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Defense Provides Leadership, Stability for Football Squad

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UPDATED: September 25, 2015, at 2:57 p.m.

The defining moment of the 2014 Harvard football season came with 60 seconds left in The Game. A 35-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Conner Hempel to junior wide receiver Andrew Fischer propelled the Crimson to a 31-24 victory, an Ivy League championship, and an undefeated season.

In that moment, it was all about the offense. But the iconic sequence belies how Harvard actually arrived at that point.

Indeed, throughout the 2014 campaign, it was the defense that kept the Crimson within striking distance when the offense was struggling to click. It was the defense that finished the season allowing an average of just 12.3 points per game, good for the lowest total in the FCS.

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As Harvard football enters 2015, it will rely on its defense once more as the program seeks its fourth Ancient Eight title in five years. A veteran unit anchored by the leadership of captain and linebacker Matt Koran will seek to provide the stability last year’s defense brought every Saturday. The squad hopes to play with the mentality that, no matter who suits up on the other side of the ball, the Crimson will play lights out from the first snap.

“I think all around defensively, we’re just one really good unit,” Koran said. “I think a huge part of that is just our energy and the leadership we bring on the field…. We’re flying around, we’re talking, we’re yelling, and we’re making big plays, big hits.”

Entering last season, Harvard had a number of question marks on the defensive side. While the defensive line boasted several established playmakers, the secondary featured considerable turnover and a host of unproven faces.

This year, most of those question marks are gone. To be sure, the unit loses the leadership and playmaking abilities of a host of 2015 standouts: defensive linemen Zack Hodges and Obum Obukwelu, linebacker Conner Sheehan, and defensive back Norman Hayes. But overall, the continuity is striking.

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The top-ranked FCS scoring defense returns a trio of starters at linebacker, as well as three more in the secondary. Among these, senior linebacker Eric Medes is a three-year starter, and senior defensive back Sean Ahern was named First Team All-Ivy in 2014. Koran’s leadership, both on and off the field, has received praise from his coach and teammates.

When Harvard suits up Saturday under the lights against Brown, the Crimson faithful can rest slightly easier knowing that five of the team’s six leading tacklers last year will still be on the field.

“We’ve all played together before; we all have been on an undefeated team,” senior defensive back Chris Evans said. “Because of that, we know what it takes to win, [and] we know how to instill what we do every day in practice into the younger guys and make the team cohesive as a unit.”

If the defense has any outstanding question marks, they reside on the defensive line. No longer will opposing coordinators have to design their entire protection schemes around stopping Hodges.

But Harvard coach Tim Murphy emphasizes that while the program’s all-time sack leader cannot be replaced, the team possesses proven players ready to step up. Some of them—like seniors James Duberg and Doug Webb, who combined for five sacks last season—have received significant playing time in the past.

“I think [the defensive line is] really going to surprise people,” Murphy said. “It’s not like we’re playing freshmen or sophomores; these kids are juniors and seniors. They know the drill, and they understand the challenge.”

In its season-opening win last weekend, Harvard had little trouble containing a struggling Rhode Island offense. Despite surrendering 10 points in the second quarter, the Crimson defense forced either punts or turnovers-on-downs while shutting out its opponents in the second half.

Of course, the most potent offenses Harvard will face this year are still to come. Despite losing several weapons, Yale’s top-ranked 2014 Ivy offense returns a quarterback, Morgan Roberts, who led the Ivy League in total offense last year. Dual-threat quarterback Dalyn Williams of Dartmouth is having his name thrown around as a potential pro prospect. Ultimately, the legacy of the 2015 Crimson defense will depend on its performance in those contests.

“I think at the end of the day, the offense isn’t always going to be making plays, they’re not always going to be scoring touchdowns,” Koran said. “You need that solid defense to rely on.”

The identity of last year’s undefeated Harvard team was undoubtedly its defense. But Murphy cautions that continuity does not guarantee similar results. Perhaps the true measure of the unit’s success will depend on its ability to adjust to unforeseen obstacles and the challenges Ivy League coaches will throw its way—the whole time bending, but not breaking.

“This defensive unit has tremendous potential,” Murphy said. “But we have to go out and earn that reputation, earn that identity, and earn those wins one game at a time.”

—Staff writer David Steinbach can be reached at david.steinbach@thecrimson.com.

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