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Ivy showdown pits unbeaten Harvard football vs. Princeton

TIM MURPHY: Princeton team is “legit.’’

Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File 2012

TIM MURPHY: Princeton team is “legit.’’

The preseason, according to Tim Murphy, is over.

And, as the 20-year Harvard coach has reminded his players all week, in the midst of spirited practice sessions under the bright lights at the Stadium, their breaths visible in the chilled October air, “it’s great to be 5-0, but . . . ”

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No disrespect to the previous five foes on the schedule, victories over San Diego (42-20), Brown (41-23), Holy Cross (41-35), Cornell (34-24), or Lafayette (35-16), but the challenging road to an Ivy League title kicks into full gear Saturday at 1 p.m. with the arrival of an explosive Princeton club (4-1, 2-0 Ivy) that is prompting comparisons to Tiger glory of yesteryear.

It’s the start of a five-game gantlet through the league for the Crimson that will conclude Nov. 23 in New Haven.

“Probably the best Princeton team we have seen up there since the early 1990s,” said Murphy, referencing a five-year period (1991-95) under Steve Tosches in which Princeton captured a pair of Ivy crowns and was runner-up twice.

“They are legit.”

The Tigers, who buried Brown with 39 unanswered points last Saturday night in Providence, can score (42.4 points per game, third-highest scoring offense in FCS) and defend (the only unit in the Ivy to allow fewer than 5 yards per play).

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While the Crimson will welcome back junior Conner Hempel, a 67.9 percent passer sidelined since hyperextending his knee Oct. 5 at Holy Cross, Princeton will proceed with an uptempo attack that, at times, has featured, two (juniors Quinn Epperly and Connor Michelsen) or three quarterbacks on the field — at the same time.

An interesting concept, and very effective, thus explaining the Crimson outfitting two players in light green jerseys to run the scout team offense at practice earlier this week.

“Their quarterbacks are athletic enough, that in effect, it is like having a wildcat [attack], their guys can really run,” said Murphy. “And because of its read zone option, you have to be extremely assignment and gap-oriented. At times, [it’s like] they are playing video game football.”

What jumps off the stat sheet, and film study, according to Harvard captain Josh Boyd, is “they love to run the football [an Ivy-best 247.8 yards per game],” said the senior linebacker. “That is a challenge, as a defense, that we have to embrace. They have a lot of experience running this season, but this year, they are executing it a lot crisper.”

It starts with the 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound Epperly, who capped host Princeton’s 12-minute, 24-point rally against Harvard last October, tossing a 34-yard touchdown pass to Roman Wilson with 13 seconds left for a stunning 39-34 win.

Ranked second nationally in points responsible for (24.4 ppg), Epperly (11 TDs rushing, nine passing, with just one interception) is a dynamic dual threat. Michelsen, a 55.9 percent passer, is a playmaker too.

“His decision making is exceptional, and he has worked to improve his throwing,” said Princeton fourth-year coach Bob Surace, who compared Epperly’s development favorably to that of former Crimson QB Colton Chapple.

His coordinator/quarterbacks coach, James Perry, who departed Brown (2000) as the Ivy’s career passing leader, said Epperly has “literally become smoother in his delivery.

“He uses his feet to get rid of the ball and become a better vertical passer, he’s become much more efficient,” he said.

Which puts the onus on an aggressive, ballhawking Harvard defense that paces the Ivy in interceptions (nine), fumble recoveries (eight), and sacks (20). Harvard junior end Zach Hodge, a Buck Buchanan candidate as the nation’s top defensive player, is a handful for any foe.

“He disrupts the game more than anyone else I have seen in my four years here,” said Surace before rattling off “bats down passes, interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks, stops the run.”

He linked the 6-3, 235-pound Hodges to “The Freak,” former Titans end Jevon Kearse, whom he did plenty of prep work for as an assistant offensive line coach for the Bengals.

“So much of your time is spent game planning for one guy, but he is just one player on a very good defense.”

That includes senior tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu (four sacks), a force in the middle, and an experienced, savvy secondary.

“It is definitely going to be a fun game,” said Harvard junior corner Norman Hayes, who moves up to linebacker in nickel situations.

“We know how Princeton plays, and they know how we play. We have been preparing for anything and everything.’’

“The most important thing about this group is the way that we fight,” said Boyd. “The way we battle, coming up with big plays in the red zone, crucial takeaways. I like the mentality.”

“Five down, five more to go, time is of the essence. But you have to enjoy the ride, too.”

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com.

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