Bitter Ending

A disappointing finale mars a nerve-jangling season.

Frustrated in regulation by Princeton defenders such as Luke Catarius, Harvard’s quarterback Joe Viviano prevailed in overtime, diving for a one-yard touchdown that gave the Crimson a 23-20 victory. Matthew Deshaw/The Harvard Crimson

If any doubt remained that the favored Harvard football team would be in for a real bulldogfight against Yale in the 133rd edition of The Game on November 19 at Harvard Stadium, it vanished with the second-half kickoff. The score was 7-7 and the Crimson offense was scheduled to get the ball to start the third quarter. Having teed up the pigskin on the Elis’ 40-yard line, Yale kicker Blake Horn approached it—then gave it a tap with his foot and followed it. When it had traveled 10 yards, thus becoming a free ball (meaning, either team could recover it), Horn pounced on it. No Harvard player was within yards of him. So it was the Yale offense, not Harvard’s, that took the ball and, within four plays, rammed home a touchdown. 

The surprise move set the tone for the afternoon. Harvard would tie the game but later miss a fourth-quarter field-goal try that would have put the Crimson ahead. Given its own opportunity to take the lead, Yale cashed in on a three-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Kurt Rawlings to classmate Reed Klubnik with a little more than four minutes to play. The 21-14 margin held up. Yale’s win broke a nine-game losing streak in the ancient rivalry. “We have a one-game winning streak now,” exulted coach Tony Reno after the game.

In its victory over Cornell, Harvard unleashed a gang-tackling defense in which cornerback Wesley Ogsbury (10) and linebacker Luke Hutton (35) helped limit the Big Red to 80 yards on the ground. Hutton will captain the 2017 team.
Photograph by Kit Wu/The Harvard Crimson

For Harvard coach Tim Murphy and his charges, it was a bitter end to a season that just eight days before had them on the precipice of a fourth straight Ivy title. Instead, the defeat by its ancient rival, coupled with a similarly heartbreaking 27-14 loss the week before at Penn, dropped the Crimson into third place in the Ivy standings with a 5-2 conference record, behind the 6-1 marks of co-champions Princeton and Penn. Overall, Harvard finished 7-3. Murphy was clear-eyed in his summation. “The things that prevented us from being a championship team: we struggled to finish defensively and we made too many mistakes offensively,” he said.

Given the grievous graduation losses (including 13 All-Ivy performers) from 2015’s Ivy co-champions (with Penn and Dartmouth), it was testament to the coaching of Murphy and his staff that the Crimson stayed in the hunt as late as it did. The league was as competitive as it has been in years. “We seem to be in an era of Ivy League football of if not unparalleled parity, at least rare parity,” said Murphy. “Every game is a trap game, and you better get used to it.” This year, Harvard’s final six games were nail-biters. “You like to think the adversity we faced strengthens you, so we have no excuses,” the coach said. “The bottom line is that nothing came easy and some of the outstanding, exciting wins we had—we just weren’t able to duplicate that in those last two games.”

All-Ivy cornerback Raishaun McGhee was a one-man gang at Dartmouth, making a crucial interception and taking down Big Green receiver Houston Brown for one of his 14 tackles.
Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

A championship run was on track in the early going as the Crimson vanquished Rhode Island, Brown, and Georgetown (see “Rebuilding…or Reloading?” November-December 2016, page 29). The major curiosity was new quarterback Joe Viviano ’17, who had missed the previous two seasons with foot injuries. As the season progressed, Viviano’s strengths—most notably, his strong arm and his ability to scramble for first downs—helped keep the Crimson afloat. “Joe really battles,” said Murphy. “He showed that he’s an outstanding leader and a tough kid. We have to be reminded that it not only was it his first season at quarterback but it was his first substantial practice time. The combination of that didn’t allow him and our offense to take the next step that you have to be able to take to score points in general—to finish drives and to win championships.”

In Week 4 Harvard dispatched Ivy rival Cornell at the Stadium 29-13. With the defensive line pressuring Big Red quarterback Dalton Banks, the Crimson forced three Cornell turnovers, including an interception on the game’s first play by linebacker Anthony Camargo ’19 and two more by safety Tanner Lee ’18. “Our defensive line—led by seniors James Duberg, Miles McCollum, Langston Ward, and Doug Webb—gave us a chance to compete and to be in every game,” said Murphy. (He might have added to the list energetic sophomore DJ Bailey, who led the team with seven sacks.) 

Against the Big Red, tight end/H-back Anthony Firkser ’17 was unguardable, nabbing eight catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. The sure-handed Firkser would finish the season with 45 catches (second on the team only to the 48 of star wideout Justice Shelton-Mosley ’19) for a spectacular average gain of 15.6 yards and seven touchdowns, both team receiving highs. On many third downs, Firkser was Viviano’s go-to guy. “Anthony is probably our offensive MVP and definitely one of the most accomplished tight ends/H-backs in our history,” said Murphy—high praise indeed, given that the coach recently produced three players at the position (Kyle Juszczyk ’13, Cam Brate ’14, and Ben Braunecker ’16) who are in the NFL. Murphy thinks Firkser will get a chance to join them. “He has quick hands and—bang!—he’s transitioning to yards after the catch. He transcends whatever his speed is. He plays faster than he is.” 

Then came a three-game road stretch. For a non-league game at Holy Cross, with Murphy mindful of the Ivy rigors ahead, the Crimson sat Viviano, Shelton-Mosley, and lead running back Semar Smith ’18. The 27-17 defeat was not only the season’s first loss but also the Crimson’s first road defeat after 16 road wins and 16 non-league victories. On the ground, the Crusaders limited the Crimson (led by quarterback Tom Stewart ’19) to 29 yards in 26 carries. The paltry result was a microcosm of Harvard’s off-and-on rushing woes. The Crimson employed a running-back-by-committee approach, with Smith, sophomores Noah Reimers and Charlie Booker, and freshman Lavance Northington (“a quarterback by trade,” noted Murphy) all at times taking the plunge. “I thought our running-back group did a very solid job, when we got everybody healthy,” the coach said. “None of them had the overall experience and health to sustain us on their own.” (It didn’t help that three-fifths of the previous season’s offensive line had graduated, although the holdovers—Max Rich ’19 and Larry Allen ’18—remained formidable.)

Murphy’s sacrifice of a non-Ivy game might have paid dividends the next two weekends. On a rainy day at Princeton, the battle with the Tigers left fans of both teams soggy and limp. The regulars were back, but they were eclipsed by a new Crimson star: wide receiver Adam Scott ’19, seeing his first action after injury. “When we got Scott back, we gave people a lot of problems as to who to cover,” Murphy said. The 5-foot-7, 165-pound Scott seemed to be the one player on the field who had his footing, grabbing eight passes, including a 34-yarder, on which he put a diabolical move on his Princeton defender and sailed into the end zone. That gave Harvard a 14-0 lead, but the Tigers relentlessly battled back to make it 17-17 at the end of regulation. In the overtime, Princeton was awarded the ball first but had to settle for a field goal after linebacker Luke Hutton ’18 made a clutch third-down pass breakup. Now it was the Crimson’s turn to get the ball. On third down, Viviano scrambled to the Princeton three. Two plays later, he dove and stretched the ball over the goal. Touchdown! Game over! Harvard 23, Princeton 20. 

The next week at Hanover, the Crimson again jumped to a 14-0 lead, then withstood determined Dartmouth for a 23-21 win. The star this time was hard-hitting defensive back Raishaun McGhee ’17, who made a game-high 14 tackles and whose interception on the opening series set up Harvard’s first touchdown. Back in Cambridge (finally!) in Week 8, the Crimson scored three third-quarter touchdowns to overhaul upset-minded Columbia 28-21. 

At this point Harvard was 7-1 overall and, at 5-0, the lone unbeaten in the Ivy League. “I was very happy with our team at that point but there just wasn’t enough substance to finish it off. That all comes back to me,” said Murphy. In a Friday-night showdown at Penn, the Crimson battled back from a late 14-6 deficit, with Viviano tossing a 26-yard touchdown pass to Joseph Foster ’17, then scoring the tying two-point conversion himself by catching a pass from Shelton-Mosley (who had been handed the ball by Northington). But in the remaining three minutes the Quakers used a drive deftly engineered by All-Ivy quarterback Alek Torgersen and a fumble recovery to score two touchdowns to win 27-14.

Still, title hopes were very much alive when Harvard squared off against Yale. On a balmy day before a rare sellout crowd, there was neither a fumble nor an interception. In the first period, the Crimson uncharacteristically threw only one pass (incomplete). The early action was dominated by the two punters, Harvard’s Zach Schmid ’18 and Yale’s Alex Galland. In the first half, there were 11 punts (six by Galland), many of them pinning the foe in the shadow of his own goal line. It took a while, but the Crimson was the first to break through. Viviano hit Scott for a 28-yard gain to the Yale 27. On the next play, Viviano handed the ball to Booker, who bounced off a Bulldog defender and ran down the sideline into the end zone. Jake McIntyre ’20 kicked the extra point. Harvard 7, Yale 0.

Yale was resilient. The Elis went 10 plays in four minutes and 18 seconds. The highlight was one of the most ingenious plays of the season. Facing fourth and four from the Crimson 19, Reno sent in the holder on his field-goal team, Andrew Johnson. Johnson lined up right behind center, took the snap, ran toward the line—and flipped a jump pass to receiver Leo Haenni, who snatched it just before it hit the ground. Said Murphy later of this play, called “Full Polecat”: “We practiced against it and we just got sucked in.” Four plays later Alan Lamar ran a yard for a touchdown. Galland kicked the extra point. Harvard 7, Yale 7, at the half.

The second half featured the deviously brilliant onside kick, which was followed shortly by a 28-yard, Rawlings-to-Klubnik touchdown pass. Harvard came right back. Viviano took his offense 84 yards in 10 plays, the two biggest being a 36-yard toss to Firkser and a 34-yarder to Shelton-Mosley that brought the ball down to the Yale 2. On third down, Viviano found tight end Ryan Halvorson ’17 in the end zone. McIntyre again added the point. Harvard 14, Yale 14.

Surrounded by Yale defenders and with teammate Anthony Firkser (42) in support, Harvard tight end Ryan Halvorson (85) gathered in a one-yard scoring pass from quarterback Joe Viviano. The third-quarter touchdown forged a 14-14 tie.
Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

Then came a tale of two opportunities, one squandered, one cashed in. Pinned at its three-yard-line after another artful Galland punt, the Crimson mounted a 16-play drive at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarter that consumed nearly seven minutes. It ended in a 35-yard McIntyre field-goal attempt that missed—wide left. Rawlings then led the Elis on a nearly seven-minute drive of their own. Harvard simply couldn’t hold them. On third and goal from the Harvard three, Rawlings hit Klubnik for the game-winning touchdown. Galland booted the point. Yale 21, Harvard 14. Four minutes remained, but in two possessions the Crimson never seriously threatened. For the first time in 10 years, when the final whistle sounded, it was the Eli supporters who surged from the stands to celebrate.

It was at least consolation that Harvard maintained its streak of winning a minimum of seven games. It now stands at 16 years, a mind-boggling record of excellence. “We take great pride in that,” said Murphy. He will now focus on building another championship team—and beginning a new winning streak in The Game. 


TIDBITS: Linebacker Luke Hutton of Austin, Texas, and Leverett House, was voted the 144th captain of Harvard football. In 2016, the economics concentrator led the team in tackles with 56. His ascension marks the thirteenth straight season that a defensive player will captain the Crimson….Harvard had two unanimous selections for the All-Ivy first team: wide receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley and defensive tackle James Duberg. Other first-team selections were offensive linemen Larry Allen and Max Rich, and tight end Anthony Firkser. The Crimson also placed four on the second team (including Hutton), and four others garnered honorable mention….Tim Murphy is second all-time in Ivy wins, with 115, behind only the 135 of Yale’s iconic Carmen Cozza….The all-time record in The Game now stands at Yale 66 wins, Harvard 55 wins, and eight ties….The 2017 season will open on Saturday, September 16, at Rhode Island.

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