Harvard 41, Holy Cross 35
Waking up on the morning after, players and fans on both sides might have wondered if they’d dreamed it.
With just over three minutes to play, Harvard had driven 84 yards to tie Holy Cross, 21-21, and force an overtime tiebreaker.
After two overtime periods, the teams had matched one another touchdown-for-touchdown and were still deadlocked.
But in the third overtime session Holy Cross missed a field goal try, and Harvard finished off an astonishing comeback with a 17-yard touchdown run by tailback Paul Stanton Jr.
Unfolding before 8,276 dazed spectators at Fitton Field, Worcester, Harvard’s improbable 41-35 victory brought the Crimson’s record to 3-0. Along with a triple-overtime, 40-34 win at Yale Bowl in 2005, the game goes into the books as the longest in 140 years of Harvard football.
Led by freshman quarterback Pete Pujals, who was making his second start for the Crusaders, Holy Cross outplayed Harvard for most of the game. The home team had the edge in virtually every statistical category except the final score, including first downs (30-19), total offense (461-342), and possession time (35:01-24:59).
Pujals completed 33 of 50 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns, hoodwinking the Harvard secondary with quick throws to the sideline and repeatedly finding receivers when defenders were about to run him down.
“When a play would break down, he just seemed to have it,” said linebacker Josh Boyd, Harvard’s captain, after the game. “Unbelievable for a freshman to have that kind of poise.”
Pujals had made his first start a week earlier, accounting for 415 yards and four touchdowns as the Crusaders edged Dartmouth, 31-28, with a last-minute field goal.
Both Harvard and Holy Cross committed costly turnovers. A blocked punt in the first period gave the ball to Harvard deep in Crusader territory, but the Crimson lost it on an interception just three plays later.
Harvard scored the game’s first touchdown after a fumble by Pujals, recovered by defensive tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu. The offensive unit needed only four plays to score, on a 12-yard rush by reserve tailback Andrew Casten.
The Crimson's second touchdown came four minutes into the second half, after another Pujals fumble. Linebacker Eric Medes recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone, giving the Crimson a short-lived 14-7 lead.
A 22-yard throw to receiver Nate Stanley, Pujals’s second touchdown pass of the day, tied the game at 14-14 with five minutes left in the third period. The Crusaders would keep the Harvard offense in check until the final three minutes.
Holy Cross appeared to have the game in hand after a late-game drive that was capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass from Pujals to receiver Jon Smith. But with 3:05 left on the clock, Harvard mounted its last-ditch drive, sustained by the passing and running of junior quarterback Conner Hempel.
The key plays were a 38-yard sideline pass from Hempel to receiver Andrew Berg, who caught it at the Crusaders’ 16-yard line, and a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate.
The six-foot-five Brate stretched upward to pull in a high ball at the back of the end zone. The play was a replica of former quarterback Colton Chapple’s pass to Brate for Harvard’s go-ahead touchdown in last year’s 34-24 victory over Yale.
“‘Force it to Brate’ is the motto I live by,” said Hempel after the game.
Harvard's score came with just 38 seconds to play in regulation.
The teams traded touchdowns and points-after during the first two overtime periods, with Holy Cross scoring on a seven-yard pass and a five-yard run, and Harvard scoring on a three-yard throw from Hempel to tight end Tyler Ott and a one-yard rush by Stanton.
“We just knew we had to finish,” said Stanton afterward. “We just stuck in there, and the defense saved us.”
The game’s biggest defensive play came in the third overtime, when Obukwelu and Boyd caught Pujals behind the line of scrimmage and threw him for a five-yard loss. After an overthrown pass attempt, Holy Cross faced a fourth-and-13 and sent in its veteran kicker, John Macomber, to attempt a 45-yard field goal. His kick went wide.
All Harvard had to do at that point was to move within comfortable field goal range, but Stanton had other ideas. Taking a third-and-2 pitch from Hempel, he cut to his left and dashed 17 yards for the decisive touchdown.
With 103 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, Stanton was the game’s leading rusher. Hempel, who left the field with a hyperextended knee in the opening period, returned in the third quarter and finished with 14 completions in 25 attempts, for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
In his three varsity starts, Hempel has completed 55 of 81 passes for 803 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s run the ball 28 times for 69 net yards rushing and a touchdown.
Backup quarterback Michael Pruneau, who relieved Hempel for the better part of two periods, completed eight of 10 passes for 49 yards.
Sophomore linebacker Eric Medes led the defense with 11 solo tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Pujals was sacked six times by Harvard defenders, but was not intercepted.
Holy Cross (2-4) was playing its sixth game of the season, after losses to Bryant, Towson, and Monmouth, and wins over Dartmouth and Central Connecticut.
This year’s meeting was a marked departure from last year’s, when the Crimson routed the Crusaders, 52-3, in a rainswept night game at the Stadium.
Since 2001, when the season-opening game with Holy Cross was canceled after 9/11, Harvard has won nine of 13 games against the Crusaders, averaging 36 points per game. But Holy Cross had won the last three games played at Fitton Field.
Harvard followers with long memories will recall the final minutes of the 1985 game at Fitton Field, when the Crimson scored 21 points in a span of 41 seconds to gain a 28-20 victory. That comeback seemed close to miraculous; this weekend’s seemed close to surreal.
Elsewhere: After four overtime periods at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, Pennsylvania edged out Dartmouth, 37-31. In the weekend’s only other Ivy League matchup, Princeton buried Columbia, 53-7. In nonconference contests, Brown defeated Rhode Island, 31-14, and Cornell lost to Colgate, 41-20. Playing on the West Coast, Yale topped Cal Poly, 24-10.
Next week: Harvard travels to Ithaca for a 12:30 date with Cornell (1-2, 0-1 Ivy). The Big Red offense is led by record-setting quarterback Jeff Mathews, now the Ivy League’s all-time leader in passing yardage. Harvard’s defensive unit was ready for Mathews when Cornell came to the Stadium a year ago, intercepting him twice and recording four sacks and nine quarterback hurries in a 45-13 victory. Harvard has won 11 of the last 12 meetings with Cornell.
The Harvard-Holy Cross scoring:
Harvard 7 0 7 7 20 — 41
Holy Cross 0 7 7 7 14 — 35
The season so far:
Harvard 42, San Diego 20
Harvard 41, Brown 23
Harvard 41, Holy Cross 35