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IVY PREVIEW: Rivals Close Behind the Returning Ancient Eight Champions

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The Harvard football team has a target on its back.

Winning three out of the past four Ivy League championships will do that to you. So will notching an undefeated season in 2014. And so will winning 15 straight games, finishing no lower than third in the Ancient Eight since 2001, and being picked to end up at the top of the conference once more this season.

When opponents look across the ball and see Crimson helmets staring back, a new level of intensity emerges. It is no understatement to say that, for nearly every team in the Ivy League, Harvard is the game circled in red on the schedule.

“Who is Princeton’s biggest rival? It’s really us,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Who is Dartmouth’s biggest rival? It’s really us. Who is Brown’s biggest rival? It’s really us. Who is Penn’s biggest rival? It’s really us. You get that every single week. So if you have any hint of sort of looking past a team in our league, you’re dead, because we are everybody’s big game.”

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Add the fact that there are no playoffs or postseason games in the Ancient Eight, and every contest suddenly has the potential to be season-defining. With only seven conference games, one loss can be decisive—so you’d better focus on the matchup right in front of you.

That’s the philosophy the 2014 Crimson embraced, when the team’s unblemished final record masked the adversity it faced throughout the campaign. Midway through the season, Harvard managed to outlast a feisty Dartmouth squad in a dogfight. The team needed a furious fourth-quarter comeback to hold off Penn. And it took a 35-yard touchdown pass in the waning moments of The Game for the Crimson to top Yale.

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Things won’t get any easier for Harvard in 2015. Both the Big Green and the Bulldogs will likely be improved. Yale returns quarterback Morgan Roberts at the helm of an attack that ranked first in the conference last year in scoring, rushing, and passing offense. Meanwhile, according to the football blog College Sports Madness, Dartmouth boasts both the projected Offensive and Defensive Ivy League Players of the Year in quarterback Dalyn Williams and linebacker Will McNamara.

In years past, the road to an Ivy League championship for the Crimson has often gone through Princeton. But this season, in addition to what will inevitably be a high-stakes showdown with Yale, the biggest game may come under the lights at Harvard Stadium against Dartmouth in week seven.

“If they stay healthy, [these] will probably be the best Dartmouth and the best Yale teams we’ve seen in at least the last 15 years,” Murphy said.

Only time will tell if Harvard is up to the task, but the program can approach the season confidently due to the return of a host of experienced faces on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Scott Hosch, who led the Crimson to six victories in 2014, had the best statistical game of his career in a season-opening 41-10 win against Rhode Island, throwing for 336 yards and three touchdowns.

“[Hosch] is a more polished, confident, and productive quarterback than he was a year ago, to the point where I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s no question in my mind that he’ll be one of the top offensive players in the Ivy League,” Murphy said.

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The offense boasts a number of additional threats who will help Hosch light up the scoreboard. Running back Paul Stanton and wide receiver Andrew Fischer are established seniors and are coming off first- and second-team All-Ivy seasons, respectively. Senior wide receiver Seitu Smith II, along with tight ends senior Ben Braunecker and junior Anthony Firkser, add needed depth to the aerial assault.

While the offense has the potential to be explosive, the defense seems equipped to be stifling. It all starts with a senior linebacker corps of captain Matt Koran, Eric Medes, and Jacob Lindsey, which Murphy says may be as good a trio as he’s ever had at Harvard in terms of leadership and production.

Apart from a defensive line that lost the significant talents of Zack Hodges ’15 and Obum Obukwelu ’15, there is continuity at nearly every other position. That can only mean good things, given that the 2014 Crimson ranked first in the FCS in terms of scoring defense, surrendering just 12.3 points per game.

“We basically set the standard for ourselves [last year], and we won’t stop until we become the number one defense in the FCS,” said senior defensive end James Duberg.

“If the offense turns the ball over on their own 20-yard line, the defense needs to go in and hold them to either a field goal or get a turnover,” Koran added. “I think that was a big thing for us last year.”

You can’t improve on perfection. That’s why both Harvard players and coaches have repeatedly emphasized that this is a new season, a new team. And with a new year come different challenges. The 2015 Crimson will need to develop its own identity, and it will need to do so quickly—because each week, the next opponent will be looking to knock Harvard off its throne.

“It’s going to be an extremely competitive league, more so than ever,” Murphy said. “You put it all together, and you just better concentrate on having a good day, because everybody’s good. You can’t take anyone lightly.”

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

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