There were times in last night's game between the University of Rhode Island and Harvard that you could not help but be a little confused.
How, for instance, could L.B. Mack III, a dominant defensive end, be playing at the Football Championship Subdivision level and not, say, in the Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference? Surely, the New York native who played at powerhouse Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey could find a place on the field at Syracuse, Rutgers, or a school of that ilk.
Ditto the smooth, tall, athletic Isaiah Coulter at wide receiver. There were others, and on that same field at Harvard Stadium Friday night, some of those same types of players were wearing Crimson.
But, to boil it down to its essence, URI simply had more difference-makers who would not look out of place at college football's highest level, and the Rams rode them to a 23-16 win.
With the victory, URI, which nearly upset UConn two weeks ago, will surely remain ranked in the FCS top 25, as the Rams (3-1) entered Friday night's game at No. 20. Harvard (2-1) proved it can hang with a team of that caliber, but URI was as good as advertised, despite some mistakes that allowed the Crimson to hang around maybe a little longer than it should have.
"They were very athletic at the receiver position, the running back position, and we knew we were just going to have to play with great fundamentals to get it done," Harvard captain and safety Zach Miller said. "Obviously, we didn't do enough, but I think we stepped up and matched (URI's speed). Pretty much stepping up to the challenge, accepting that they were going to make some plays, but we've got to make some plays, too. Our guys are athletic. We work hard, so we were ready for them."
But on a night that saw plenty of back-and-forth shifts, the biggest momentum turn came right after a Jake McIntyre 34-yard field goal pulled the Crimson to within 16-6 at the beginning of the third quarter. The ensuing kick fell into the arms of Ahmere Dorsey, who found a seam in the middle of the field, then kicked into another gear along the Harvard sideline for a 97-yard touchdown.
That helped push the URI lead to 23-6, and even though the Crimson made a spirited rally to make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter, Harvard never really found that type of game-changing offensive strike.
In the first half, it felt like, at times, URI could have pulled away. Harvard took an early safety after punter Jon Sot could not handle a snap and kicked the ball off his blockers out of the end zone. The Crimson pulled ahead, 3-2, near the end of the quarter off a 37-yard McIntyre field goal after a pair of Jake Smith-to-Justice Shelton-Mosley completions put the ball in the URI red zone.
The Rams, though, found some offensive rhythm in the second quarter, as quarterback JaJuan Lawson hit tight end Joey Kenny over the middle for a 37-yard touchdown.
Following a Harvard three and out, the Rams traveled 89 yards on nine plays, as Lawson rushed in from 9 out with 6:44 to play in the half.
Lawson was injured on the play and did not return, but players like Coulter (six receptions for 106 yards) and Mack (11 tackles, three for loss, two sacks) made sure to keep the Rams ahead the rest of the way.
"I think, offensively, we struggled against the blitz early in the game," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. "We did a better job playing with tempo, so it was harder for them to get the looks they wanted. We executed better. We just didn't finish."
It appeared that finishing touch just might have come in the fourth quarter, as the home crowd erupted when Devin Darrington rumbled in from 36 yards out with 13:47 to play to cut URI's lead to 23-16.
But even after a late interception by Harvard's Wesley Ogsbury gave the Crimson the ball at their 20 with 2:59 to play, a Justin Hogan pick — the second from Smith in the final stanza — essentially sealed Harvard's fate.
"Very, very proud of our kids," Murphy said. "They battled their butts off. We asked a lot of them at halftime, and they really came out and stepped up. (The Rams) just made more plays than we did."