Tuesday, August 1, 2017

2017 Opponent Preview: Harvard

Is Tim Murphy losing his edge?

2016 was one of the worst years in recent Harvard history. Not only did they find themselves out of the championship circle for the first time since 2012, but they did the unthinkable by losing to Yale. And Yale wasn’t really even a very good team.

Those who watched the Crimson all season long know what the problem was on the field as Harvard’s defense basically played up to its usual strong levels but its offense uncharacteristically sputtered time and again. But after coming in third in 2016 and losing what some people consider to be the de facto annual Ivy championship game against Penn two years in a row, a number of fans are asking whether Harvard’s incredible 20-year run of dominance under Head Coach Tim Murphy is finally coming to an end.

Murphy is the longest active serving Ivy coach for the same team, (Columbia’s Al Bagnoli has 25 years in with Penn and CU), now entering his 24th year in Cambridge. Younger fans may not know that despite the Harvard mystique, the years before Murphy were hardly as successful for Crimson football as they have been since he arrived. But he’s had some health problems in the recent past and he’s starting to look more like a man preparing to take his final laps with the program.

That makes this season something like the sealed envelope containing the answer to the question of whether the Murphy era at Harvard is indeed in some kind of decline. Here’s what Murphy and co. will be working with in 2017:


QB Joe Viviano is back for 2017 after a pretty good year in 2016. He completed more than 61% of his passes, threw for 15 TD’s vs. just eight INT’s, and ran for five more. But Viviano’s performance was far from what we’ve come to expect from Crimson QB’s in the Murphy era and his performance in the second half of the season was downright ineffective at times. In the crucial back-to-back losses to Penn and Yale, he threw three interceptions against the Quakers and only passed for 181 yards against what had been a porous Eli pass defense the rest of the season. Don’t be surprised if someone from that endless pipeline of Harvard recruiting talent pushes Viviano for the starting spot either in camp or during the season.

But perhaps Viviano’s not-so-stellar year was partly the offensive line’s fault. Sure, the Crimson had two 1st Team All Ivy Offensive Linemen in Larry Allen and Max Rich. But they were part of a unit that allowed 29 sacks, (six in the Penn game alone), and rushed for just under 150 yards per game. And with Rich graduated and Allen not returning to campus for this fall, the O-line is definitely a question mark for the Crimson.

Top 2016 running back Semar Smith is back for this fall as is promising junior Charlie Booker, who was more impressive than the rising senior Smith against Columbia last season.  It feels like it’s been awhile since Harvard has had a dominant back, but stay tuned to see if any of the four freshmen they're bringing step up in a big way.

The receiving corps is stellar with Justice Shelton-Mosley returning for his junior year and his up-and-coming fellow junior Adam Scott back too. Shelton-Mosley is a particularly amazing talent.


Harvard’s defense was clearly the better of the two main units on the team last year. That defense did its best work in the Princeton game, when the Crimson held the Tigers’ high-powered offense to just 151 yards passing and no TD passes.

The best Crimson defender from 2016, DL James Duberg, is gone to graduation. But DE D.J. Bailey, LB Luke Hutton, CB Raishaun McGhee, and Safety Tanner Lee all return. 

Harvard may not be able to match the levels it reached on defense last year, but there’s a lot of room to fall before the Crimson D is in any trouble.


Rising sophomore Placekicker Jake McIntyre is back after a freshman season where he showed decent accuracy, but not much ability to hit FG’s of more than 35 yards. Senior punter Zach Schmid, brother of incoming Columbia freshman Punter Drew Schmid, is back after a solid 2016 campaign.

Shelton-Mosley is a demon as a punt returner, but Harvard does not have much of a threat in the kickoff return slot.

Again, Harvard right now is more a program that needs to answer questions about program leadership more than personnel. Harvard still has massive talent built on the value of its name. When the Harvard recruiters come into your living room, just about everything else stops. But if Murphy and his staff are slipping in their abilities to coach up the talent or put the best talent in all the right places, the Crimson will find itself out of the top spot in the league once again. The bet here is that rumors of Harvard’s demise are probably greatly exaggerated. 

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