UPDATED: September 19, 2015, at 5:12 p.m.
KINGSTON, R.I.—The Harvard and Rhode Island football teams hadn’t met since 1923, but the Crimson had no difficulty readjusting to its opponents in the 2015 season opener Saturday.
Donning new white uniforms indicative of a blank slate and a new season, the Crimson (1-0) played a clean, complete game that nevertheless conjured memories of last year’s undefeated run and Ivy League championship. Harvard controlled the contest from start to finish, riding consistent offense and a complete defensive performance en route to a 41-10 victory.
After the Crimson jumped out to a 14-0 lead, the Rams (0-3) pulled within four after a long touchdown pass and a field goal. But the Harvard defense clamped down thereafter, and the visitors rattled off 27 straight points to put the game away at Meade Stadium in Rhode Island.
Senior Scott Hosch, who was named starting quarterback by Crimson coach Tim Murphy on Wednesday following a close offseason competition, finished with 336 yards in the air and three touchdown passes. Senior running back Paul Stanton posted 72 rushing yards and a score of his own.
“For our first game, a very solid victory,” Murphy said. “Defense, special teams, offense in that order…. You don’t necessarily expect to see that many big plays in your opening game. So we’ve got a lot of things to work on, but I’m really proud of how hard we played, which is the most important thing.”
While the Crimson held an 11-point lead entering halftime, the game still seemed very much up for grabs midway through the third quarter.
With 7:31 left in the third, the Harvard offense drove down the field looking to deal a blow to Rhode Island’s comeback chances, but the attack was at risk of stalling on a third-and-eight in Rams territory.
Senior tight end Ben Braunecker had something else in mind. As Hosch lofted a spiraling pass toward the back left corner of the end zone, Braunecker extended his arms, reeled in a fingertips catch, and dragged a foot in bounds to convert the touchdown.
The Crimson special teams unit hit Rhode Island with another dagger just moments later. As the Rams lined up to punt deep in their own territory, senior defensive back Scott Peters forced his way through the line and deflected the would-be punt sideways. Junior cornerback Kolbi Brown scooped up the ball in the end zone, and suddenly Harvard led, 35-10.
The Harvard offense, whose 41 points matched the team’s total in last year’s season opener against Holy Cross, seemed formidable at times due to considerable depth at a host of skill positions. Five different receivers posted at least 50 yards in the air, and four players caught touchdown passes.
“Everywhere we are, we have weapons,” Hosch said. “Every single guy can make a play. Even the backups, those guys are making plays too. The offensive line did a great job up front, so I get to sit back there and let those guys go to work.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Harvard continued to do what it did best last year—bend, not break—while shutting the Rams out in the second half. The FCS 2014 top-ranked scoring defense faltered slightly in the second quarter, most notably upon surrendering a 62-yard touchdown pass from Rams quarterback Paul Mroz to a streaking Khayri Denny down the sideline.
But while Rhode Island occasionally showed signs of getting into an offensive rhythm, a veteran secondary and linebacker corps led by captain Matt Koran ensured that the Rams’ drives repeatedly stalled throughout the contest. Mroz’s first completed pass did not come until early in the second quarter.
“I thought as a defense, we rallied, we were swarming to the ball,” Koran said. “Even if we missed, we had another guy coming in and making the play. And our defensive line was real stout.”
Harvard came storming out of the gates offensively and quickly looked to establish a rhythm in the passing game. After attempting a mix of screens and short passes, Hosch finally looked downfield and connected with junior tight end Ryan Halvorson on a corner route that went for a 45-yard score.
Hosch and his receiving corps similarly powered the team’s third offensive possession. The unit picked up two first downs in the air, and Hosch capped the drive by threading the needle to senior wide receiver Seitu Smith on a skinny post route in the back of the end zone to put his team up, 14-0.
After a Hosch interception resulted in a Rhode Island field goal two possessions later, the Crimson extended its lead to double-digits once more with a four-yard Stanton touchdown run. The score moved the sophomore into second place all-time in Harvard football history for combined receiving and rushing touchdowns.
While Saturday marked the season opener for the Crimson, Rhode Island previously suffered two losses by a combined score of 82-7. There were few evident signs of rust for Harvard, as the visitors systematically dispatched their opponents and notched the program’s 15th straight victory.
“Overall, we were very happy as a staff how relatively synchronized we were,” Murphy said. “I think when you put it under a microscope, we have a lot of faults and plenty of things to talk about, but it was a solid day.”
—Staff writer David Steinbach can be reached at email@example.com.