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Harvard football tackles Penn for Ivy lead

Harvard’s last trip to Franklin Field, like countless other treks to Philadelphia the past two decades, resulted in another long, quiet bus ride back to Cambridge after the Crimson had been humbled once again by Penn.

“We didn’t do a great job limiting their run game, we were not able to dictate the line of scrimmage,” recalled Josh Boyd, the frustration of the 34-14 pounding on Nov. 13, 2010 still fresh for the senior linebacker.

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“They made a lot of plays.”

The Crimson piled up 410 yards, but the Quakers countered with three interceptions in constructing a 27-0 cushion through three quarters.

Fabled Franklin Field has been unforgiving to many a foe: the Quakers have run up 23 unbeaten seasons at the oldest collegiate football stadium in the nation, at 117 years.

The Crimson have just two wins in their last 15 trips to Philly, though coach Tim Murphy emphasizes it’s “less atmosphere than Penn having a tremendous program and team, year in, year out.” Murphy did not register his first win at Penn until his 11th season, a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led 31-10 romp in 2004.

“Their body of work over the last two decades is pretty amazing,” Murphy said.

And ultimately, the annual Harvard-Penn matchup, traditionally played on the next-to-last Saturday of the 10-game slate, has had a direct impact on the Ivy League race.

Saturday will be no different. For the 11th time in the last 13 seasons, the Crimson (7-1, 4-1) and Quakers (4-4, 4-1) will battle for at least a share of the league crown.

Moments after the Quakers had rallied for a dramatic 28-21 win at Princeton last Saturday, Murphy said “once again, the road to the Ivy [title] goes through Penn.”

His counterpart, Al Bagnoli, said Harvard-Penn has “been a remarkably consistent event . . . and when both teams are having good years, it becomes more magnified.” The Quakers own eight Ivy titles in his 21-year stewardship. The Crimson have six under Murphy.

The latest chapter will play out on the line of scrimmage — specifically, how Penn senior quarterback Billy Ragone fares against a Harvard defensive front that leads the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing (43.4 yards per game) and sacks (5.1 per game).

The 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound Boyd — who has racked up a team-leading 48 tackles thanks to the pressure off the edge from explosive sophomore Zach Hodges (9 sacks), power rushes from John Lyon (7.5) and Grant Sickle (4.5), and bursts up the middle from Jack Dittmer (3.5) and Nnamdi Obukwelu (3) — has a perfect view of their prowess from the second level.

“The way they attack and control the line of scrimmage, to see so many guys contribute, they have become dominant,” said Boyd.

Lyons said the unit “definitely rivals my freshman year, when we had Desmond Bryant (now with the Oakland Raiders) and Matt Curtis, but as far as productivity, this is probably the best group we have ever had,” he said, while saluting the phenomenal work of second-year line coach Michael Horan and every player having a clear understanding of their specific role.

“You put 62 [Lyons], 99 [Hodges], and 88 [Obukwelu] in the game at the same time, you can’t run away from all of them, three very tough, explosive athletes who play full tilt on every snap,” said Murphy.

“It’s a luxury few teams have, the driving force behind us being No. 1 in the nation in rushing [defense].”

Bagnoli realizes that establishing the run will very difficult, “but we are going to have to be balanced. We have to try to be careful to stay out of third-and-longs. When they get ahead of you, you become very predictable . . . It’s a great challenge for us.”

Said Murphy of the lefthanded Ragone, “Whether it is with his feet or his arm, you have to account for him on every down, and he can change the game about as fast as any athlete in our league.”

“We realize what is on the line,” said Boyd, “and we’re ready to play our best game of the year.”

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.
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