The chatter at Harvard the previous two weeks centered on the investigation of the alleged cheating scandal on campus involving up to 125 students, and its impact on the varsity athletic program, not on the defending Ivy League champions kicking off their 139th season of football.
In the postgame news conference, the questions lingered, all eyes on coach Tim Murphy and three of his standouts from the opener, with chosen words such as “character”, “poise”, “resiliency”, “adversity”, and “focus” mixed into their game recap.
In the 60 minutes of hard-hitting action on the glistening turf before 5,272 sun-baked folks at the Stadium Saturday afternoon, against a first-time foe, the University of San Diego, the Crimson struck for a trio of fourth-quarter touchdowns and cruised to their 10th straight victory, 28-13.
In their first game since a 45-7 romp at the Yale Bowl last November, Harvard seemed to handle the distractions with relative ease.
“If we did have a situation, it’s all about focus,” said Murphy, who was without junior wide receiver Matt Brown, also a two-year member of the basketball team. Murphy said he could not answer questions about Brown’s status.
“We talk about two things, adversity and focus. No matter what is happening around us, we’re not making excuses, and dealing with any adversity that comes our way.”
In the first quarter, that meant regrouping defensively after Mason Mills (38 of 63 passing, 354 yards) directed the Toreros (1-2) on a 19-play, 81-yard march on the game’s first series. But Jaron Wilson batted down Mills’s toss to the right pylon on third and 3 and San Diego settled for a 20-yard field goal from Ernie Collins.
“That first drive, not what we’re aiming to do,” said senior captain Bobby Schneider who matched fellow linebacker Josh Boyd with a game-high 10 tackles. “After that first drive, we buckled down.”
In the fourth quarter, that meant bouncing back after a block in the back negated an electrifying 99-yard kickoff return by sophomore speedster Seitu Smith.
Colton Chapple (16 of 29, 209 yards) went to work, marching the Crimson 94 yards on nine plays (aided by three San Diego penalties, including two personal fouls) before the 6-foot-2-inch senior hooked up with tight end Kyle Juszczyk for an 8-yard catch-and-run down the right sideline and a 14-13 lead.
“I certainly wasn’t happy at the time [with the penalty],” said Murphy, whose team had eight total infractions for 119 yards. “But we had to show a little bit of resiliency, and I thought our kids really kept their poise and played their best after that.”
That certainly included Treavor Scales, a 5-10, 195-pound senior who delivered 173 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 19 carries. He punched in a 1-yard scamper with 5:37 left for a 21-13 cushion and then put the finishing touch on his stellar afternoon with a 66-yard burst up the middle for the final score with 1:23 remaining.
“Colton came into the huddle and called ‘power’,” said Scales. “He said, ‘guys, one first down, and we got the game.’ I said, ‘no, we are scoring a touchdown.’ And sure enough, the offensive line did a great job, it opened up like the Red Sea, and I had no choice, I was obligated to get to that end zone. You have to take advantage of that opportunity, keep in that attack mode.”
His mates on the defensive side took a similar tact. Though the Crimson allowed a 350-plus-yard passing performance for the first time since 2003, they sacked Mills seven times (impressive sophomore Zach Hodges recorded three) and registered 14 pass breakups. And senior Jack Dittmer, a 6-3, 255-pound tackle, set up the first Harvard score by intercepting a deflected ball at the Harvard 49.
Five plays later, on play-action, Chapple floated a 29-yard scoring strike down the left sideline to wide-open tight end Cameron Brate for a 7-3 lead.
“We are going to take what people give us,” said Murphy, taking note of the balance between the rushing (195) and passing yardage. “We want to be a tough, physical team that can run the football.”
Addressing the ongoing situation at the school, Murphy, who has also coached at Maine and Cincinnati, said, “Harvard kids aren’t good kids, they are great kids.
“But they don’t walk on water. And it is important as educators that we have to enforce that crucial life lesson that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. Because down the road, later in life, those consequences can be terminal, cost you a marriage, or cost you your career.”
The Crimson kick off their Ivy League slate at Brown next Saturday at 4:30 p.m.