Part of that is the Ivy League's fault, and part of that is Harvard's fault. But make no mistake, they are a dynasty and they are a team that, year in and year out, are filled with talented players.
Look at this week's Gridiron Power Index, and you'll see the Crimson in the middle of the pack, at No. 59. But that's no indication of the talent on this team at all. There are currently five players in the NFL that came from Cambridge, and this list details the number of pros that have come from Harvard - and fourteen of those, you'll note, have played for the Crimson in the last ten years - and have faced off against Lehigh in non-league action.
But thanks to the stubbornness of the Ivy League President's office, the (presumed) intransigence of Harvard's presidents, and the unwillingness of the Ivy League's or Harvard's sports information directors to much care about the Crimson's status nationally, most of the wider FCS world doesn't know that Harvard is a dynasty that rivals Montana's dominance. This has made these Crimson games, unfortunately, a high-risk, low reward game nationally. (more)
Harvard head coach Tim Murphy's won-loss record at Harvard speaks for itself. In this, his 16th year as head coach, he's amassed an eye-popping 107-56 record. That means for every three games he's been the head coach of the Crimson, two of them have been wins. That's an incredible statistic at any level.
In his last thirteen years, Murphy has had exactly one losing season. Two seasons - 2001 and 2004 - his Crimson went undefeated, and two other times - 1997 and 2008 - they only had one loss. In the last nine years, the Crimson have won at least seven games - in a ten-game season. It's a won-loss record that would make anybody want to quit their day job and start coaching.
Yet, nobody seems to know, or care, about their record except a handful of Ivy League and FCS diehards. Why?
First of all, as members of the Ivy League the Crimson have committed to a ten-game schedule, with three out-of-conference games that have tended to be the exact same opponents year after year. This means Harvard has only proven itself against their leaguemates, Lehigh, Lafayette and Holy Cross over the last ten years. (Northeastern, who found their way onto the Crimson's schedule in the early 2000s, no longer sponsors football.)
When Lehigh, Lafayette or Holy Cross were the best of the best in the Patriot League, it provided some level of strength-of-schedule nationally for the Crimson. However, this year all three teams, according to the GPI, are mediocre compared to the Delaware's, New Hampshire's and Villanova's of the wider world of FCS.
The second reason why folks tend not to regard Harvard nationally is the longstanding postseason ban for football in the FCS playoffs - a place where a Harvard could prove themselves against a UMass, New Hampshire or Appalachian State every once in a while. (Such games in the playoffs, especially if the teams do well, if not necessarily win, DO have a multi-year effect on how that school is perceived nationally.)
It's not only that poll voters have to seek out Ivy League games that have no bearing on the playoffs in order to rank their abilities - though that undoubtedly hurts: why should a guy who follows Northern Iowa's playoff hopes watch a Harvard/Cornell game that has no effect on the playoffs in any way?
It also means that there is no incentive for the Ivy League sports information department to, say, hype their conference champions and make a case as to why they should be Top 25 teams. Neither is there much incentive for a Harvard athletic department to hype up their players for national awards.
That leads us to this weekend, where Lehigh will face a team, depth-wise and talent-wise, that is as good as a playoff contender in the CAA. They are this year. They always are. Even if the rest of FCS doesn't know that.
That makes this a tough game for Lehigh on a bunch of levels. Should they win, it's something they individually should be extremely proud of. A win here would show them personally that this team can compete with any team in the nation - in the CAA, the SoCon, the Missouri Valley - anybody. If junior WR Jake Drwal beats their safety - who is a legitimate NFL prospect, by the way - for a game-winning TD, it's something that ought to be regarded as a great achievement, and something he should remember the rest of his life.
But they won't get the national recognition for the win, no matter how much I would crow about such a win if it happens. To almost everyone else, it will be an obscure win against the team ranked No. 59 in the GPI. Ho-hum, they'll say.
Lehigh has to be content in this game that a win against Harvard would be every bit as big as one against New Hampshire or Villanova. They may not get the national headlines, but they need to know that a win here is a big one. Not only for the positive momentum going into the Patriot League schedule, with a big matchup with Colgate looming in a few weeks - but nationally, too.
This week's game notes don't reflect the key bit of information reported by Michael Lore of the Express-Times: that senior TE Alex Wojdowski and senior OL Keith Schauder will not be making the trip this weekend to Cambridge. Losing "Wojdo", who has the most receiving TDs on the team, will hurt, but the loss is tempered somewhat with the return of sophomore TE Jamel Haggins from injury, who might figure somewhere in Lehigh's passing game despite his rust. He'll be behind junior TE Mark Wickware who will be enjoying his first-ever start, while junior OL Stephen Ganoe will most likely replace Schauder next to senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley.
Junior LB Colin Newton looks to be back in his starting role on the outside position after not being totally 100% last weekend vs. Fordham, while senior FB Bryce Arruda has made it back to the top of the depth chart as it seems like freshman FB Sean Farrell is nursing an injury that held him out of practice.
So far this year, every single one of Lehigh's game has been played in pristine, almost summer-y weather. While the weather forecast in Cambridge this weekendfalls short of "bad weather", Friday's forecast of 90% chance of rain and 1 inch of precipitation is worthy of note, as is a Saturday mixture of sun and clouds, with a high of 56 degrees and somewhat heavy winds. It should still be a nice day at Harvard stadium, but the bad weather on Friday and the windy forecast will be something worth following in the next couple of days.
A Word on Harvard
The schedule originally had Lehigh getting a bye week, and starting off a nice long homestand against Harvard on October 9th. But a scheduling snafu meant instead that Lehigh would be spending the week after their break going back to Cambridge to face off against the Crimson, who have beaten them three of their last four attempts.
Last weekend, Harvard struggled with Cornell for three quarters before finally busting through for 21 points to win 31-17. Some highlights of that game can be seen embedded below, thanks to the folks at Harvard Atheltics.
The best thing about the highlights is: the student announcers calling the game are clearly into the proceedings in a big way. It flies in the face of the myth that students who happen to get into high-academic universities like Harvard, Lehigh, Colgate, or Cornell care more about, say, opera rather than pigskin. (Take that, John Silber!)
Last year against Harvard, junior QB Chris Lum got one of his starts last year and started fairly well with an early TD and a 7-0 lead - but Harvard would ride a Lum interception on a trick play to four touchdowns and a stifling 28-14 win last season. That, coupled with a heartbreaking 27-24 loss at Cambridge two years ago where QB J.B. Clark was blindsided inside Harvard's 10 yard line to secure the victory for the Crimson, means that Lehigh has lost their last two versus the boys from Cambridge.
One more final word about Harvard - that's not much about football, but a fun blog fact - my most-ever connected page on this blog by far was this water cooler piece I did about Harvard's press "stalking" of Emma Watson at a Harvard/Brown game last year - the actress that plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series, just in case you've recently been in suspended animation for the last ten years, and were recently thawed.
You can reread it again, just in case you thought I think any more highly of Harvard students.
LFN's Drink of the Week
The drink this week - to commemorate Harvard and Yale's bans of drinking games at their annual Harvard/Yale tailgates - is, unsurprisingly, Yuengling Lager. It's more of an ironic pick than anything: for if I know anything about human nature, the mere fact that these rules are put into effect will mean more, secret, drinking games will be taking place at Harvard (or Yale, for that matter). Nothing advertises drinking games better than banning them. Ask Samuel Longhorne Clemens, or - better yet - Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.
If Harvard and Yale want to really curb the worst excesses of their "Game", the best thing they could possibly do is open their champion to play in the FCS playoffs - giving more meaning to their season-ending rivalry, and changing the point of emphasis. It's done wonders for that little Lehigh Valley rivalry we have. Trust me.
As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that - and, really, don't play drinking games, just enjoy a few early-morning cold one before heading into the stadium. (And, Yuengling? I'm still waiting for your call.)
Breaking Down Harvard
Murphy's Harvard teams are always deep, which is why they almost always get seven wins a year. But it's hard to not look at the absence of senior QB Andrew Hatch in the starting lineup - a senior who transferred to LSU, yes, that LSU, and then transferred back to Harvard for his final year of eligibility - as a plus to Lehigh's chances of winning this game.
It will be sophomore QB Colton Chapple - the third-string QB going into preseason training camp - who will most likely be starting in a run-oriented offense. This emphasis newfound love of the run is not necessarily by design - it's more likely driven by the injuries to Hatch, senior WR Marco Iannuzi and senior WR Chris Lorditch - but then again, coach Murphy has the luxury of choosing to match the best available talent to the gameplan, and his depth allows him to shift to the run more effortlessly than other teams. While they list a three WR set in their game notes, they really run a multiple set that should feature a more run-oriented set than usual.
At 6'2 and 200 lbs, Chapple is a good overall athlete and tough guy to bring down running the football - but so far has not been especially accurate (with a less than 50% completion rate) when asked to pass. Against Lafayette, he wasn't asked to do much, but his game did expand last weekend vs. Cornell and he did get two TDs, one rushing and one passing. He's been a part of a new addition to the Harvard offense - the Wildcat, which was a part too of their gameplan vs. Cornell last weekend.
Senior RB Gino Gordon (389 yards, 4 TDs) is a 5'11 sparkplug that has joined with sophomore RB Treavor Scales (155 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore RB Rich Zajeski, (138 yards, 2 TDs) to form a speedy three-heading rushing attack that uses their depth to keep everybody fresh. None seems more physical than the other - they are all the same, speedy, physical type of back that can run any which way, through tackles, on the outside, through the front seven for big yards. Shutting down this unit is crucial to any Lehigh victory.
"Gino has been a very tough, consistent and productive player since the day he arrived," Murphy said before the season. "He has developed into one of our strong leaders in the senior class who leads by example and is not afraid to hold teammates to his high standards."
With all the injuries at wideout, junior WR Adam Chrissis (17 receptions, 185 yards) and senior WR Levi Richards (85 yards, 1 TD) are Chapple's main wideout targets when he does throw the ball. 6'4 senior TE Nicholai Schwarzkopf (3 catches, 34 yards) also provides a large target underneath that needs to be watched very closely. Murphy's offenses are well known for spreading the ball around, so you need to be careful of all potential targets.
Making the rushing game work, of course, is a big "O" line that has been carving up teams like Holy Cross, Lafayette and Cornell for big rushing yards, including 306 last weekend vs. the Big Red. None are over 300 lbs, but this senior-laden crew with players like senior OL Brent Osborne are football players.
Harvard plays a base 4-3, like they have for almost a decade. The Crimson seem to have one or two all-Ivy League defensemen graduate every year, and some get more every single year. This year is no exception.
Senior DT Chuks Obi (10 tackles, 1 sack) and junior DT Josue Ortiz (15 tackles, 3 sacks) highlight an interior defense that has stopped a whole lot of rushing games cold this season. At 91 rushing yards allowed so far this year, the Crimson are currently ranked 6th in the country in rush defense, and Obi and Ortiz are the main reason for that.
Once you're past that gauntlet, you have strong linebackers like senior LB Nick Hasselberg (29 tackles, 2 sacks) making the stops. Senior LB Blaise Deal, out with an injury, means that sophomore LB Alexander Norman and sophomore LB Josh Boyd will need to step up and fill the void. Again, though, these Crimson have depth, so no reason to believe these guys will be a huge dropoff from Deal.
The heart and soul of the defense - and basically, another linebacker, is the hard hitting senior FS Collin Zych (30 tackles, 1 interception, 5 passes defended). "Collin Zych is the best safety that we have had in my 17 years at Harvard and we have had some outstanding ones," Murphy said of him "Pound for pound Collin is one of the best players in the country who is always where he is supposed to be when he's supposed to be there."
Rounding out Harvard's always-tough secondary is junior CB Matthew Hanson (15 tackles, 1 interception, 4 passes defended), but two relative newcomers, junior CB Daniel Minamide and senior SS Anthony Spadafino, round out the secondary. There are some incredible players on this team - but a lot of inexperience, too.
Sophomore P Jacob Dombrowski, regaled in the highlight video for his two punts downed inside the 5 yard line, has a 38 yards per punt average, putting him in the middle of the pack in terms of Lehigh's opposing punters this year. Freshman PK David Mothander has been perfect in extra points (15/15) while going 3 of 4 in booting field goals, but hasn't been tested this year in a tough game situation.
When Iannuzzi went down, Harvard also lost their starting kickoff returner as well as starting receiver. Unimpressed last week with the kickoff returns, Murphy has put sophomore RB Treavor Scales and junior WR Adam Chrissis back this week to return kicks. Junior CB Dan Minamide, who had a 26 yard punt return against Lafayette, is the starting return man for punts this weekend.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Stuff the Run. Can this also be key No. 2 and key No. 3 in this game, too? Lehigh's 3-4 defense has to plug gaps extremely well and keep Gordon, Scales and company from breaking big runs and not allowing them yards between the tackles. If Harvard's running backs are breaking off 20 or 30 yard runs frequently, it's going to be an awfully long day.
2. Who Will Step Up And Make That Big Play? On offense, there are 11 guys, obviously. All eleven can step up and make that one big play to put Lehigh over the top. It can come at any time, with 2 minutes left in the game or on the first play from scrimmage. It's the halfway point of the season, and what I want to know is: who's going to be that guy? If Lehigh finds that guy this weekend on offense, it will not only give Lehigh an excellent shot at winning this game - it will give the Brown & White a chance to win the Patriot League title, too.
3. Who Will Prevent the Big Play? Similarly, while Lehigh's defense has been a source of pride on this team, what's kept them from being an elite unit in FCS is their penchant for giving up one - or more - big plays to the opposing offense to make what could be a smothering win into a close game. If Lehigh prevents the big play from happening, I like Lehigh's chances to win this game.
Harvard is tough. They're every bit as good as a New Hampshire or Richmond, even if the rest of the FCS world doesn't know it. But injuries have taken their tool on this team, despite their obvious depth, and it does leave a tiny opening for Lehigh to pull off the upset. Will they do it?
Pulling it off requires improvement by this Brown & White team from what they've shown thus far. They need an offense that comes together and makes plays - they don't need to be perfect, but they need to get positive drives and create scores. Then need a defense that shuts down the opposing team's strength, without giving up the big plays that can kill chances at victory.
With the warning that this might be a homer pick, I get the inexplicable feeling that the sense of urgency is upon this Lehigh team this weekend. There's nothing specific in last week's game tapes to show that Lehigh will pull things together and things will click, but I just get that feeling that this team knows that in order to make a serious run in Patriot League play, they need to demonstrate this weekend that they have what it takes to move the ball on offense and shut down the opposition on defense.
They can do this thing. And I think they will, in one of those crazy Lehigh/Harvard games that comes down to the final seconds.
Lehigh 24, Harvard 21