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Preview: Hungry For Redemption, Harvard Football Welcomes No. 23 Princeton to Cambridge

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On Nov. 23, 2021, in the third overtime of a clash against Princeton, the Harvard sideline emptied, with players spilling onto Powers Field to mob their star wide receiver, junior Kym Wimberly. The few Crimson fans who had made the journey down to Princeton, N.J. to watch their team take on the Tigers roared in triumph as the orange and black-clad home supporters fell silent. Amidst the pandemonium, the trio of referees were reviewing a play that, Harvard players assumed, would confirm that Wimberly had gotten both of his feet down in the back of the end zone and maintained possession of the football all the way to the ground, securing the Crimson victory.

But unbeknownst to the jubilant Harvard team, Princeton head coach Bob Surace had signaled for a timeout before Crimson signal-caller Jake Smith ’21 had called for the snap. The referees, after the procedural video review of Wimberly’s successful conversion, retroactively granted Surace the timeout, sending Harvard back to the line of scrimmage for a second attempt. A few plays later, the Crimson had lost, 18-16, effectively dashing its chances at an 18th Ivy League championship. Then, the next day, the Ivy League released a statement, confirming that the timeout should not have been granted and Harvard should have won.

363 days after that fateful afternoon, the Crimson (4-1, 2-0) will have a chance at redemption when the No. 23 Tigers (5-0, 2-0) travel to Cambridge for a Friday night battle. The two teams, which are tied with Penn (5-0, 2-0) and Yale (4-1, 2-0) for first place in the Ivy League, will clash at Harvard Stadium at 7 p.m. After a 35-28 win on Oct. 7 against Cornell on ESPNU and a 41-25 takedown of Howard on ESPN3 last Saturday, the Princeton contest will be Harvard’s third consecutive nationally televised game. In a matchup that is likely to play a major role in determining the 2022 Ivy League champion, Friday’s game will be broadcast by ESPNU.

This season, the Crimson has played in a lot of close games. Each of its first four contests were decided by single-digit points, but it finally broke that streak in Washington, D.C. last weekend. In the second annual Truth and Service Classic, Harvard put up 24 unanswered points in the second half to pull away from the Bison. It was arguably the Crimson’s strongest full-team performance of the season, a showing that it will hope to build on Friday night.

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“We knew what we can do on offense,” Wimberly said. “As long as all 11 are doing our job, no one can stop us. That’s what [offensive coordinator Mickey] Fein tells us every single day, so we wanted to come out in the second half and make sure we were all 11 on the same page and just come out all firing, and it happened in the second half.”

Wimberly and the offense will need to come out firing again on Friday to put away the Tigers, who enter the contest in hot form, just as they did last year, when both teams were 5-0 before the meeting on Powers Field. Princeton has not suffered a loss yet in 2022, having defeated Brown, 35-19, on Oct. 14 in its most recent game. In that contest, Tigers signal-caller Blake Stenstrom completed 19 of his 27 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns and the three-time Ivy League Rookie of the Week, running back Ryan Butler, gouged the Bears on his 14 carries for 98 yards and two scores.

In the 2021 contest, Princeton was led by Cole Smith, who threw four interceptions against Harvard. After his graduation, he was succeeded by Stenstrom, who has been steady in his first season of consistent action, tossing seven touchdowns to just two interceptions and completing 69.8 percent of his passes. The six-foot-four junior appears to be peaking at the right time, with the Brown contest being his best game of his collegiate career. He is supplemented in the backfield by Butler, who has taken his 56 carries for 284 yards and leads the Ivy League with eight rushing touchdowns.

However, despite Butler’s standout freshman campaign, the Tigers hold the ninth-worst rushing offense in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), earning just 85.2 yards on the ground per contest on average. In lieu of a reliable ground corps, Surace’s offense relies on a potent aerial attack to move the chains. Although Princeton lost unanimous All-Ivy First Teamer Jacob Birmelin, who caught the winning conversion against the Crimson in 2021, supplementary wide receivers Andrei Iosivas and Dylan Classi will suit up on Friday. Classi, who notched a career-high 169 receiving yards in the win over Brown, leads the Ivy League in that category, 18 ahead of Wimberly and 29 clear of Iosivas. Senior tight end Carson Bobo, who caught three passes for 31 yards against Harvard last season, rounds out the group.

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Princeton will hope to find success via the pass on Friday night, as the Crimson’s secondary has been its biggest weakness all season. Opposing quarterbacks have lit up Harvard for an average of 268.8 yards per game through the air, which ranks as the 22nd-worst rate in the country. However, it has started to show stronger form in recent weeks, intercepting Howard quarterback Jaylon Tolbert twice after recording just one pick in its first four games. Additionally, after being whistled three times for pass interference in the 30-21 loss to Holy Cross on Oct. 1, the Crimson secondary was not flagged last Saturday. Senior defensive backs Alex Washington and Khalil Dawsey will start on the outside, while senior defensive back James Herring and junior safety Victor Tademy will man the safety positions.

Despite its porous secondary, Harvard would not be 4-1 without its stout rush defense, a staple of Crimson teams throughout head coach Tim Murphy’s 28-year run at the helm. After allowing the fewest rushing yards per game of all FCS teams in 2021, Harvard ranks seventh so far this season, conceding just 78.0 yards per game on the ground. Defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ’99’s unit is led by a talented front seven, which includes stars like junior defensive tackle Thor Griffith, who has racked up 26 tackles and two sacks in 2022, and senior defensive lineman Nate Leskovec, who won FCS Defensive Player of the Week after a season-opening, 4.5-sack performance against Merrimack on Sept. 16. Thanks to playmakers like Griffith and Leskovec, the Crimson has taken down the quarterback for a loss 20 times so far this season, which ranks second in the country. Continued success for the pass-rush unit will be key against a Tigers offensive line that allows 3.4 sacks per game, the ninth-worst rate in the FCS.

So far this season, the star of Harvard’s offense has been senior running back Aidan Borguet. The preseason pick for Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year has lived up to the billing so far, following up a fantastic junior campaign with a senior season in which he has turned his 104 carries into 620 yards and seven touchdowns. Borguet leads the conference in rush yards and ranks second in yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. Murphy has turned to his star player early and often, as Borguet’s 107 touches comprise 32.1 percent of the Crimson’s total offensive plays.

“Aidan is always going to have a great game,” Wimberly said. “Our [offensive line] has been killing it this year. They have been creative massive holes. … As long as we’re all making sure we’re blocking the same guys, especially on the back end with receivers, we know that we have to get up to safeties, if we’ve gotta block a [cornerback], if we’ve gotta block a linebacker, we know that we have to make those plays for [Borguet].”

Yet if any group can neutralize Borguet, it’s the Princeton defense, which has allowed just 46.0 yards per game this season on the ground, the second-stingiest unit in the country. Thus, the key player for Harvard on Friday might be senior quarterback Charlie Dean, who has made major strides in his second campaign, completing 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,150 yards, 10 touchdown passes, and just two interceptions, both of which came in the season opener. Dean has been able to spread the ball around at will, allowing Wimberly to have by far the best season of his career – his 91.6 yards per game would be the fourth-highest in program history – and getting sophomore wide receiver Ledger Hatch involved as the team’s premier deep threat. The Floridian caught two long touchdown passes in the win over Howard, and has supplemented Wimberly with 314 yards so far this season. The final member of the Crimson’s stellar pass-catching trio is junior tight end Tyler Neville, who has broken out in recent weeks, scoring the first touchdown of his career in the win over Cornell.

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“He’s just a lot more confident,” Wimberly said of Dean. “He knows he can make every throw, and he puts every ball on the money. I think he’s done a great job leading the team on offense.”

On Friday, Dean, Borguet, and Wimberly will hope to neutralize a potent Tigers defense that, despite losing five All-Ivy players, has been extremely strong in 2022. In addition to leading the nation in rushing defense, Princeton has allowed just 219.6 yards per game through the air and has the best turnover margin in the FCS. The fulcrum of the Tigers’ elite run-stuffing unit is junior linebacker Liam Johnson, who recorded 15 tackles against Brown, and leads the team with 43 – tied for third among Ivy League defenders. Princeton also features seven defenders who have recorded at least one interception this season. It is the country’s third-best defense at preventing first downs, and the fourth most adept at preventing scores when an opposing offense drives inside the Tigers’ 20-yard line. It has achieved all this success, according to Wimberly, by employing many of the same defensive schemes that it used to beat Harvard in 2021.

“We know they lost some big guys, but they still have some guys there who are able to make plays,” he said. “They might not be as experienced as we are, but we know that we gotta come out firing.”

If the offense continues its hot play from the second half of Saturday’s game and the defense limits Stenstrom, Classi, and Iosivas, the Crimson should have a chance to redeem itself for the 2021 loss. A victory would put it in the drivers’ seat to claim at least a share of the Ivy League title, and all eyes would turn to a Nov. 12 clash against the undefeated Quakers and then The Game against Yale a week after that. If it wins on Friday, the ultimate prize of a conference championship will seem tantalizingly close for the Crimson, but it has no margin for error, as the five consecutive Ivy League matchups that stand between now and the end of the season are all must-win games.

For Harvard fans unable to make it to Harvard Stadium, the game will be carried over the air on WRCA at 1330 AM, 106.1 FM, and 92.9 FM-HD2.


–Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at griffin.wong@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Wong_THC.

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