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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Harvard Claims Improbable Championship with Best Performance of Year

by Scott Reed
WHRB Sports
My Opinion

It was a masterful effort by Harvard against an opponent that had made a habit of dashing Crimson hopes, and the team from Cambridge sits back atop the Ivy football throne, claiming its 14th league title with a 37-21 throttling of the Penn Quakers. The win, coupled with a 21-16 Brown loss to Dartmouth, gave Harvard its seventh outright Ivy title and first since 2007, a title that after a season-opening loss seemed unattainable two months ago.

The manner in which the Crimson won Saturday was, in a word, dominant. An offense that has put up historic numbers this season did its part (30 offensive points, 204 rushing yards), and the defense, which has had its poor showings this year, was sublime. It was, considering the opponent and the circumstances, Harvard's best defensive performance of the year - head coach Tim Murphy dubbed it "one of the best defensive performances [Harvard] has had in a long time." The Quakers were held to 219 total yards, their second-lowest output of the year, including a meager 24 net rushing yards on 30 attempts. Josue Ortiz, perhaps the most talented Ivy league footballer in 2011, led the way with ten tackles and two sacks.

Given Harvard's 24-7 victory over second-place Brown in September, Saturday's performance left no doubt (the upcoming finale against Yale notwithstanding) that Harvard is the best the Ivy League has to offer. Harvard scored 37 unanswered points and held Penn to seven through three and a half quarters. "We lost to a better team," said Al Bagnoli, Penn's longtime head coach, in a somewhat bitter postgame press conference.

It was, in short, the kind of game that made even the biggest Crimson critic question why they had ever doubted Harvard. Yet, there was a time when the scene that unfolded Saturday had seemed an improbable dream. Those who saw the Crimson walk off the field after a season-opening loss at Holy Cross (this columnist included) could not have imagined that the team that played so poorly in Worcester would go on to win 8 straight games in dominant fashion (average margin of victory: 22 points) and be able to wrap up the Ivy title even before heading to New Haven. The hopes of such a turnaround seemed even dimmer when the news broke that starting quarterback Collier Winters would be out several weeks due to injury. Yet that Harvard team, at times sans Winters, rebounded and has a chance to record one of the best seasons in school history.

Harvard's title is a result of contributions from a host of characters: Ortiz and the rest of the defensive line, who controlled the line of scrimmage in every Ivy contest; Winters, who performed better after returning from injury than he had in his collegiate career; junior backup quarterback Colton Chapple, who filled in admirably for Winters in four starts; the team leader, linebacker Alex Gedeon, of whom Murphy said "I don't know if we've ever had a better captain"; and of course, Murphy himself, who claimed his sixth Ivy title in the same year that he has become Harvard's winningest head coach.

Regardless of the outcome of the finale at the Yale Bowl, the win over Penn and subsequent Ivy title stand as remarkable. Long after the 2011 team plays its final game, it will be remembered for attaining a championship that, after loss and injury, had once seemed impossible.

Scott Reed is the play-by-play broadcaster for Harvard football on WHRB.

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