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Football Readies Itself for Formidable No. 20/22 Rhode Island

One week ago, the Harvard football team walked into Brown Stadium, leapt out to a 24-3 lead at halftime, and cruised toward the finish line. With the momentum gained from that 31-17 win, especially on the heels of a 36-14 drubbing of San Diego in week one, it would be difficult to bet against the Crimson. That is, if Harvard were playing just about any other opponent this weekend.

On Friday night, the University of Rhode Island will make the trek up from Kingston, marking the second game in a row that Harvard will play under the lights. Just as the Bears were underdogs on their home turf, so too will be the Crimson (2-0, 1-0 Ivy) this week. Harvard has a chance to prove that it can hang with a team that is considered the cream of the FCS crop, but this is no simple task.

The No. 20/22 Rams (2-1, 2-0 CAA) are a juggernaut, replete with size, physicality, and athleticism. Just last week, Rhode Island went on the road to face FBS member UConn and fell merely one touchdown short, 56-49. The Rams started a last-ditch drive on their own 33 yard line with 57 seconds remaining and proceeded to march all the way to the Huskies’ 16 in 46 seconds. That is as far as Rhode Island would advance, but the series showed just how dangerous the team’s passing game can be.

According to coach Tim Murphy and his players, one of the keys to this game will be reining in the Rams’ impressive team speed.

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“You can tell that fundamentally and otherwise this is a team that you’re going to have to play four quarters to beat,” Murphy said. “You can’t give them anything, and you’ve got to keep the ball in front of you because of their team speed.”

This observation comes not only from review of game tape, but also from real-life experience. Last season, the Crimson opened its campaign on the road at Meade Stadium and lost, 17-10, in what many would have considered an upset at the time. Just over a year later, it is clear that Rhode Island was on a rapid upward trajectory. Wrong place, wrong time for Harvard.

Last year, however, there was a completely different group donning Crimson uniforms.

“We couldn’t get those explosive plays from our guys,” said senior defensive back Wes Ogsbury. “I don’t know what it was, but this year it seems like it’s all starting to click, and it’s showing up in our record right now.”

Though San Diego’s Anthony Lawrence and Brown’s Michael McGovern each showed flashes of solid quarterback play in the first two contests, Harvard’s defense was able to contain each and limit them to a combined 45-for-89 passing (50.6 percent). The same cannot be expected this Friday.

“He’s a better quarterback than those guys,” Murphy said. “You’re going to see a guy that can really sling it, and he’s slinging it to some guys that are legitimate Division I scholarship kids. [It’s] certainly going to be more pressure on our defense in general and our secondary in particular this week based on what we’ve seen on film.”

That guy is none other than JaJuan Lawson, a redshirt senior in his second season leading the Rams’ offense. In three starts this season, Lawson has thrown for 838 yards and has completed 69.9 percent of his attempts, while also racking up 122 rushing yards. He has 11 touchdowns, nine of which he threw and two of which he ran in on his own.

“He’s a dual threat,” Ogsbury said. “I think his biggest strength is his receivers, so we’ve really been locked in this week preparing for what’s ahead of us.”

In Harvard’s first game last season, Lawson did not factor in much, tallying just one pass attempt and one carry.

On the Crimson’s side, Murphy is counting on sophomore Jake Smith to counteract Lawson. Last week, Smith threw for 251 yards and completed 23 of his 30 tries. Despite throwing two picks, the second-year field general looks well-prepared to challenge Rhode Island.

“I like the phrase, ‘You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. You never really stay quite the same,’” Murphy said. “He’s getting better, he’s learning, and he’s gaining confidence. What hasn’t changed is his poise and his ability to throw the football. He’s had that since he walked in here.”

Not enough can be said about the impact a trio of sophomore running backs has had complementing Harvard’s ability to succeed in the air. Devin Darrington, Aaron Shampklin, and B.J. Watson have a combined 513 ground yards on 65 carries. Though when he was asked about the group, Smith opted to keep it simple.

“If I can just stand there and give the ball to one of them, I’m just chilling,” Smith said. “That’s alright.”

Facing off against one of the most complete teams on paper in recent memory, the Crimson will need to limit mistakes in order to keep this game competitive. Notably, San Diego failed to force a single turnover in Harvard’s home opener.

“I always tell my own children, ‘Please try to learn from other people’s mistakes and then you don’t have to make them yourself,’ and I say that to my players as well,” Murphy said.

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at jack.stockless@thecrimson.com.

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