Football 2021: Harvard 49, Columbia 21
New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town.
After two consecutive soul-crushing losses, to Princeton and Dartmouth respectively, the Harvard football team ventured to Manhattan on Saturday to face Columbia. The Crimson got a needed restorative, playing its best all-around game of the season, building a 42-0 lead, and trampling the Lions 49-21. The victory lifted Harvard to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in Ivy League play; Columbia dropped to 5-3, 2-3. The result kept the Crimson in the Ivy title race behind Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale, who all are 4-1 in the league. (More about this at the end of the story.) The triumph also ensured a winning season for Harvard, a welcome development after the 4-6 finish in 2019, the first losing campaign since 1998.
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“It just was one of those days when everything went our way,” said Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football Tim Murphy. “I was really proud of our football team,” he added, citing the trying previous two weeks, especially the Princeton game, “which we won, and won again.”
Saturday was a true bounceback. Harvard excelled in all phases of the game. Special kudos go to quarterback Luke Emge. “Luke did a terrific job executing our offense,” said Murphy, who especially lauded the junior’s poise. Emge is the Crimson’s third starter at the position this season. The first, sophomore Charlie Dean, was injured against Princeton and last week underwent season-ending surgery. Emge replaced Dean’s replacement, senior Jake Smith, against Dartmouth and provided a spark. Against Columbia he was sharp and decisive, completing 17 of 25 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns with one late interception. “My focus was on getting the ball to our playmakers,” said Emge. He did just that, spreading the ball to seven receivers, his favorite being junior Kym Wimberly, who caught eight balls for 109 yards, including one touchdown. The Harvard offense, which had been predictably vanilla all season long, also was flavored with trick plays: a reverse, a flea flicker, a pass thrown by a wide receiver. “I put down the edict that we would have some of these special plays,” said Murphy.
Of course, Emge could set up the aerial attack with his ground pounders, sophomore running back Aidan Borguet (98 net yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns) and junior (and Ivy rushing leader) Aaron Shampklin (75 yards on 19 carries, two touchdowns). Their efforts were abetted by the work of the Crimson offensive line, which manhandled the Lions defensive front. The reverse was true when Columbia had the ball: the Lions gained 49 yards on 35 carries, a 1.4-yard average.
Harvard took command on the game’s first series. On the second play the Crimson ran a reverse to senior wideout B.J. Watson that gained 14 yards. Two plays later an Emge-to-Wimberly hookup picked up 35. On the sixth play, from the Columbia five, Shampklin rounded right end and outsprinted the Lions to the end zone. Junior Jonah Lipel kicked the extra point. Harvard 7, Columbia 0.
Later in the quarter, after the Lions’ Alex Felkins misfired on a 23-yard field-goal try, the Crimson augmented its lead, going 80 yards in five plays. The big one was the so-called flea flicker: Emge got the ball back after a handoff to his running back, then flicked it to senior wideout James Batch, who rumbled to the Columbia one. The play covered 48 yards. On the next snap, Shampklin sliced off left tackle into the end zone. Lipel kicked the point. Harvard 14, Columbia 0.
The second quarter brought more of the same. Harvard went 60 yards in 11 plays; the niftiest had Emge spinning out of a sack attempt and picking up 12 yards. From the Lions two, Emge lobbed a pass to the end zone, where six-foot-seven senior tight end Adam West reached over a defensive back and plucked the ball for a touchdown. For good measure, West was the snapper on the extra point try, a task he accomplished with aplomb as Lipel booted the conversion. Harvard 21, Columbia 0.
On the next series, the Lions decided to try and make a first down on fourth-and-two from the Crimson 46. The pass attempt from quarterback Joe Green to wideout Marcus Libman was broken up by Harvard senior linebacker Jack McGowan. The Crimson took over. On its first play, sophomore wideout Gavin Sharkey took a handoff from Emge, then tossed downfield to Batch, who ran the ball to the Columbia 15. On the following play, Emge found junior tight end Adam Shepherd for a touchdown. Lipel swung his leg. Harvard 28, Columbia 0.
The deluge was not over. With 31 seconds remaining the half, Emge culminated a 65-yard drive by throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Wimberly. Lipel did his thing. Harvard 35, Columbia 0. At this point the Crimson had 18 first downs to Columbia’s seven.
The rout continued in the third quarter. Starting at the Crimson 37, Emge directed a seven-play scoring drive. Harvard used a 10-yard pass from Emge to Wimberly to convert a fourth-and-six. On the next play Borguet took a handoff from Emge, headed up the middle, cut back to the left, and bolted 22 yards to the end zone. Lipel again kicked. Harvard 42, Columbia 0.
The Lions then scored three unanswered touchdowns. After Emge’s lone regrettable throw that resulted in an interception by Columbia’s Jordan Colbert at the Crimson 40, the Lions’ Dante Miller ran 40 yards for a touchdown. It was now 42-21, and more than 10 minutes remained. A comeback for the ages? More Harvard late-game misery? Uh, no. The Crimson put the game away for good with a 75-yard drive consisting of eight plays, the biggest of which was a 24-yard pass from Emge to Wimberly. From the Columbia 10, Borguet employed another of his patented cutbacks to reach the end zone. Lipel punctuated. Harvard 49, Columbia 21.
As with the offense, the Crimson defensive heroes were many. The tackling leader was lineman Thor Griffith, who quickly is becoming a legend in his own time. The freshman man mountain had a team-leading seven tackles, including three for loss and a sack. McGowan was next with six.
As for those Ivy title hopes: as Michael Corleone says in Godfather II about getting to Frank Pentangeli in prison: “Difficult, but not impossible.” First Harvard would need to beat Penn and Yale. The Elis would need to beat Princeton next week, or Princeton would need to lose its finale to Penn. And Dartmouth somehow would need to lose to either Brown or Cornell. We discount the possibility of the Big Green losing both. (How did Dartmouth lose to Columbia 19-0, anyway?)
Some version of these outcomes would create a four-way tie among Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, all of whom would have two losses.
Then again, if the Crimson hadn’t been screwed at Princeton, our fate would be in our hands.
Not that we’re bitter.
TIDBITS With the victory, Harvard coach Tim Murphy tied his opposite number, Columbia’s Al Bagnoli (previously at Penn), for second-most Ivy League victories with 127. Number one is Yale’s legendary Carmen Cozza, with 135 Ivy wins from 1965-1996….Harvard quarterback Luke Emge became the 14th of the last 16 Crimson signal-callers to win in his first career start.
Dartmouth 31, Princeton 7
Yale 63, Brown 38
Cornell 15, Penn 12
Coming up: On Saturday Harvard returns to the Stadium to face Penn in the Crimson’s final home game of the season. Kickoff: noon. 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 Quakers are 3-5 overall and 1-4 in Ivy League play. In the overall series, which began in 1881, Harvard leads 49-39-2, but Penn won the most recent game, 24-20 in 2019 at the Stadium. Saturday also will be Senior Day, in which Harvard’s seniors and their families will be honored. Mostly because of the pandemic, some of the seniors have been around for an unusually long time; linebacker/captain Jordan Hill is in his sixth year.
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
Week four: Harvard 24, Cornell 10
Week five: Harvard 30, Lafayette 3
Week six: Princeton 18 Harvard, 16
Week seven: Dartmouth 20, Harvard 17