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Football 2021: Harvard 34, Yale 31

11.21.21

Luke Emge throws the football amidst Yale defenderss

The Conquering Hero: Harvard quarterback Luke Emge was only 14-for-32 passing but was at his best at crunch time, leading the Crimson to their last-minute, go-ahead score. 
Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson


The Conquering Hero: Harvard quarterback Luke Emge was only 14-for-32 passing but was at his best at crunch time, leading the Crimson to their last-minute, go-ahead score. 
Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson

Aidan Borguet scores a a touchdown for the Crimson.

Bulldog Strangler: Convoyed by Spencer Rolland (72), Harvard's Aidan Borguet (21) scores from a yard out—his fifth touchdown against Yale in two games. 
Photograph by Josie W. Chen/The Harvard Crimson


Bulldog Strangler: Convoyed by Spencer Rolland (72), Harvard's Aidan Borguet (21) scores from a yard out—his fifth touchdown against Yale in two games. 
Photograph by Josie W. Chen/The Harvard Crimson

Kym Wimberly holds the ball as a Yale defender tries to peel it from his hands.

Wimberly for the Win: As disconsolate Yale fans look on, Harvard's Kym Wimberly is on the bottom—but comes out on top in the wrestling match with the Elis' Miles Oldacre (8) for the ball and the go-ahead touchdown. 

Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson


Wimberly for the Win: As disconsolate Yale fans look on, Harvard's Kym Wimberly is on the bottom—but comes out on top in the wrestling match with the Elis' Miles Oldacre (8) for the ball and the go-ahead touchdown. 

Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson

Harvard celebrates a touchdown in the endzone.

Special Teamer: Having plucked Yale's blocked punt out of the air and wended his way to the end zone, Harvard's Kobe Joseph (59) is greeted there by teammate Ben Harding.

Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson


Special Teamer: Having plucked Yale's blocked punt out of the air and wended his way to the end zone, Harvard's Kobe Joseph (59) is greeted there by teammate Ben Harding.

Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson

There are at least three laws of the Harvard-Yale game: 1.) No lead is safe 2.) It ain’t over till it’s over and 3.) Afterward, even the victors are as limp as a used washrag. 

The 137th battle, played Saturday at the Yale Bowl, obeyed all three. Harvard beat Yale 34-31, overhauling the Elis on a last-minute touchdown pass from junior quarterback Luke Emge (henceforth to be known as Cool Hand Luke) to classmate wideout Kym Wimberly. The triumph gave the Crimson an 8-2 overall record (a welcome turnaround from 2019’s 4-6 finish) and a 5-2 mark in the Ivy League, good for third place behind co-champions Dartmouth and Princeton; both beat Harvard narrowly earlier in the season. (Assuming you accept that Princeton won, which we don’t.) Yale fell to 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the league. (See final standings below.)

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Saturday’s game was yet another classic of the genre. It had four lead changes, superb individual plays, and, of course, the denouement. After a raft of gut-stabbing losses in close games beginning in the second half of 2019, the Crimson finally won one. The victory certainly was payback for the defeat the Crimson suffered two years before, when it coughed up a late 17-point lead and fell in double overtime 50-43. This time the Elis did the unforgivable, leaving the middle of the field open and allowing Emge (Harvard’s third-string quarterback at season’s beginning) to engineer the winning drive.

“Karma is real,” said Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Coach for Harvard Football, whose record in The Game is now 19-8.  “These kids played like champions. We couldn’t have asked for a better, storybook, make-things-right ending.” He added, wryly, “If there’s ever a more exciting finish to a Harvard-Yale game, I hope someone else is coaching.”

(My predecessor in this post, John Bethell ’54, goes so far as to say that this was perhaps the second-best Game among the 70-odd he has seen, trailing only, of course, the epic 1968 “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” edition. I haven’t seen quite as many, but in my annals, only 2014’s 31-24 Crimson triumph—similarly won on a last-minute scoring pass—tops this one; that had the benefit of capping a perfect season.)

This contest did not play itself out as expected. Harvard entered boasting the top rushing defense in the nation, having surrendered 56.0 yards per game. But the Elis gashed Harvard’s fabled front seven for 155 yards on the ground. Yale outgained the Crimson overall 417 yards to 317 and won the possession battle, 34:05 to 25:55. In other words, the Elis won everywhere except on the scoreboard. Meantime, instead of riding its nonpareil rushing tandem of junior Aaron Shampklin (13 carries for 67 yards) and sophomore Aidan Borguet (nine for 43), the Crimson took to the air, with Emge completing 14 of 32 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Above all, Harvard was opportunistic. Senior linebacker Jack McGowan, junior safety James Herring, and sophomore defensive back Alex Washington each picked off a pass thrown by spectacular but erratic Yale sophomore quarterback Nolan Grooms. In addition, Herring had a punt block that was returned for a touchdown, and junior kicker Jonah Lipel booted two long field goals.

 

With the crowd of nearly 50,000 still filing in, Yale broke on top. Grooms took the Elis 94 yards in 10 plays, rushing for 23 yards and completing four passes. The last completion was a 17-yard hookup with wide-open wideout Darrion Carrington, who caught the ball on the five and waltzed into the end zone. Jack Bosman kicked the extra point. Yale 7, Harvard 0.

Back came the Crimson. Emge took Harvard to the Yale 13. There he was sacked and fumbled; the Elis recovered. But on the next play McGowan made his interception, a finger-tip grab, on the Yale 38. Harvard eventually stalled on the Yale 30. In trotted Lipel. His holder (and Harvard’s punter), Jon Sot, kneeled down at the 37. The snap came back and Lipel swung his leg. The 47-yard kick was up, up and good…with plenty to spare. Yale 7, Harvard 3. It was the longest field goal of Lipel’s career and his 14th of the season, setting a Harvard single-season record.

Grooms continued to be generous. On the Elis’ first play of the next series, the southpaw rolled left. Harvard safety Herring tracked him. Grooms threw. Herring intercepted and was tackled at the Yale 35. Two plays later, Borguet (bidding to match his four-TD performance of the 2019 Game) slammed 28 yards to the one. On the following play, he sliced through a big hole on the right side and went untouched into the end zone. Lipel kicked the extra point. Harvard 10, Yale 7.

 

Now, as the first quarter ended and the second commenced, it was Yale’s turn to riposte. Grooms led a 13-play drive that consumed nearly six minutes and ended at the Harvard 15. Bosman then booted a 32-yard field goal. Harvard 10, Yale 10.

The game continued to seesaw. Emge hooked up with senior wideout B.J. Watson for 43 yards, a connection that brought the ball to the Eli 33. The Crimson could only advance three more yards, so now it was again Lipel Time, again from 47 yards—and again good! Harvard 13, Yale 10.

On Yale’s next series McGowan was called for targeting Yale back Spencer Alston on a pass play; that meant a disqualification for the Crimson linebacker, a big loss. (The call appeared to be correct.) Shortly thereafter Yale was forced to punt. On the snap, Herring burst in from the left side and got his hand on Bosman’s kick. The ball floated in the air and into the arms of Crimson sophomore linebacker Kobe Joseph. Weaving his way through the Elis like the running back he had been in high school, Joseph followed his blockers 35 yards to the end zone. Lipel kicked the point. Harvard 20, Yale 10.

In other games such an electrifying play is a backbreaker. Not in Harvard-Yale. Grooms and the Elis came back with a fast-moving 75-yard drive. On fourth and four from the Harvard 30, Grooms scrambled and found JJ Howland for a touchdown. Bosman converted. At the half, it was Harvard 20, Yale 17.

 

Early in the third quarter the defenses prevailed. But with 8:42 left in the period Emge commenced a 60-yard drive whose key plays were a pass interference call, a 16-yard pass-and-run with Shampklin, and a Yale personal foul. From the Eli 11, Emge threw a quick slant in the end zone to lanky, long-tressed freshman Ledger Hatch, who picked a terrific time to score his first career touchdown. Lipel booted the point. Harvard 27, Yale 17.

But as previously noted, in The Game no lead is safe. It took the Elis only five plays to cut the margin, with Grooms tossing to Mason Tipton for 48 yards and Alston scoring in a 12-yard run. Bosman converted. Harvard 27, Yale 24.

As the fourth quarter began, could the Crimson hold the Elis off? Would we see a rerun of 2019’s horror movie? Alex Washington eased concerns momentarily by picking off Grooms at the Harvard 20. But the Crimson went three and out. After a Sot punt, Yale started a drive on its 39. On third and 18, Alston got the first down by running for 26 yards. Now disaster seemed inevitable. On second and five from the Harvard 27, Grooms flipped to wideout David Pantelis, who took the ball into the end zone. Bosman again kicked. With 7:48 left, it was Yale 31, Harvard 27.

Cut to 2:01 remaining. The Elis have stuffed the Crimson offense and taken over possession at the Harvard 36. If they can make a first down, the game is over. They can’t; the Elis are stiffed by Harvard captain and linebacker Jordan Hill and junior defensive tackle Chris Smith. But the Crimson also has expended its final two timeouts. When Harvard gets the ball back at its 34, there are 59 seconds left—and a field goal will do the Crimson no good.

 

Here the Legend of Cool Hand Luke will be born. Taking the prudent course, the Yale defense was guarding the sidelines, to keep Harvard receivers from stopping the clock by catching a pass and stepping out of bounds. But that left the middle wide open. On second and 10 from the Harvard 46, Emge dropped back and spied Wimberly running in the middle of the field—“right up the seam,” said Murphy, all alone. Emge threw and Wimberly caught. The play gained 42 yards, to the Yale 12. 

Harvard then tried its bread-and-butter touchdown play: two passes in the end zone to 6’7” senior tight end Adam West. Both failed. It was third down. There were 26 seconds remaining. To set his defense, Yale coach Tony Reno expended his two remaining timeouts. But the stoppage also allowed Harvard’s Murphy to ponder. What to do? Try the pass to West again? A draw play to Borguet that might cross up the defense? A toss or end-around to the speedy Watson?

In the end, the Crimson went with the guy who got them there. Emge took the snap, dropped back and threw to the back left corner of the end zone to Wimberly, who was draped by Yale’s Wande Owens and Miles Oldacre. Emge, however, put the ball where Wimberly could catch it and the defenders could not. Keeping his focus, Wimberly grabbed the ball and stayed in the end zone while falling backward. Touchdown!!! Harvard leads!

“We always talk about making strong catches,” said Murphy, “and that was the epitome of a strong catch.”

Lipel added the extra point, crucial because it meant that the Crimson could not be beaten by a field goal. Harvard 34, Yale 31. Twenty-two seconds remained.

It wasn’t quite over. After Lipel’s kickoff, the Elis had 18 seconds to work a miracle. It did not happen. The final, lateral-strewn play fell dead at the Yale 33.

 

Game…over. The Game…over. Exhale. The Crimson fans surged onto the field to celebrate victory.

Before we depart, we need to salute captain Hill, who can stand in for the 32 players participating in their final game. Hill is Harvard’s first six-year player, having been allotted extra time by various eligibility rules, some created in response to the 2020 season that was canceled by the pandemic. On this day he had a game-high 10 tackles. As ever, he was the defense’s rock, its anchor. We expect he will be named to the All-Ivy first team, as he was in 2019. “For myself and all the fifth-year seniors who came back and made decisions to put our lives on hold to be in position to win a game like this and to win in this fashion—it’s incredible,” he said.

In the 1908 baseball season, after the controversial “Merkle Incident” cost the New York Giants the National League pennant, the team’s owner, John T. Brush, had medals struck for his players with the inscription “The Real Champions, 1908.” You can say that the Crimson had victory stolen at Princeton and thus should be the real Ivy co-champs, 2021. Many of us will persist in saying it. But that bitter disappointment should not obscure the resolve shown thereafter. Tim Murphy and his team should hold their heads up high.

This was one terrific season.

TIDBITS The series, which began in 1875, now stands in favor of Yale, 68-61-8. In the Ivy League era (since 1956), Harvard leads 37-27-1….The crowd, announced at 49,500, easily exceeded that of 2019 (44,989) when The Game also was at Yale Bowl (capacity 61,446)….Running back Aaron Shampklin finished as the Ivy League’s top rusher, gaining 92.8 yards per game on the ground. His running mate Aidan Borguet was fifth, averaging 60.2 yards.

 

Weekly Roundup

Dartmouth 52, Brown 31

Princeton 34, Penn 14

Columbia 34, Cornell 26

 

FINAL STANDINGS

TeamIvy GamesOverall
Dartmouth6-19-1
Princeton6-19-1
Harvard5-28-2
Yale4-35-5
Columbia4-37-3
Brown1-62-8
Cornell1-62-8
Penn1-63-7

 

Coming up: Mercifully, the 42-week offseason, which we plan to spend in a decompression chamber listening to a loop tape of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate.” The 148th season of Harvard football is scheduled to kick off at the Stadium on Saturday, September 17 against Merrimack. For now, happy, safe, and healthy holidays to all! 

 

THE SCORE BY QUARTERS

Harvard101077  34
Yale71077  31

 Attendance: 49,500

 

THE SEASON IN REVIEW: a wrap-up of Dick Friedman’s dispatches.

Week one: Harvard 44, Georgetown 9

Week two: Harvard 49, Brown 17

Week three: Harvard 38, Holy Cross 13

Week four: Harvard 24, Cornell 10

Week five: Harvard 30, Lafayette 3

Week six: Princeton 18 Harvard, 16

Week seven: Dartmouth 20, Harvard 17

Week eight: Harvard 49, Columbia 21

Week nine: Harvard 23, Penn 7

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Aaron Shampklin struts down the field with ball in hand.

Touchdown strut: Leaving Penn's Matthew McElroy in his wake, Harvard's Aaron Shampklin gambols toward the end zone on a 72-yard jaunt. Shampklin later put the game away with a 16-yard smash up the middle.

Photograph by David Dermer/courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications
 

Football 2021: Harvard 23, Penn 7

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Photographs courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications; collage by Niko Yaitanes/Harvard Magazine

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Running back Aidan Borguet runs up field through Columbia defenders.

Too hot to handle: Harvard's sophomore running back Aidan Borguet bursts through a hole past Columbia's Jordan Colbert (10) and Mason Tomlin to score the Crimson's sixth touchdown. Borguet ran for a game-high 98 yards.

Photograph by Owen A. Berger/The Harvard Crimson

Football 2021: Harvard 49, Columbia 21

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Aaron Shampklin struts down the field with ball in hand.

Touchdown strut: Leaving Penn's Matthew McElroy in his wake, Harvard's Aaron Shampklin gambols toward the end zone on a 72-yard jaunt. Shampklin later put the game away with a 16-yard smash up the middle.

Photograph by David Dermer/courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications
 

Football 2021: Harvard 23, Penn 7

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Running back Aidan Borguet runs up field through Columbia defenders.

Too hot to handle: Harvard's sophomore running back Aidan Borguet bursts through a hole past Columbia's Jordan Colbert (10) and Mason Tomlin to score the Crimson's sixth touchdown. Borguet ran for a game-high 98 yards.

Photograph by Owen A. Berger/The Harvard Crimson

Football 2021: Harvard 49, Columbia 21