They do not communicate telepathically or finish each other’s sentences, which would surprise opponents and even some teammates. But Harvard’s linebacker group, which anchors one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, certainly operates on the same wavelength.
The trio of Matt Koran, Jake Lindsey and Eric Medes stands out on a veteran defense that prides itself on collective effort and a star-less approach.
“We don’t have very many egos on the team,” Koran said. “Pretty much everyone on the defense has bought into the philosophy that they’re going to get their job done. They don’t have to do any more than that. That’s kind of the mindset of the defense. If you do your job, then be happy about it. It doesn’t matter if you made the play or not. Doing your job and doing it in a good manner is Harvard Crimson defense.”
The Crimson (8-0, 5-0 Ivy League) has won 22 consecutive games and is on the verge of a third consecutive Ivy League title heading into Saturday’s home finale against Penn (5-3, 4-1).
Senior Day will be particularly poignant for a defense that starts as many as 10 seniors and boasts both quality and experience at nearly every position, nowhere more than at linebacker.
Lindsey, Medes and Koran are all seniors. Lindsey and Medes were second-team all-Ivy last season as juniors, and Koran is the team captain.
“There’s a lot of trust there,” Lindsey said. “That’s the biggest part of playing defense, trusting that the people around you can do their jobs. We have a lot of confidence in each other. That allows us to play well and play hard. We know we’re going to play well as a unit.”
Harvard is second in the Ivy and all of FCS to Dartmouth in scoring defense (9.5 points per game). The Crimson is fourth nationally in rushing defense (80.8 yards per game, 2.8 yards per catch) and has allowed just three rushing touchdowns all season. Harvard is 15th in total defense (299.5) and 17th in third down conversion defense (31.7%).
It speaks to the program standards that players and coaches said that the defense took a step back the past two games, despite allowing just 13 and 16 points, respectively. That’s because Harvard held the previous four opponents to a total of 10 points and pitched two shutouts. The Crimson outscored opponents 301-76.
The Crimson’s stout collective numbers aren’t a product of a lot of sacks or takeaways. Lindsey is the only player in the top 10 in the Ivy in tackles (51). Koran (45) and Medes (42) are the second- and third-leading tacklers. Fifteen players have between 10 and 30 tackles.
Harvard’s base 4-3 defense stresses fundamentals and positioning. The Crimson blitz and stunt infrequently, tweaking formations and play calls just often enough to be unpredictable. They substitute regularly, though not often at linebacker because of the trio’s effectiveness.
“We’ve had some excellent players and great program guys,” defensive coordinator Scott Larkee said, “but it’s hard to play better than they’ve been as a group.”
Lindsey, 6-2 and 220 pounds, plays to the strong side and is the most natural athlete of the three. He works well in space and rarely stays blocked. The 6-2, 220 Medes (pronounced Meeds) is the middle linebacker, and gets everyone lined up. He works well with his hands and in traffic. Koran, 5-11 and 210, plays to the weak side and is the defense’s adrenal gland. Deceptively strong and quick, he explodes through blocks and has become excellent fundamentally. The three aren’t exactly interchangeable, but adjustments are routine.
“Sometimes when we’re out there,” Medes said, “and if things start going pretty quickly, and we can’t line up the way we wished we could, we’ll just take each other’s spots, because we know the defense well and we know what each other’s supposed to do. We might not be in a traditional alignment, but we still get the job done.”
The Crimson is within sight of history — a second consecutive unbeaten season and third title. No pressure, the linebackers said, just motivation.
“We have the utmost trust in each other,” Koran said. “We love each other, we’re brothers. We’re in this fight together, and we’re two games away from getting the job done. We’re really excited for it.”