John Harvard's Journal | Sports
Failure to Finish
Dreadful defeats—and a heartbreaking Game—produced the Crimson’s first losing season of the century.
t approximately 4:05 p.m. on November 2, the 2019 Harvard football season began unraveling. Until that moment, the campaign was proceeding in the style to which coach Tim Murphy’s teams had been accustomed for two decades. With six seconds remaining in the game at Harvard Stadium, the Crimson led Dartmouth 6-3. If Harvard could knock down a long Big Green pass into the end zone, its record would move to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Ivy League, positioning the team for an Ivy title run.
But even though two Harvard defenders got their hands on the Hail Mary throw from quarterback Derek Kyler, the Big Green’s prayers were answered. The ball was grabbed by receiver Masaki Aerts, giving Dartmouth a miracle 9-6 victory. It was the most ghastly defeat in the 146-year history of Harvard football—for three weeks, anyway, until it was equaled, arguably, by a 50-43, double-overtime loss in The Game at Yale that nevertheless featured (besides a halftime interruption) a record-setting performance by an unheralded freshman Harvard running back. In between, the Crimson would lose in overtime to Columbia and by four points to Penn. Each Saturday drove another stake through the heart. The final record was 4-6—Harvard’s first losing season since 1998.
This five-game losing streak, which began with a 30-24 loss at Princeton, was a nightmare of spotty play, gambles that backfired, and horrendously unlucky bounces. Amid the miasma, the team competed ferociously. Harvard could have won all five games—and should have won three. But when someone needed to make a play in crunch time, it was the opponent who made it.
After the Penn loss, Murphy pinpointed the problem. “Somehow,” he said, “we have a failure to finish.” Following the Yale game, he elaborated: “We played really hard every single game. At times we played really well. Statistically we were not as good an offensive team as we were a year ago. We were not as good a team overall. We didn’t have as many senior starters. The sum total of that was we had to just give everything we possibly had, just to be in the game in the fourth quarter. And I think that’s a testament to our kids. They never gave up. But there was just no margin for error in almost every game.”
The early season gave little hint that such epic calamity was on the horizon. A squad featuring a number of unproven players seemed to be gradually rounding into form. After a rocky 31-23 opening loss at San Diego, the Crimson impressively handled Brown 42-7 in the home opener (see “Reload and Fire,” November-December 2019, page 32). The following week the team from Howard University visited the Stadium in the first game between the schools. The Bisons, from the Mid-East Athletic Conference, were overmatched: Harvard won a crushing 62-17 victory. The Crimson successfully blocked three Bison punts during the game, with swift freshman defensive back Khalil Dawsey blocking a pair. (All season long Harvard would be among the nation’s leaders in blocked kicks, finishing with nine.) Another freshman, DeMarkes Stradford, blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Stradford also carried the ball six times for 108 yards and another touchdown. Junior back Devin Darrington, playing a little more than a half, amassed 115 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries.
To finish the three-game homestand, Ivy rival Cornell came to the Stadium. The Big Red had upset the Crimson the previous two seasons. Not this time. Harvard won 35-22, and the stars were, improbably, its punters: friendly rivals sophomore Jon Sot and junior Sean McKeogh. On this day, both would excel, with Sot, last season’s All-Ivy punter, averaging an eye-popping 56.3 yards on three punts and McKeogh an excellent 41.2 on four. Senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland had two sacks. Junior linebacker Jack McGowan had the Crimson’s first interception of the season. Harvard also forced three fumbles. Junior quarterback Jake Smith was solid, going 18-for-28 passing for 217 yards with touchdowns to four receivers. Among the quartet were seniors Jack Cook and Cody Chrest, who were emerging as a reliable long-distance tandem. Chrest, who had played intermittently before this season, would finish as the Crimson’s leading receiver, with 45 catches. “Cody came out of nowhere,” said Murphy. “He had been fighting injuries his entire career. He finally got healthy and showed what he can do.”
Cook and Chrest also figured in the scoring the following week, a 31-21 victory at Holy Cross. Cook caught an 18-yarder from Smith in the back of the end zone, and Chrest and Smith hooked up for a 68-yard pass-and-run touchdown. There were other standouts, including McPartland, who had three quarterback sacks. He would end the season as the Ivy sack leader, with 9.5. “We knew he had that potential,” said Murphy. “Brogan gave us great energy and great leadership.”
But what had Holy Cross’s homecoming crowd really buzzing was the 76-yard punt Sot lofted in the third quarter, which flipped the field from the Harvard 14 to the Holy Cross 10. On the day, Sot and McKeogh dropped six punts inside the Crusader 20. “I feel like we’re in an alternate universe, the way our guys are punting the ball,” said Murphy. At season’s end, the Crimson led the league in both average punting distance (40.2 yards) and net punting (38.8 yards per kick). Sot’s 42.3 average distance was easily the league’s best.
Harvard had started solidly, approaching Week Six with a 4-1 record. Had the first half provided a false sense of security? More rugged opposition—the better Ivy teams—remained. The first true test came the following week at Princeton. The defending Ivy champion Tigers were riding a 15-game unbeaten streak and were scoring points in droves. Harvard gave them all they could handle. The Crimson actually led at halftime 14-10 after a 73-yard Smith-Cook touchdown connection late in the second quarter. But Smith also threw three interceptions, each of which led to Princeton points. Nevertheless, the defeat yielded several positives. Cook’s eight catches and 141 receiving yards were both game highs. The day was something of a coming-out party for freshman back Aidan Borguet, who had a nifty 6.2-yard rushing average. Sophomore defensive lineman Anthony Nelson and senior linebacker Cameron Kline led the way with seven tackles each. McPartland had another 1.5 sacks. In all, this defeat was disappointing but not disheartening.
The same could not be said about the following week’s soul-sucking loss to Dartmouth. A crowd of more than 20,000 at the Stadium witnessed an old-fashioned defensive slugfest. It looked as if two field goals by McIntyre would hold up—especially when McPartland recovered a Big Green fumble on the Dartmouth 10 with 1:31 remaining. In the ensuing Crimson possession, Darrington made a fatal tactical error by going out of bounds after a run, allowing Dartmouth to preserve a precious timeout. A touchdown would have put the game away, so on fourth-and-goal from the six, Murphy elected to go for it rather than settle for a field goal. “At the end of the day, they’re gonna need a touchdown to win the game,” he explained. “So mathematically you’re looking at the clock. They’ve got 59 seconds to go how many yards?” On the next play, Darrington was stopped for no gain. Dartmouth ball.
Using medium-length passes, Big Green quarterback Derek Kyler maneuvered his team to the Harvard 43. Six seconds remained. Time for one play. Kyler took the snap and desperately evaded several Harvard rushers. Finally, he threw the ball up high, all the way into the end zone. At the goal line, Harvard junior defensive back Isaiah Wingfield had a bead on it. He leaped—and was jolted by teammate Wes Ogsbury, who also was going for the ball. “We had a bunch of guys deep ready to knock the ball down,” said Ogsbury, the team captain. “We’re all looking down to the line of scrimmage. It looks like [Kyler] got sacked twice. He heaves one up. We’re all trying to make a play on it. It takes the wrong couple of bounces. We wanted it to bounce down but it bounced up, for whatever reason.” It bounced, unfathomably, into the hands of Aerts. Touchdown! Game over! Dartmouth 9, Harvard 6.
The season trudged on. The next week Harvard traveled to New York City to face Columbia, which hadn’t beaten the Crimson since 2003. That would change, again in disheartening fashion. Murphy pulled quarterback Smith after a 6-for-16 passing performance, replacing him with sophomore Luke Emge. Early in the fourth quarter McIntyre kicked a 25-yard field goal to put the Crimson ahead 10-7, but the Lions came back to tie with 1:45 left. In the overtime Columbia scored to make it 17-10. When Harvard tried to answer, Emge threw a pass to the right, intended for junior wideout James Batch, but the Lions’ Ben Mathiasmeier made a brilliant diving interception to end it.
Could the nightmare continue? The final home game, against Penn, showcased another way to lose. In the third quarter the Crimson took a 20-17 lead on a nifty double reverse that finished with Chrest sailing 18 yards into the end zone. But the Quakers riposted with an 82-yard drive that culminated in a sensational diving, ball-tipping catch by wideout Rory Starkey, one of several superhuman touchdown grabs by opponents this season. After Penn repulsed two promising Harvard opportunities—one that reached the Quakers’ seven—the 24-20 margin stood.
After what had transpired, you could have pardoned Harvard fans for looking to The Game with dread. Yale entered with an 8-1 record and a high-powered attack spearheaded by quarterback Kurt Rawlings, who was clicking with a pair of fellow seniors (and fellow previous Crimson killers), receivers JP Shohfi and Reed Klubnik. But on this brisk, sunny day, nobody had reckoned with young Mr. Aidan Borguet.
The score was 3-3 in the second quarter when Wingfield made a sensational diving interception at the Yale 27. Two plays later, Smith flipped to junior wideout B.J. Watson on a bubble screen to the right. Watson dashed all the way into the end zone. But McIntyre’s extra-point try was blocked. Harvard 9, Yale 3.
Then it was time to unleash Borguet. With a little under two minutes left in the half, at the Yale 47, he took a handoff from Smith and ran to the right through a huge hole created by the Harvard offensive line, all the way into the end zone. This time Harvard tried to get that extra point back by attempting a two-point conversion, but it failed. At the half it was Harvard 15, Yale 3.
Halftime was a game in itself. After the two bands performed, a group of students emerged from the stands and sat down around midfield. Some held signs reading “Yale and Harvard United for Climate Justice.” They were protesting inaction on climate change, specifically demanding that both schools divest their holdings in fossil-fuel investments. As the minutes ticked by, more students—from both schools—came down from the stands. Several dozen police officers kept wary watch. Eventually the protesters left the field. Fifty were arrested. The game had been delayed by about 30 minutes past the prescribed second-half starting time (see harvardmag.com/game-protest-19).
When the game resumed, Harvard appeared to take command, courtesy of Borguet. On the fifth play of the first series, from the Yale 41, he ran to the left, cut upfield, and scampered the remainder of the 59 yards into the end zone. McIntyre kicked the extra point. Harvard 22, Yale 3.
Yale rebounded, partly thanks to a punt fumbled by Crimson freshman Gavin Sharkey. An Eli touchdown and a field goal brought the score to Harvard 22, Yale 13. But Borguet was just warming up. On the next series, from the Yale 40, he swept to the right, turned upfield, and just kept running to the end zone. McIntyre converted. Harvard 29, Yale 13.
Rawlings and Yale were undaunted. The golden-tressed quarterback capped a nine-play, 72-yard drive by running for a five-yard touchdown. This time Yale tried to make it a one-score game by going for the two-point conversion, but its pass attempt failed. Harvard 29, Yale 19.
The fourth quarter began. On Harvard’s first series, it looked like the Elis had Borguet bottled up at the Crimson 33. He ran up the middle and was met in a scrum by a Yale tackler. But wait! Next thing anyone saw was the Crimson back squirting through a seemingly nonexistent opening and barreling upfield. Once again, he ran all the way for a touchdown, his fourth. McIntyre kicked the extra point. Harvard 36, Yale 19.
On the extra point, Yale was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard infraction that was assessed on the kickoff. From the Yale 45 came one those moments that helped turn the game. Hoping to retain the ball in Yale territory, Murphy ordered an onside kick. The maneuver boomeranged. Yale’s Shohfi corralled the ball and returned it to the Crimson 46. Now the Elis had a short field to work with and they capitalized when Sam Tuckerman kicked a 35-yard field goal. Harvard 36, Yale 22.
Still, how could the Crimson lose? Only 8:51 remained. Harvard killed off more than three minutes before the Crimson punter, McKeogh, pinned the Elis at their four. Needing two scores, Yale was 96 yards from the first one (similar to where Dartmouth had been three weeks previously). Rawlings got that score by completing seven passes. The last reception was a circus catch—yet another one!—by wideout Mason Tipton. Tuckerman again kicked. Harvard 36, Yale 29.
Only 1:28 remained. Everyone in the Bowl knew an onside kick was coming. Tuckerman, a left-footed kicker, banged it to the right. Chrest, one of the Crimson’s surest-handed wideouts, was on the kickoff-receiving team expressly for this circumstance. But the ball skittered past him. Klubnik jumped on it, at the Yale 47.
For Kurt Rawlings, 1:28 was an eternity. He moved the ball down to the Harvard 11. Here came the final small moment—a big one this time—that turned the game. Rawlings ran up the middle—smack into Harvard junior linebacker Jordan Hill at the five. The ball came loose. Several Crimson players jumped for it, but somehow—and it’s almost impossible to see how—it ended up in the hands of Yale lineman Cameron Warfield at the seven-yard-line. On the next play and with 18 seconds left, Rawlings threw over the middle to Shohfi for a touchdown. Tuckerman tied the game with his point after. Harvard 36, Yale 36.
The result of the overtime seemed almost foreordained. It went two rounds. On the first play the Crimson drew blood. Smith found Chrest wide open for a touchdown. McIntyre kicked the point. Harvard 43, Yale 36.
Could the Crimson stop Rawlings and end it? No. The Yale quarterback hit Shohfi at the four. Even a five-yard penalty for illegal motion didn’t stop the Elis. Rawlings threw to Caden Herring for a touchdown. Tuckerman made the clutch kick to tie it. Harvard 43, Yale 43.
Darkness was rapidly falling. In round two, the Elis had the ball first and quickly capitalized. Two Rawlings-to-Shohfi passes brought the ball down to the four and back Zane Dudek took it in from there. Tuckerman again converted. Yale 50, Harvard 43.
Now Harvard had to answer. Smith threw an incompletion. Then Borguet, out of miracles, ran for five. On third down, Smith threw to Watson for no gain. Fourth down. Smith threw again to Watson. The diminutive wideout squirmed to make the first-down marker, but fell short.
Game over. Season over. Mercifully.
For the Crimson there were heroes. Borguet of course. On only 11 carries he had amassed 269 yards—most ever by a runner in the Harvard-Yale series—as well as those four scintillating touchdowns, one more than he had scored in nine previous games. Borguet entered The Game with a solid season total of 398 yards and an excellent average of 4.8-yards per carry. “We’ve all been very impressed with his development as a freshman,” said Murphy. “He has a natural sense of where the hole is and how to be patient. And his overall football IQ was beyond our expectations. He’s an exceptional talent and a really great kid.”
On defense, Wingfield led with eight tackles, plus that magnificent interception. Hill was next with seven tackles. McPartland capped a marvelous senior season with two sacks.
Despite the bitter ending, Murphy aims to rebound, using as a nucleus his returning running backs and promising defensive linemen. “At the end of the day I’m very disappointed for our kids, but they gave us everything they had and that’s all we can ever ask,” he said. “We had a tremendous streak, the longest streak of winning seasons in Ivy League history, but no streak is linear. We’re proud of that and we look forward to the opportunity of starting a new streak next year.”
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Tidbits: With Yale’s victory, the series now stands at Yale 68 wins, Harvard 60 wins, and eight ties…Jordan Hill ’21 was elected the 147th captain of Harvard football. Hill, a linebacker from Silver Spring, Maryland, is a resident of Adams House and an economics concentrator.…Freshman Aidan Borguet was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year. In addition, five Harvard players were named to the All-Ivy first team: senior offensive lineman Liam Shanahan, senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland, junior linebacker Jordan Hill, junior defensive back Isaiah Wingfield, and sophomore punter Jon Sot. Junior running back Devin Darrington and junior offensive lineman Eric Wilson were named to the second team. Five more were Honorable Mentions….The 147th season of Harvard football will kick off on Saturday, September 19, 2020, at Harvard Stadium against Georgetown.