Harvard Football’s Stolen Ivy Title

A thrilling win in The Game was eclipsed by a stolen Ivy title

Wideout Kym Wimberly hauls in Luke Emge’s third-down, last-seconds, no-timeouts pass to secure Harvard’s thrilling 31-27 victory in The Game.
Bulldog Backbreaker: Wideout Kym Wimberly hauls in Luke Emge’s third-down, last-seconds, no-timeouts pass to secure Harvard’s thrilling 31-27 victory in The Game. Photograph by Nathan Klima

The Yale Bowl, Nov. 20, 2021. With 26 seconds remaining, Harvard trails Yale 31-27, but the Crimson is knocking at the Eli goal. It is third down and 10 from the Yale 12-yard-line and Harvard, having failed at two pass attempts in the end zone, has a decision to make. Try the same play? Use a surprise run, or a flip to the outside? Junior quarterback Luke Emge chooses a pass to wideout (and classmate) Kym Wimberly, with whom he has just connected on a 42-yard toss. Emge takes the snap, drops back, and throws to the far left corner of the end zone. Wimberly leaps and, despite being draped by two Yale defenders, snags the ball and holds on. Touchdown! After an extra-point kick by junior Jonah Lipel, Harvard leads 34-31. That is the final score—a proper payback for the ghastly 2019 Game, in which the Crimson surrendered a late lead and lost in double-overtime 50-43.

The victory also brought a joyful conclusion to a successful if tumultuous season. In a turnaround from 2019’s 4-6 mark (the pandemic canceled Ivy football in 2020), Harvard finished with an 8-2 overall record and a 5-2 record in the Ivy League, good for third place behind Dartmouth and Princeton, each of whom defeated the Crimson (see final standings). Those, at least, are the official standings. Many if not most Crimson supporters contend that the loss to the Tigers actually was a victory that was stolen by inept officiating. (More about this below.)

“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.”

The Conquering Hero: Against Yale, 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

In the preseason, Murphy had hoped to install a pass-heavy offense. That didn’t happen, partly because of injury, partly because of instability at quarterback, and partly for a good reason: in junior Aaron Shampklin and sophomore Aidan Borguet, Harvard had the league’s best running-back tandem (and one of the Ivies’ best ever). Even with opposing defenses stacked against them, Shampklin led the Ivies in rushing, with 92.8 yards per game, and was second in rushing touchdowns, with 11; Borguet was fifth in yards (60.2) and tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (eight).

The Crimson’s other strength was its defensive front seven (linemen and linebackers), for which Harvard had two excellent players at each position. This unit made running against Harvard exceedingly difficult—the Crimson surrendered a stingy 64.6 yards per game on the ground—and also harassed quarterbacks enough to take the pressure off the secondary. To accompany senior captain Jordan Hill (a first-team All-Ivy linebacker in 2019), new stars emerged in junior linemen Truman Jones, Chris Smith, and Jacob Sykes, along with linebacker Jack McGowan, a senior, and sophomore lineman Nate Leskovec.

The season’s first half was a shakedown cruise. The sailing was smooth. After beating Georgetown 44-9 and Brown 49-17, Harvard traveled to Holy Cross. In previous years the Crusaders had given the Crimson fits, but this time the Crimson built a 24-0 lead and handled them 38-13. The number one quarterback, sophomore Charlie Dean, was out with an injury, so the erstwhile starter, senior Jake Smith, stepped in and completed 20 of 31 pass attempts for three touchdowns. Junior Jon Sot, 2019’s All-Ivy punter, also got his kicks. On the site where he had boomed a 76-yard punt two years before (see “Playing for Kicks,” November-December 2021, page 25), Sot unleashed a 64-yarder and a 67-yarder.

At the Stadium the following week, Ivy rival Cornell proved stubborn before falling 24-10. Smith started, but in the second quarter, with the Big Red ahead 7-3, Murphy inserted Dean. Early in the third quarter Dean led a 75-yard drive that featured a 31-yard Shampklin run. With the score 10-10, Dean flipped a so-called “bubble screen” pass to senior wideout B.J. Watson, who streaked 75 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The Crimson defense and Sot (three punts dropped inside the Cornell 20) then held the fort until Shampklin salted the game away with a 40-yard touchdown run with 1:47 to play.

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

One more game remained until the rugged portion of the schedule, and it was a Stadium laugher: Harvard 30, Lafayette 3. The game belonged to Borguet, who gained 169 yards (a 7.7-yard average) and scored two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the defense held the Leopards to minus-24 yards on the ground. At day’s end, Harvard and its next two opponents, Princeton and Dartmouth, were all 5-0—the first time three Ivy teams had been 5-0 since 1968 (Harvard, Penn, Yale).

“Saturday, October 23, 2021…a date which will live in infamy!” We can imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt, A.B. 1904, LL.D. ’29, uttering that stentorian phrase in relation to the cause célèbre that developed at Princeton Stadium. (FDR, of course, was speaking in connection with a genuine tragedy, while this was a mere football game.)

The afternoon featured a gripping defensive chess match by both teams, but especially by Harvard, which was facing the superior attack. That was especially true when Dean was knocked out with an injury that proved to be season-ending. The Tigers’ only touchdown came on a blocked punt. Smith, who replaced Dean, led the Crimson on a fourth-quarter, game-tying scoring drive, culminating in Shampklin’s two-yard touchdown run. At regulation’s end it was 13-13. In the first overtime period, Princeton’s Jeffrey Sexton and Harvard’s Lipel each booted a field goal. In the second, each team failed to score. Harvard 16, Princeton 16.

In a rule mandated for the 2021 season, the third and subsequent overtimes are glorified two-point conversions: each team gets one play from the two-and-a-half yard line, with the sides flip-flopping opening possessions, no kicks allowed. After Harvard broke up a Princeton pass, the Crimson offense lined up with a chance to win the game. Smith flipped a pass over the middle to Kym Wimberly in the end zone. Complete! Crimson wins! But…hold the phone! Princeton coach Bob Surace was out on the field, arguing that he had called a timeout (which a coach is allowed to do) before Harvard had snapped the ball, and that the officials simply had failed to notice him. Surace was more persuasive than any Capitol Hill lobbyist. Ultimately, the officials bought his argument and ordered a do-over.

Now it was Murphy’s time to take to the field and argue that the play should stand. At one point the Harvard coach, clearly irate, threw his trademark camo cap to the ground. To no avail.

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

So the Crimson tried again. This time Smith threw to Watson in the end zone. Good! Crimson wins! But…hold on—there’s a flag on the play! This time sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco was called for pass interference. Penalized 15 yards, Harvard failed on its next attempt. In the fourth overtime, both teams misfired. Finally, in overtime no. 5, Princeton quarterback Cole Smith flipped a pass to the back of the end zone on which wideout Jacob Birmelin made a sensational leaping catch, good for two points. Harvard responded with Jake Smith tossing to senior tight end Adam West. Good! But wait…this time the Crimson had called timeout before the play. On the next snap, Smith threw an incompletion. That was your ballgame: Princeton 18, Harvard 16.

The next day the Ivy League issued a statement about Harvard’s scoring pass in the third overtime that read, in part: “After the play, the replay booth stopped the game for an official review. While the review did determine that the Princeton head coach called for timeout before the ball was snapped, the officiating crew made a procedural error as a timeout can only be recognized and granted prior to the snap by an on-field official and is not reviewable. Therefore, the timeout should not have been granted and the play should have resulted in a successful two-point conversion. The outcome of the game will stand as a win for Princeton. The league office will address the error with the officials.”

A day later, taking the statesmanlike stance, Harvard’s Erin McDermott, the Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics, tweeted, “We are extremely disappointed with the outcome of the football game due to a major officiating error….However, we stand with the Ivy League and understand there is no recourse to determining a different result.”

“The most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Murphy, who remained steamed, saying later, “We won the game, and we won the game again.” This was a miscarriage of justice, a highway robbery, pure and simple—as heinous a Garden State heist as any perpetrated by Tony Soprano and his mob. Outraged Crimson faithful are still going through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief—except very few will reach acceptance, now or ever.

The following week, before 14,000 at the Stadium, the clash with Dartmouth saw another heartbreaker. Again it was a largely defensive tussle, but the action was controlled mostly by savvy Big Green quarterback Derek Kyler. The Crimson’s big play came on the opening kickoff of the second half, when fleet junior return man DeMarkes Stradford took the ball at his 11, whooshed through a big opening in the middle of the field, headed to the left sideline where he had an abundance of running room, and set sail all the way to the end zone. The score put the Crimson ahead 14-10. But after that the offense sputtered. In the fourth quarter Murphy replaced Smith with junior Luke Emge, who gave Harvard enough of a spark to coax a game-tying, 31-yard field goal by Lipel. But the Big Green responded with a field goal of its own, and Lipel’s last-ditch, 53-yard attempt failed. Dartmouth 20, Harvard 17. Said Murphy, “They made a few more plays than we did.”

All the pent-up anger and frustration of the previous two weeks was unloaded the next Saturday at Columbia. Unfurling some heretofore unseen trick plays (a reverse, a flea flicker, a pass thrown by a wide receiver), Harvard got away to a 42-0 lead; the final score was 49-21. Now the starter, Emge was sharp and decisive, completing 17 of 25 passes for three touchdowns. One of those scoring tosses went to Wimberly, who caught eight passes for 109 yards. Running effectively behind the offensive line, Borguet gained 98 yards and Shampklin 75; each scored two touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, the Crimson limited the Lions to 49 yards on 35 carries.

The following Saturday, in Harvard’s final home game, the Crimson dispatched Penn 23-7. The Quakers made Shampklin work hard for his yardage, but he did break free for a 72-yard touchdown and a game-clinching 16-yarder. Meantime, the Harvard rush defense remained staunch, limiting Penn to 47 yards on the ground, 1.8 yards per carry. The Crimson also made three interceptions, two by junior safety James Herring.

Thus, as if victory in The Game were not incentive enough, Harvard took the field in New Haven with a 4-2 conference record (as did Yale) and an outside chance for a title tie. That did not happen, but victory was sweet consolation nonetheless. A crowd of 49,500 on a sunny, brisk day saw a typical Game barnburner, with four lead changes. Crimson kicker Lipel did his part, booting two career-long 47-yard field goals and in the process setting the Harvard single-season record (15). Perhaps the most electrifying play occurred in the second quarter, when Herring charged in to block a punt by Yale’s Jack Bosman; Harvard’s sophomore special teamer Kobe Joseph snatched the ball out of the air and ran it back 35 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Crimson a 20-10 lead. In the second half, though, the Elis’ spectacular quarterback, Nolan Grooms, helped his team erase a 27-17 deficit and forge a 31-27 lead. That was the score when the Crimson got the ball for the final time at its own 34 with 59 seconds left—and no timeouts.

Here’s where Emge would earn his moniker: Cool Hand Luke. He passed to freshman tight end Tyler Neville for 12 yards. On the next play, from the Harvard 46, Emge dropped back and spied Wimberly running down the seam of the defense—all alone. Emge delivered the ball to his wideout, who finally stumbled down at the Yale 12. That 42-yard connection set up the game-winning Emge-to-Wimberly scoring hookup, with Wimberly somehow holding on to the ball despite the efforts of two Yale defenders. “We always talk about making strong catches,” said Murphy, “and that was the ultimate strong catch.”

The happy outcome was marred by the knowledge of what might, or should, have been. With the Princeton result still rankling—it forever will—Murphy had rings made for his squad that read “9-1.” That exemplifies the pride the coach felt for his resolute team. “The last three games [saw] tremendous leadership, tremendous character, tremendous resiliency,” he said. “The life lesson we always try to teach our kids in this program is never give up, never ever give up. This team right down to the last drive was certainly the epitome of that.”

TIDBITS: With Harvard’s victory in The Game, the series now stands at Yale 68 wins, Harvard 61 wins, and eight ties. The Crimson has won 16 of the last 20….Truman Jones ’22 was elected the 148th captain of Harvard football. Jones, a defensive lineman from Atlanta, Georgia, is a resident of Kirkland House and a biomedical engineering concentrator….Eight Harvard players (the most since 2015) were named to the All-Ivy first team: senior offensive lineman Spencer Rolland (who also was named Academic All-Ivy), defensive linemen Chris Smith and Jacob Sykes, and linebackers Jordan Hill and Jack McGowan; junior running back Aaron Shampklin (unanimous selection) and kicker Jonah Lipel, and sophomore cornerback Alex Washington. Named to the second team were junior safety James Herring, sophomore running back Aidan Borguet, and defensive lineman Nate Leskovec. Senior offensive lineman Hunt Sparks was named honorable mention….The 148th season of Harvard football will kick off on September 17, 2022 at Harvard Stadium against Merrimack. 


Ivy Games Overall

Dartmouth 6-1 9-1

Princeton 6-1 9-1

HARVARD 5-2 8-2

Yale 4-3 5-5

Columbia 4-3 7-3

Brown 1-6 2-8

Cornell 1-6 2-8

Penn 1-6 3-7

Published in the print edition of the January-February 2021 issue (Volume 124, Number 3), under the headline "What Might Have Been…"

Read more articles by: Dick Friedman

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