Football 2021: Harvard 24, Cornell 10
It was not a thing of beauty. At times it was downright ugly. But at afternoon’s end on Saturday at the Stadium, the Harvard football team had preserved its unblemished record with a nerve-racking 24-10 victory over pesky Cornell. The Crimson, which entered the game ranked No. 22 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), is now 4-0 overall and 2-0 in Ivy League play. Harvard is 4-0 for the first time since 2016. The Big Red fell to 0-4 and 0-2. The game was not salted away until Harvard junior running back Aaron Shampklin bolted for a 40-yard touchdown with 1:47 left to play.
“We played great defense,” Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football Tim Murphy said after the game. “That’s been the starting point for everything we’ve done this season so far. It took us a while to get adjusted offensively. Eventually we got into a rhythm. I’m really happy with how our kids handled a little bit of adversity in the second half.”
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Cornell is a team that historically has provided adversity for Harvard. In ’15—1915—the Big Red came into the Stadium and halted a 33-game Crimson unbeaten streak with a 10-0 victory. More recently, in 1978, Cornell upset Harvard 25-20 in a rain-drenched affair at the Stadium. One of the most cataclysmic defeats of the 28-year Murphy Epoch occurred in 2000, when the Big Red came back from a 28-0 deficit to win 29-28. In 2017 and ’18, Cornell upset Harvard, both times at Ithaca, by 17-14 and 28-24 respectively.
At halftime on Saturday there were the earmarks of another such Crimson comeuppance. Cornell led 7-3. To win, an underdog like Cornell must execute its game plan to perfection, and for 30 minutes the Big Red did just that. Cornell’s blitzes not only were making the Crimson get off its passes under duress, but also were stopping the normally productive Harvard runners before they could get up a head of steam, limiting them to 35 yards in 20 rushing attempts. The Crimson helped the Big Red’s cause by committing three turnovers, including the second muffed punt in two weeks by sophomore return man Gavin Sharkey.
At the beginning of the second quarter and with the game scoreless, the Harvard starting quarterback, senior Jake Smith, was yanked in favor of sophomore Charlie Dean, who had been the starter before being derailed by an injury suffered against Brown two weeks before. Dean jump-started the attack, presiding for all but two plays of a 14-play, 69-yard drive. The highlights were a 17-yard Dean hookup with freshman receiver Kaedyn Odermann, a nifty 19-yard dash by sophomore running back Aidan Borguet, and a sideline grab by junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly. However, symbolic of the Harvard frustration, the drive stalled at the Cornell three and the Crimson settled for a 20-yard field goal by junior Jonah Lipel. Harvard 3, Cornell 0. But it seemed a lot of work for little.
The pattern continued. At the finish of Cornell’s next series, Crimson junior defensive back James Herring stormed in to block Koby Kiefer’s punt. Harvard freshman safety Garrett Sharp recovered on the Big Red 20. Again, the Crimson could not capitalize. On third down Dean was sacked and fumbled. Cornell recovered at the 26, then seized the lead with a swift-moving six-play drive that culminated with a 24-yard run off right tackle by SK Howard. Scott Lees made the conversion. Cornell 7, Harvard 3. When the half ended the Crimson had been held to 94 yards of total offense. Fortunately, the Harvard defense was keeping Cornell within range, limiting the Big Red to 152 total yards.
After halftime Harvard asserted itself. Dean led a 75-yard touchdown drive whose highlights were a 24-yard reception by sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco and a 31-yard run by Shampklin. On the tenth play, from the Cornell one, Shampklin took it right up the middle into the end zone. Lipel kicked. Harvard 10, Cornell 7.
But the Big Red did not wilt. Using the darting passes of quarterback Richie Kenney, Cornell responded with a 65-yard drive that reached the Harvard 15. There the attack stalled, so Lees kicked a 33-yard field goal. Harvard 10, Cornell 10.
The deadlock lasted all of 13 seconds. After a touchback on the kickoff, Harvard took over on its 25. On the first play, Dean threw a quick out to senior wide receiver B.J. Watson on the right side. The so-called “bubble screen” is a Crimson trademark, and this time it was run to perfection. Using his blocking, Watson caught the ball, ran to the inside, then weaved back outside and turned on the jets all the way to end zone. Lipel booted. Harvard 17, Cornell 10.
For the rest of the period and most of the final quarter, the Crimson relied on its defense and its All-Ivy punter, junior Jon Sot. On a fourth and one at the Harvard seven, Kenney was stopped on a sneak by junior tackles Chris Smith and Jacob Sykes. Then Sot took over, expertly dropping three punts inside the Cornell 10, pinning back the Big Red offense. (For more on Sot, see the November-December print edition of Harvard Magazine, which will be in mailboxes and online shortly.)
Finally the Crimson’s mighty defensive front seven took the game in hand, with junior tackle Truman Jones making a key sack of Kenney on one play and hurrying him on the next. On fourth and 16 from the Cornell 40 senior linebacker and captain Jordan Hill harassed Kenney into an incompletion. Harvard’s ball. Two plays later, Shampklin exploded through a hole at left tackle, accelerated into the clear, and galloped into the end zone. Lipel punctuated. Harvard 24, Cornell 10. It was all over except for the shouting that followed a sack by Crimson freshman defensive lineman Thor Griffith. “Mighty Thor,” a 6’2”, 303-pound force of nature, quickly has become a fan favorite.
Shampklin entered the game leading the FCS in rushing yards per game, with 125.3. On this day he managed a hard-earned 92. Herring had nine tackles, tying Crimson senior linebacker Andrew Irwin for the game-high total. In three quarters of action Dean was efficient, completing 12 of 21 passes for 204 yards.
TIDBITS: Saturday was coach Tim Murphy’s 65th birthday….James Herring’s punt block was the first for Harvard since the November 16, 2019, game against Penn….With his two touchdowns, Aaron Shampklin now has six on the year, and three multi-touchdown games….Harvard now leads the overall series 49-34-2.
Brown 31, Colgate 10
Columbia 22, Central Connecticut State 20
Penn 20, Lehigh 0
Princeton 31, Monmouth 28
Dartmouth 24, Yale 17 (OT)
Coming up: On Saturday Harvard finishes its two-game homestand against Lafayette. Kickoff: 1 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on WRCA 1330 AM, 106.1 FM, 92.9 FM-HD2, and WHRB 95.3 FM. The Leopards, of the Patriot League, are 1-4 in 2021. In the overall series, which began in 1966, the Crimson leads 17-3 and has won the last six, the most recent triumph by 38-10 at Harvard Stadium in 2017.
The score by quarters
THE SEASON SO FAR: follow Dick Friedman’s dispatches.
Week one: Harvard 44, Georgetown 9
Week two: Harvard 49, Brown 17
Week three: Harvard 38, Holy Cross 13