“This game is everything.”
In a division proliferated with solid teams, junior linebacker Charlie Walker is probably right. Barring a miracle, a loss to Princeton tonight would likely push the Ivy League title beyond Harvard’s reach.
Sporting dual 1-1 conference records, the Crimson and the Tigers (4-1, 1-1 Ivy) will play out their division rivalry tonight under the lights of Harvard Stadium, marking only the 15th night game ever hosted by the Crimson. Under the lights, Harvard is 14-0.
“It’s a really big game,” said junior wide out Justice Shelton-Mosley. “For our identity as a team, coming from the Cornell loss and going back into Ivy League play, it’s a huge game. We need a win to stay in the running [for the title]. We want to control our own destiny—don’t want to rely on other teams.”
The last time the Crimson (3-2, 1-1) had a 1-1 conference record heading into the Princeton game, the year was 1996 and Harvard coach Tim Murphy was in his third season. The Tigers had a four-game win streak in the series and were coming off an Ancient Eight title season.
“We shut them out,” Murphy said. “They were in shock because they were heavily favored and Harvard hadn’t beaten them in a long time. It was the turning point for our program.”
The 24-0 win catalyzed two decades of dominance over Princeton, with the Crimson taking 17 of the last 21 contests, adding nine conference rings to its mantle for good measure.
Now, Harvard can hardly claim underdog status. On the heels of a decade of Ancient Eight success, the team comes into the matchup with history on its side. In addition to winning 80 percent of the last 21 meetings between the pair, the Crimson has not dropped a match to its rivals in orange in the last three years. But for a rivalry like the Tigers, every win is never good enough.
“The guys on the team hate them, I’m not going to lie,” Walker said. “I mean, we’re 3-0, but it’s not like we got to 3-0 easily.”
Princeton is by no means an underdog, either. The squad features an offense that has been nearly unstoppable in 2017. Even including the one loss, the Tigers have outscored opponents by 100 points, twice hitting the half-century mark.
The man behind the offensive prowess is senior quarterback Chad Kanoff. In five games, the veteran has accumulated 1,464 yards through the air—the most of any Ivy League quarterback.
Sometimes, gaudy passing statistics reflect a throw-first strategy. Not in this case—Princeton has actually run the ball one more time than it has tossed on the season. Kanoff just happens to be the most accurate quarterback in the FCS. Boasting a completion rate of 73.9 percent, he has several competent targets, which prevents defenses from focusing on a single deep threat.
“It’s challenging to defend this team because they have the ability in all formations, all field positions, to throw or run the football,” Murphy said. “I think that’s what every good offense has. It’s multidimensional.”
The two receiving mainstays are a pair of capable juniors, Jesper Horsted and Stephen Carlson. The former leads the team with 466 yards on 42 receptions, while his classmate has accumulated a similar 445 yards on 30 tosses. Kanoff’s 553 other yards are distributed among 10 targets.
For Harvard, the quarterback story is the polar opposite of this experienced cast. Under center will be freshman Jake Smith. However, the rookie is no stranger to competition, as he has started the last four games. Establishing himself as a competent leader in the preseason, Smith jumped two sophomores and a junior to earn the backup position. Taking second snaps to fifth-year senior Joe Viviano to start of the season, Smith proved himself and ultimately dethroned the veteran.
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