Football 2019: Penn 24, Harvard 20
We’re beginning to sense a pattern.
On Saturday at the Stadium, in its final home game of the season, the Harvard football team experienced its fourth consecutive agonizing loss to an Ivy League rival. This time the tormentor was Penn, which scored on a sensational go-ahead touchdown pass, then snuffed two late Crimson threats to win 24-20. Harvard dropped to 4-5 overall and 2-4 in Ivy play; the resilient and resourceful Quakers rose to 5-4 and 3-3. (They also put a damper on Senior Day for the 21 Crimson players from the class of 2020 and their family members in attendance.) The losing streak is the Crimson’s first four-game skid within a season since 1995, coach Tim Murphy’s second year on the Cambridge sideline, after stints at Maine and Cincinnati. “Thirty-three years as a head coach, I can’t really think of any stretch that was really like this,” said Murphy.
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Once again, Harvard was done in by an opponent making big plays down the stretch—including yet another preposterous touchdown reception—while the Crimson did not come through when it had to. “Déja vu,” said Murphy. “They just made one more play than we did.”
Harvard was playing without its best receiver, senior Jack Cook, who was out with an injury. Would his presence have made a difference? Probably not. The question now is whether Cook will be ready for Yale this coming Saturday. Of equal concern for The Game was the sight of another stellar Crimson wideout, junior B.J. Watson, limping off the field.
This was a back-and-forth affair between two middling Ivy teams. As has happened so often to Harvard this season, the opponent scored on its first possession. After a short Crimson punt Penn got the ball on the Harvard 40. It took only six plays for the Quakers to find the end zone. On the fifth play, Penn quarterback Nick Robinson played pitch-and-run with back Karekin Brooks, who rambled 23 yards to the Crimson three. From there, Robinson ran it in. Daniel Karrash kicked the extra point. With 3:38 gone, it was Penn 7, Harvard 0.
The Quakers then botched a golden opportunity. Harvard’s punter, junior Sean McKeogh, dropped the snap and Penn recovered on the Crimson 28. The Quakers drove to the Harvard seven but the Crimson stiffened, forcing a field-goal try by Karrash—which missed, wide right. A good hold for Harvard’s defense.
The Crimson quarterback on this day was the accustomed 2019 starter, junior Jake Smith, who was back in the lineup after having been pulled for ineffectiveness at Columbia the previous Saturday. Now Smith led Harvard on an 89-yard drive that was as brisk as the breeze. On the seventh play, from the Penn 47, Smith rolled right and saw Watson all alone behind the Quakers defense. Smith tossed and Watson caught, then ran the rest of the way to the end zone. Senior Jake McIntyre kicked the conversion. Harvard 7, Penn 7.
Early in the second quarter Harvard appeared to have stopped the Quakers, but a roughing-the-kicker penalty called on Crimson sophomore special-teamer Adam Shepherd gave Penn new life. This time when Karrash tried a field goal, from 24 yards out, he didn’t miss. Penn 10, Harvard 7.
The next two field goals were the Crimson’s. After a 58-yard punt by Harvard sophomore Jon Sot pinned Penn back on its 15, Robinson tried to get a chunk of those yards back with a long bomb that was picked off by Crimson junior defensive back Max Jones. This was Jones’s third interception of the season, a team best. In the next sequence the Crimson had a ridiculous reversal: losing 28 yards on one play, then gaining 38 on the next, on a Smith-to-Watson pass. Eventually Harvard drove to the Penn 11. Jones, who had started the drive, was the holder for McIntyre as he kicked a 28-yard field goal. Harvard 10, Penn 10.
Now it was Penn’s turn to bumble. Two false-start penalties led to a blocked punt (credited to the team because it caromed off a Quaker blocker). The Crimson took over at the Penn 25. There was 1:22 remaining in the half—plenty of time to score a touchdown. But the Quakers forced a three-and-out, so McIntyre came in and—taking advantage of a favorable wind—kicked a career-long 42-yard field goal. At the half it was Harvard 13, Penn 10.
The lead did not last long into the second half. On Penn’s third play, from its 30, Robinson rolled right and found wideout Rory Starkey, who had gotten behind Jones. The result was a 70-yard pass-and-run touchdown. This time Mitzseen Joseph was the converter. Penn 17, Harvard 13.
In the middle of the quarter Harvard unfurled a rare instance of offensive exoticism in this drab season: a wide receiver double reverse. Smith used passes to senior wideout Cody Chrest and junior tight ends Ryan Reagan and Adam West to help move the ball from the Harvard 32 to the Penn 18. (Good to see the tight ends in the mix.) There, on first down, Smith handed the ball to freshman back Aidan Borguet, who headed left—then handed the ball to Chrest, steaming rightward. The fleet Chrest sailed all the way to the end zone. McIntyre kicked the point. Harvard 20, Penn 17.
The fourth quarter was a battle of opportunities. Penn got the first one—and cashed in. On third and 10 from his own 18, Robinson made a huge play, scrambling for 12 yards and a first down. That was the spark the Quakers needed. Ultimately, they reached the Harvard 16. Facing a fourth-and-one, Penn coach Ray Priore forsook the try for a tying field goal (which would have bucked a tough headwind) and also the seemingly safe run. Instead, Robinson dropped back and heaved a pass into the end zone. It looked as if the ball would be way over the head of Starkey, impossible for him to grab. But the Quaker wideout extended his left hand as high as he could, tipped the ball straight up, and pulled it in as he was falling down—a touchdown catch he had no business making. (Starkey was the third opponent this season to victimize the Crimson with a sensational scoring reception, the others being Princeton’s Dylan Classi and Columbia’s Mozes Mooney.) Karrash added the point after. Penn 24, Harvard 20.
A little over seven minutes remained. Smith set about bringing the Crimson back. In eight plays he marched Harvard from its 25 to the Penn 10, the last 26 yards courtesy of a nifty shovel pass to Borguet. First and goal at the Quakers 10. Borguet ran for three, then Smith tried three passes—all incomplete—the first to Reagan, the next two to West. The fourth-down pass slithered off West’s hands. “The story of our life,” said Murphy. “Close but no cigar.” It would have been a superb catch. The difference was, Penn’s Starkey made his tough catch.
The torture would be prolonged. Harvard held Penn’s offense, used its three timeouts and, after a punt, got the ball again on the Quakers 40. Two plays moved the ball to the 32. On third down, junior Devin Darrington ran to the 31. Initially the officials signaled first down. “Penn didn’t even challenge it, because they thought it was a first down,” said Murphy. But a review ensued and the ruling was that Darrington did not make it. So it was fourth and one. Borguet tried to get the yard, driving right up the middle. This had not worked all game—why should it now? In any case, it didn’t. Penn took over and ran out the clock.
Smith had a good day: 26 for 41 passing for 322 yards, with no interceptions. But the Crimson running game seems to have entered the Witness Protection Program, netting a paltry 62 yards on 34 attempts. Opponents have chosen to focus on Darrington, who netted 24 yards on 16 attempts. On defense, junior defensive back Isaiah Wingfield and senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland led with 10 tackles apiece. The Crimson, who entered the game averaging 4.63 sacks, best in the Football Championship Subdivision, only got to Robinson twice.
Meantime, Ivy League football continues its tradition of unpredictability verging on wackiness. Two weeks ago Princeton was rolling, with a 7-0 record and a 17-game winning streak. Last week the Tigers played similarly unbeaten Dartmouth in Yankee Stadium in what was billed as a de facto championship game. The Big Green won 27-10—and everyone assumed Dartmouth would have a cakewalk to the title. Then, on Saturday, Yale, coming along on the outside, destroyed Princeton. And lowly Cornell shocked Dartmouth. Now Yale and Dartmouth (who played earlier in the season, with the Big Green winning big, 42-10) are tied for the top with one loss apiece.
With Harvard entering The Game as a decided underdog, will the weirdness extend to the final Saturday? A win would redeem the season. With the Elis playing their best ball (and their offense lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine), it will be a tall order.
Tidbits: Under coach Ray Priore, Penn has won in three straight visits to Harvard Stadium….In its five 2019 home games Harvard played to an average of 10,812 fans. This is up from the average of 10,411 in 2017, the most recent previous season in which the The Game was played at New Haven, but below the 12,799 average in 2015….The four straight Harvard losses have kept Tim Murphy stuck at 178 wins at Harvard—one behind Yale’s legendary Carmen Cozza for most victories by an Ivy coach.
Going once, going twice….Through November 26 the Harvard Varsity Club is conducting an online auction. The goal is to raise $200,000 in support of HVC’s Career Services Program and alumni programming. Among the items offered: two 50-yard-line seats (plus parking pass) at The Game, a football autographed by coach Tim Murphy, private rowing instruction by head coach of men’s heavyweight crew Charley Butt, and a two-night stay in the FDR suite at Adams House. Bidding is open at BiddingForGood.com/hvc.
Yale 51, Princeton 14
Cornell 20, Dartmouth 17
Brown 48, Columbia 24
Coming up: The 136th playing of The Game. On Saturday Harvard travels to the Yale Bowl for the traditional season-ender. Kickoff: Noon. The game will be telecast on ESPNU and broadcast on WRCA 1330 AM, 106.1 FM and 92.9 FM-HD2, and on WHRB FM 95.3. The Elis are 8-1 overall and 5-1 in the Ivy League. Last year at Fenway Park the Crimson won 45-27, snapping a two-game losing streak to Yale that followed nine straight Harvard victories. In a rivalry that began in 1875, Yale leads 67-60-1.
A CENTURY AGO: THE ROAD TO PASADENA, GAME 8
On November 15, 1919, having escaped with a tie at Princeton the week before, Harvard returned to the Stadium and handled Tufts 23-0. Or rather, the Harvard subs handled Tufts; the first teamers weren’t even present—there were bigger fish to fry. Most of the starters were in New Haven with coach Robert T. Fisher, A.B. 1912, scouting the following week’s opponent, Yale, as the Elis played Princeton. (The Tigers won 13-6.) This was standard practice at the time; even losing a game was a worthy sacrifice if it helped beat Yale. Through the first half the Crimson, directed by assistant coach (and former Harvard quarterback) Richard B. Wigglesworth, A.B. 1912, LL.B. ’16, battled with the Brown and Blue to a scoreless tie. But in the third period Winslow Bent “Babe” Felton, A.B. 1919, opened the scoring by dropkicking a field goal. Three Harvard touchdowns came in a cascade, two by Nils “Swede” Nelson, A.B. 1918, and another by Arnold Horween, A.B. 1921 (who would be the Harvard coach from 1926 to 1930). Mission accomplished…and now it was time for Yale. (Wigglesworth, by the way, would graduate from his football post to become a 16-term Republican congressman from Massachusetts and U.S. ambassador to Canada.)
The record so far:
September 24 Harvard 53, Bates 0
October 4 Harvard 17, Boston College 0
October 11 Harvard 35, Colby 0
October 18 Harvard 7, Brown 0
October 25 Harvard 47, Virginia 0
November 1 Harvard 20, Springfield 0
November 8 Harvard 10, Princeton 10 (tie)
November 15 Harvard 23, Tufts 0
Next up: Yale, November 22
THE SCORE BY QUARTERS