
After defeating the Big Red last year, 24-10, at Harvard Stadium, Harvard will have its hands full on Friday night against a Cornell team led by an ascendant quarterback, sophomore Jameson Wang, who had a breakout game in his last appearance, a 34-31 victory over Colgate last weekend. Wang led the Big Red on a go-ahead field goal drive with under two minutes remaining, and the Cornell defense would hold the Raiders on their ensuing drive to ensure the victory. Overall, Wang put up 284 passing yards and added another 98 yards and two scores on the ground. But thankfully for the Crimson, it has recent experience with a dual-threat quarterback of Wang’s caliber.
Harvard will travel to Ithaca on the heels of its first loss of the season, a tight battle against Holy Cross in which Crusaders quarterback Matthew Sluka burned the Crimson for 300 yards through the air and 63 on the ground. The team was unable to generate any offense in the fourth quarter despite a strong game overall from senior running back Aidan Borguet, who garnered 80 yards and two scores on his 18 carries, and senior wide receiver Kym Wimberly, who fell just short of the century mark in receiving yards, finishing with 9 catches for 99 yards and a score. After playing clean football at Brown the week before, the Crimson lost two fumbles and had a punt blocked against Holy Cross, mishaps that thwarted a potential comeback.
If Harvard hopes to bounce back and hand the Big Red its second conference loss in as many games, it will have to rely largely on the strength of its front seven, which forms the core of its stellar rushing defense. In 2021, the Crimson allowed just 64.6 rushing yards per game, which was enough to pace the nation. So far this season, it is off to a strong start again, ranking fourth nationally with 76.7, even after allowing the Crusaders to put up 147 yards on the ground. In addition to a sturdy linebacker corps, led by senior Jack McGowan, Harvard’s rushing defense features junior defensive tackle Thor Griffith, who has 21 tackles through three games, including 4.5 for a loss, and two sacks. A lot of credit for the elite unit is due to defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ’99, who consistently emphasizes fundamentals.
“For [the defensive line] specifically, it’s hand placement and how we attack the offensive linemen, as well as getting off those blocks, so shedding techniques, and playing really sound gaps,” Jones explained.
As a run-heavy game would play to the Crimson’s strengths, Jones said he and his unit hope to force Wang out of the pocket on his dropbacks. But with a stellar pass rush, Wang will not have it easy if he chooses to take to the air against Harvard. Senior defensive lineman Nate Leskovec, after putting up a monster performance in the season-opening win over Merrimack with 4.5 sacks, leads the nation in sacks per game (1.50). As a unit, Harvard also ranks second in the country with 4.67 sacks per contest, as Leskovec’s efforts are supplemented by playmakers like Griffith and Jones, who recorded a crucial takedown of Sluka near the end of the first half against Holy Cross.
The pass rush unit is a big reason why, despite recording just one interception in the first three games of the year, the Crimson ranks a respectable 44th nationally in Team Passing Efficiency Defense (129.86). The secondary is led by veterans, as both starting cornerbacks – Alex Washington and Khalil Dawsey – are seniors, as is safety James Herring, who led the team in tackles against the Crusaders with ten. Last week, the Harvard secondary struggled with pass interference penalties, with each of McGowan, Dawsey, and Washington getting flagged once. It will have to be better against a Cornell offense that boasts arguably the best receiver in the Ancient Eight.
While Harvard may aim to flush Wang out of the pocket, the Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) product surely hopes to keep the chains moving through the air. In Ithaca, Wang was reunited with one of his top targets from high school, senior wide receiver Thomas Glover, who connected with Wang for 677 yards and eight touchdowns at Harvard-Westlake in 2017. Although he was the No. 2 target for the Wolverines, he enjoyed a breakout campaign last year for the Big Red, as the converted running back led the Ivy League with 767 receiving yards. Glover is off to a stellar start again in 2022, as he hauled in seven passes for 160 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders.
“Get a pass rush, to make those throws uncomfortable, make the ball sail high,” said Jones of the keys to containing Glover. “And for cornerbacks and the rest of the defense is to run fast, play good with our eyes, and lock into our techniques and fundamentals.”
In addition to Glover, Wang will be able to target junior tight end Matt Robbert, junior wide receiver Nicholas Laboy, who brought in a touchdown against Yale on Sept. 24, and senior tight end William Enneking, who found the end zone twice against the Virginia Military Institute. The Cornell rushing offense starts with Wang, who has taken his 36 carries for 194 yards and two scores, but also features running backs Eddy Tillman and Gannon Carothers, who have combined for 199 yards and one touchdown. Head coach David Archer will hope to get his playmakers involved in creative ways on Friday night, a staple of Big Red offenses under his tutelage.
“They do well in terms of disguising their plays with different formations,” Jones explained. “It’s a lot of similar plays with a variety of formations, so there’s not a lot to key on specifically with that.”
The Crimson offense, led by senior quarterback Charlie Dean, will look to find success against a Big Red defense that has struggled to get to the quarterback early on in the season. After registering six sacks in its season-opening win over the Virginia Military Institute, Cornell failed to record a single sack in its past two contests against Yale and Colgate. Another potential opening that the Crimson will look to exploit is the Big Red rush defense: Yale and Colgate combined to rush the ball a total of 61 times against Cornell at an average clip of 4.0 and 7.2 yards per carry, respectively. With Borguet averaging 6.3 yards per carry and standing seventh in the country with 112.7 rushing yards per game, Harvard fans can expect to see a lot of the senior on Friday night.
“They always play us well,” said Dean of the Big Red, which will be playing in its second home game of the season. “It’ll be up to us to decipher what the fronts are, what the blitzes are, what the covers are at the line so we can execute our offense to them the best we can.”
Dean will look to continue his strong start to the season, in which he has completed 58 percent of his passes and tossed six touchdowns, with his only two interceptions coming in the first game against Merrimack. In addition to his special connection with Wimberly, the senior from Odessa, Fla. has also gotten the best out of sophomore wide receiver and deep threat Ledger Hatch, who reeled in a 55-yard deep ball against Holy Cross and an 81-yard touchdown catch the week before against Brown. If Hatch is able to get behind the Cornell secondary, the Crimson will be able to recreate its winning formula it used this year against Brown and last year against the Big Red, when running back B.J. Watson ‘22 gashed the defense for an 81-yard touchdown catch.
Finding a way to beat the Cornell secondary will be no easy task, though. The hosts will be led by a pair of big safeties, six-foot-four sophomore Trey Harris, whose older brother Will plays safety for the Detroit Lions, and six-foot-two fifth-year Demetrius Harris. Trey Harris led the team in tackles in the win over Colgate, and Demetrius Harris finished second. Demetrius Harris also recorded an interception in the win over the Virginia Military Institute, one of three so far this season for the Big Red. Junior linebacker Holt Fletcher leads the team in picks, having recorded one each against VMI and Colgate. The Cornell defensive front also features senior linebacker Jake Stebbins, a two-time All-Ivy selection who recovered a fumble against VMI. Stebbins led the Ivy League with 95 total tackles in 2021. Between the two Harrises, Fletcher, and Stebbins, the Big Red have the size and athleticism to pose problems for the high-powered Harvard attack.
On Friday night, Cornell will hope to prove that it has what it takes to pull off the upset. It will be aided by a travel advantage, for the journey to Ithaca marks the Crimson’s second-longest of the year. On the six hour, thirty-minute bus ride to the Finger Lakes region, Harvard players will hope to keep their bodies loose for what promises to be a bruising, physical battle against an unrelenting conference opponent.
“We’ll stretch out into the aisles and watch film and focus and really lock into our game plan as well,” Jones said of the bus ride.
After the long journey, the Crimson and the Big Red will clash under the lights at Schoellkopf Field. The teams will be under the spotlight metaphorically as well, as it will be the first of four nationally-televised games that Harvard will play this season, the most of any Ivy League school. Harvard fans can tune in to the game on ESPNU or follow along over the air on WRCA at 1330 AM, 106.1 FM, or 92.9 FM-HD2.