While this exact match up story has been told over and over again, the coverage is anything but typical as the game will be televised live on ESPNU and ESPN+, drawing into the viewership a national audience.
“It’s going to be awesome,” captain Zach Miller said. “We rarely get night games, we rarely get Friday night games, so for us to be able to go out there this Friday and play on ESPNU I think it’s going to be a ton of fun.”
In past renderings of this perennial match, Harvard (1-0) has dominated. The series record stands at 85-30-2 and the Crimson has topped the Bears (0-1) in the last seven meetings between the two teams. Last season, Harvard took the contest in a cool, 45-28 victory under the September sun.
Brown will arrive Friday night on the tail end of a 2-8 overall and 0-7 Ancient Eight record in the 2017 season, placing it in last place in the division. The first game of the 2018 season didn’t seem to indicate any hint of a reversal in that trend. In the team’s first trip across the Mississippi River in a century, it was succinctly downed by 44-15 by Cal Poly.
In comparison, the Crimson saunters into Friday’s contest down two running backs, but up a game. Senior and 2017 All-Ivy back Charlie Booker III and classmate Semar Smith were noticeably absent from Harvard’s starting lineup last weekend, but sophomore Aaron Shampklin pounded any doubt of his competence from onlookers’ minds.
Shampklin danced his way into the endzone on four separate occasions, accumulating 178 yards on 15 attempts in his season opener. A Crimson running back hadn’t tallied four touchdowns in a single game since Oct. 4, 2014. The effort earned the sophomore Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week Honors.
Also in the backfield will stand sophomore quarterback Jake Smith. Despite the turbulence he experience in the backfield as a freshman — switching starts with then redshirt senior Joe Viviano — Smith was the first freshman quarterback to earn a spot on the starting squad since Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05. The sophomore seemed to be in complete command of the offense on Saturday against San Diego. Smith toss the pigskin 195 yards, 127 of which came when the ball landed in the hands of senior wideout Justice Shelton-Mosley.
Clearing the path for Shampklin and holding the front for Smith, Harvard’s offensive line stays true to the what has become a staple of the Crimson brand — they’re quite large. The homogenous crew of five big men are led by senior center Ben Shoults. In addition to Harvard’s 266 yards on the ground, the offensive line let only one man get to the quarterback all game.
“When our front five on the offensive side of the ball completely dominate the other team, that’s amazing,” Miller said. “San Diego’s not a bad team. They’re a really established program, they’ve been doing a lot of great things and their front guys are very respected in the FCS and for our front guys — our offensive line, our defensive line — to come out there and have a showing like that, that’s incredible.”
The line will have its work cut out for it Friday as the unit faces off against the Bears’ junior tri-captain Michael Hoecht. The 6 foot 4 inch, 310 pound defensive end found the ball carrier 14 times last week in Brown’s defensive disaster.
“[He’s] absolutely one of the top players in the Ivy League,” coach Tim Murphy said. “He’s a beast. You think he’s a senior…[I] thought he was a senior last year, he was a sophomore last year.”
Hoecht isn’t the only threat. On the inside, senior defensive tackle Daryle Banfield returns into the fray after an 18-tackle 2017 season. Last week alone, the 6 foot 3 inch, 300 pound senior drove Cal Poly players to the dirt eight times.
“I think they have a great [defense], they have a lot of returning starters,” Shoults said. “I know that their nose guard is back… he’s a great player. They always play hard, especially when they’re at home and they always want to get after us. So they’re going to have a great team and we’re going to have a great challenge ahead of us.”
With only one week of film, the Crimson enters this matchup with less knowledge of who it's playing than last week, when the team had two weeks of 2018 film to draw upon. To exacerbate this, the Bears have changed their defense. To exacerbate it further, Brown played a triple option team last week.
“For the first time in 20 years they’ve changed defenses,” Murphy said. “They have been doing very well with the same coaching staff for a lot of years and they’ve gone from a four down team to a three down team. It’s hard to tell versus a triple option team because everything is just so different. It’s 95 percent run and a very different type of run than what you’re going to get from us.”
Last week, Shelton-Mosley was kept mostly silent on punt and kick returns as San Diego kicked either short or out of bounds. This week, he faces perhaps the best punter in the Ancient Eight, Bears’ senior Ryan Kopec. In 2017, Kopec placed five kicks inside Harvard’s 20-yard line and did not overshoot for a touchback even once. In one instance, he booted the ball 69 yards to the Crimson two. He also landed punts on the Harvard nine, eight, nine again and four-yard lines.
Against Cal Poly, Brown relied mostly on the pass game in the debut of sophomore quarterback Michael McGovern. Throughout the matchup, the second year threw 50 passes, finding the hands of his wideouts exactly half of the time for 312 yards.
“They’ve got their fair share of new faces too so we don’t have a great feel — with the small sample size we have — for their personnel or their scheme,” Murphy said.
Noticeably absent — at least for the Crimson coaches, players and sports writers — from the Bears’ 2018 roster is second-string gunslinger T.J. Linta. Prior to subbing in Linta in last season’s third quarter, Brown had scored two points. In the span of 18 minutes, Linta threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback has since graduated and is the starting play caller for the Wagner Seahawks in his fifth year of eligibility as a grad student transfer.
Friday night’s game under the lights will be the first time the Crimson has played in such circumstances since last season’s 52-17 loss to Princeton at Harvard Stadium. In addition, the Bears have a grass field as opposed to the turf one in Cambridge. It was in the Yale Bowl that the Crimson last played on grass.
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.