Football: Harvard 41, Brown 23

Led by junior quarterback Conner Hempel, the Crimson comes from behind to win its Ivy League opener.

Hard-running quarterback Conner Hempel (14) gives Harvard’s ground game an added dimension. Hempel ran the ball 11 times as Harvard overcame Brown, 41-23.
Sophomore speedster Paul Stanton Jr. (29) was the Crimson’s leading rusher against Brown. He had 91 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.
Andrew Fischer (32), a fleet wide receiver, is also a breakaway threat as a kick returner. In the Brown game he had two kickoff returns and caught three passes for 34 yards.
Safety Jaron Wilson (30) hurtled into the end zone after a 51-yard interception return that helped Harvard to a 21-13 lead late in the second period of the Brown game. Cornerback Brian Owusu (6), at right, cleared the way with a devastating block just in front of the goal line.

Conner Hempel takes it all in stride.

A week ago, in his initial game as a starting quarterback, the junior from Union, Kentucky, became the first Crimson passer to throw for four touchdowns in his debut as a starter. He’d have had a fifth scoring pass, matching the all-time Harvard record, if his receiver hadn’t lost the ball at the goal-line after a 52-yard catch-and-run.

Hempel directed the offense with poise, ran effectively, and was not intercepted as Harvard cruised to a 42-20 victory over the University of San Diego.

But nobody’s perfect. Nine minutes into Saturday night’s home opener at Harvard Stadium, Hempel lofted a soft pass that was picked off near the Brown goal-line by defender Xavier Russo. By the end of the period Brown had scored twice, was holding a 13-0 lead, and seemed set to build on it.

It was not to be. With Hempel as ringmaster, head coach Tim Murphy’s feisty Crimson squad went to work under the Stadium lights, putting up 28 unanswered points in the second period and emerging with a resounding 41-23 victory.

“The biggest thing we’re doing is playing really hard,” coach Murphy would say after the game. And making really big plays. The Crimson’s 41 points came on a one-yard dash by Hempel, two rushing touchdowns by sophomore back Paul Stanton Jr., a 51-yard interception return by defensive back Jaron Wilson, a spectacular 63-yard pass play from Hempel to receiver Ricky Zorn, and two field goals and five points-after by David Mothander, Harvard’s ultra-reliable placekicker.

Brown (1-1) had started the season with a 45-7 drubbing of Georgetown and a three-touchdown performance by tailback John Spooney, the Ivy/Heptagonal titlist in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash. At a postgame press conference, Bruin coach Phil Estes conceded glumly that “Georgetown may have made us feel we were better than we are.”

Using a three-man rush for much of the game, the Harvard defense was put to the test by the speedy Spooney, who carried 17 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns. After his first touchdown, late in the opening period, Brown used an onside kick to regain possession and score again within less than two minutes. The second touchdown came on a 22-yard pass from quarterback Pat Donnelly to flanker Brian Strachan.

Donnelly, an able passer and elusive runner, completed 21 of 33 passes for 169 yards, but was intercepted three times. Safety Jaron Wilson’s interception return, which put Harvard ahead 21-13, was a brilliant feat of broken-field running through heavy traffic. Defensive end Zach Hodges and cornerback Norman Hayes made the Crimson’s other interceptions.

Weakside linebacker Eric Medes, a sophomore who made his first varsity start against San Diego, led the defense with seven solo tackles and three assists. Hodges had three tackles-for-loss along with his interception. Tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu made a second-period fumble recovery that set up Harvard’s second touchdown of the night, a one-yard dive by Stanton.

With 91 yards on 16 carries, Stanton was Harvard’s top rusher. Junior Andrew Casten, stepping in as his backup, had eight carries for 45 yards in his varsity debut.

Hempel completed 16 of 22 passes for 296 yards and one touchdown. His leading receivers were tight end Cameron Brate (five catches for 98 yards) and wide receivers Ricky Zorn (four catches, 112 yards, one touchdown) and Andrew Fischer (three catches, 34 yards). 

A hard runner and resourceful improviser, Hempel carried the ball 11 times. Time will tell, but he may run better than any Crimson quarterback since Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05, now of the Tennessee Titans, whose old number (14) Hempel wears.

“I saw a better Hempel today than I did on the film of the San Diego game,” said Brown coach Estes. “He’s a hell of a quarterback, with great feet. Give him time and he can make plays.”

Great feet? Check. Strong arm? Check. Unflappable leader? Check. Asked after the San Diego game if he’d felt nervous before his first varsity start, Hempel dismissed the question. “I don’t get nervous in situations like this,” he said. “I remember starting as a sophomore in high school and was never nervous. There’s no point to it. When you’re prepared and have confidence, you’re ready to play the game, and I was ready to play the game.”

What he needs now is a sobriquet. How about Cool Hand Hemp?

For the record: Harvard has now won 12 of the last 14 meetings with Brown, hasn’t lost an opening game at the Stadium since the 2000 season, and has taken 13 of the last 15 Ivy openers. In Stadium night games, the Crimson now stands 8-0.

Elsewhere: In the weekend’s only other Ivy matchup, Yale defeated Cornell, 38-23. In nonconference games, Columbia lost to Monmouth, 37-14. Dartmouth was edged by Holy Cross, 31-28. Pennsylvania lost to Villanova, 35-6. Princeton rolled over Georgetown, 50-22.

Next week: Harvard (2-0) travels to Fitton Field, Worcester, for a nonleague game with Holy Cross. The Crusaders (2-3) will be in action for the sixth time, after losses to Bryant, Towson, and Monmouth, and wins over Central Connecticut and Dartmouth. A year ago the Crimson scored 49 first-half points, a new school record, in a rain-soaked 52-3 rout of Holy Cross at Harvard Stadium. 

The Harvard-Brown scoring by quarters:

Brown        13    0    7     3 —  23
Harvard      0   28  10    3 —  41

Attendance: 17,256

"Cleat" blogs every weekend after the game. Follow the current season to date, or access all of Harvard Magazine's football reporting.

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