Football: Harvard 38, Penn 30

A seemingly easy win turns hazardous.

In the final minute of play, safety Jaron Wilson stopped Penn halfback Kyle Wilcox at the Harvard 20-yard line after a one-yard gain on a swing pass. Holding off three final passing attempts, the Crimson defense quashed the Quakers’ late bid for a game-tying rally.
Tight end Cam Brate caught a 15-yard pass from quarterback Conner Hempel for Harvard’s first touchdown against Penn. A leg injury had kept Brate out of the team’s last two games.
Quarterback Conner Hempel completed 21 of 25 passes for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and was also the game’s leading ground-gainer, carrying 12 times for 65 yards and a touchdown. Most of his yardage came on improvised plays.
Tailback Paul Stanton Jr. ran for two touchdowns, the first one on an eight-yard burst in the final minute of the opening half. Tackle Cole Toner helped clear the way with a block on Penn linebacker David Park (54).

The take-away message from this one is that football is a 60-minute game.

In the first 35 minutes of Saturday’s Stadium thriller, Harvard jumped off to a stunning 38-0 lead over Pennsylvania. Not for 32 years had a Crimson team scored so many points against Penn.

Harvard was playing brilliantly on both sides of the ball. Everything worked. Penn looked flat and flustered.

After a 76-yard scoring drive at the start of the second half, Harvard coach Tim Murphy rested some of his starters. “Obviously, we pulled them too soon,” he would say later.

The Crimson offense went flat. Nothing worked. And Penn began playing brilliantly.

The Crimson defense, which had limited Penn to four first downs in the opening half, allowed 17 in the game’s last 22 minutes, as a fierce Quaker rally cut a seemingly insuperable lead to just eight points.

Harvard's offense couldn’t make a first down for the rest of the game.

 “It was almost like we flipped a switch,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said afterward. “In the second half, we executed great and they didn’t execute great. It’s a funny game when these two teams play.”

After four consecutive scoring drives, the last two sustained by the passing of backup quarterback Ryan Becker, the Quakers mounted a final, make-or-break drive with 3:42 on the game clock. Making good on two successive fourth-down conversions, Penn moved 54 yards to the Harvard 21-yard line.

With 52 seconds remaining, Becker threw a swing pass to back Kyle Wilcox. Harvard safety Jaron Wilson read the play and nailed Wilcox just a yard from the line of scrimmage.

Becker then overthrew Conner Scott, his leading receiver, in the far corner of the end zone.

On the next snap, Harvard defensive end Danny Frate hurried Becker and forced an off-target throw to Wilcox. Now it all came down to one play.

Becker’s last pass was aimed at six-foot-six tight end Ryan O’Malley, but the ball was tipped by a Harvard defender, extinguishing the Penn rally.

Just who had deflected the ball was hard to tell. The official play-by-play summary credited linebacker Josh Boyd, Harvard’s captain. “I’d like to think I got a tip on it,” Boyd told reporters. “We had to make a play there. It was a little hairy when the ball was up in the air, but it was a great way to end the game.”

Harvard (8-1 overall, 5-1 Ivy League) continues to hold second place in the Ivy standings, a game behind Princeton (8-1, 6-0). Penn (4-5, 3-3) is out of contention for the championship, for the first time since 2006.

A victory at Yale in next weekend’s finale, coupled with a Dartmouth defeat of Princeton at Hanover, would give Harvard a share of the Ivy title. The Crimson lost to the Tigers in a triple-overtime contest at the Stadium three weeks ago.

The high level of Harvard’s play in the first 35 minutes of Saturday’s game made the second-half letdown that much more startling. With four key players returning from injuries, the defensive unit had held Penn’s offense to just 18 yards rushing and three pass completions in 15 attempts.

The Crimson offense, led by quarterback Conner Hempel, had control of the ball for 27 of those first 35 minutes. In that interval, Hempel completed 20 of 23 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 56 yards and another score.

The first touchdown of the day came late in the opening period, on a 15-yard pass from Hempel to tight end Cam Brate. An injured leg had kept Brate out of the team’s last two games.

The offense erupted for 24 points in the second quarter. Harvard scored on a two-yard rush by Hempel, a field goal by kicker David Mothander, an eight-yard off-tackle burst by tailback Paul Stanton Jr., and a short pass from Hempel to freshman tight end Ryan Halvorson. Harvard led, 31-0, at the half.

The Crimson opened the second half with a 76-yard scoring drive, capped by a two-yard carry by Stanton. That fifth touchdown seemed almost gratuitous at the time, but would in fact give Harvard its margin of victory.

Stanton sat out the rest of the game, having gained 60 yards rushing. Hempel would finish as the game’s leading rusher, netting 65 yards on 12 carries. Most of his gains came on improvised runs.

Boyd led the defense with eight tackles and a pass interception. His pickoff, with 31 seconds left in the opening half, set up Harvard’s fourth touchdown of the day.

Safety Jaron Wilson and cornerback D.J. Monroe each made seven tackles, with Monroe adding three pass breakups and a blocked kick. 

“We are really an imperfect team,” coach Murphy said at his postgame press conference. “We’re a banged-up team, but a really tough one. I prefer to think of [us] as a team that executed and played as hard and as well as any team in the Ivy League has, in the first 35 minutes.”

Since the start of the season, injuries have sidelined six offensive regulars, four defensive regulars, and all-Ivy place-kicker David Mothander. At least four players are out for the year.

The Penn game was Harvard’s fourth of the season to go down to the wire. A 41-35 win over Holy Cross, a 51-48 loss to Princeton, and a 24-21 win over Dartmouth were all decided in the final minute of play. The Holy Cross and Princeton games both went into three overtime sessions.

Harvard and Penn had split, 6-6, in their last 12 meetings. The Crimson now holds a 47-35-2 lead in a series begun in 1881.

Had it produced a fifth touchdown, Penn's astounding rally would have been historic. The biggest comeback on record was in 2006, when Michigan State rallied for 35 consecutive points in what ended as a 41-38 loss to Northwestern.


Elsewhere in the Ivies: A 59-23 thrashing of Yale guaranteed Princeton at least a share of the league championship. Dartmouth edged Brown, 24-20, and Cornell beat Columbia, 24-9.


Next week: Harvard goes to Yale Bowl for the 130th playing of The Game, kicking off at noon. The Crimson has a six-game winning streak against the Blue, and has come out on top in 11 of the last 12 meetings. Yale (5-4, 3-3) is now tied with Penn for fourth place in the Ivy standings. NBC Sports Network, a cable channel, will televise the game.


The Harvard-Penn scoring:

Penn          0     0    7    23   —  30
Harvard    7   24    7      0   —   38

Attendance: 10,235


The season so far:

Harvard 42, San Diego 20
Harvard 41, Brown 23
Harvard 41, Holy Cross 35
Harvard 34, Cornell 24
Harvard 35, Lafayette 16
Princeton 51, Harvard 48
Harvard 24, Dartmouth 21
Harvard 34, Columbia 0
Harvard 38, Pennsylvania 30

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