Football: Harvard 28-Merrimack 21
If you were a Harvard fan among the 10,946 attending the 2022 season opener Friday night, you would have been forgiven had you shuffled disconsolately out of the Stadium with seven or so minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the lifeless Crimson trailing Merrimack 21-7. Minutes later, driving home, you also would have been forgiven had you needed to get off the road when you heard the final score: Harvard 28, Merrimack 21—in overtime yet.
The improbable and narrow victory over the plucky Warriors of the Northeast Conference (now 1-2) no doubt makes many question why the Crimson were tabbed the Ivy League preseason favorites. True, Harvard was playing its first game while Merrimack (a school the Crimson had never met on the gridiron) had two under its belt. But for almost the entire game, the offense, especially the passing attack, creaked. The pass defense sprung leaks like a ceiling in a condemned apartment. Even the usually reliable special teams faltered in a crucial moment. If not for Merrimack’s questionable time management at the end of regulation and the Crimson’s stellar defense, Harvard would have suffered a seemingly unaccountable defeat. Maybe the real lesson for opponents is that you can’t hope to hold down junior running back Aidan Borguet, the Crimson’s Ivy Player of the Year candidate, for 60 minutes; Borguet scored twice in the fourth quarter and again in overtime, the game-winner.
At least publicly, Tim Murphy, the Stephenson Family head coach for Harvard football, accentuated the positive. “No matter what, we’re going to find a way to win,” he said. “Never, ever give up. And I think that’s been our mantra for a long, long time here, and these kids tonight were the epitome of that. It was pretty amazing.”
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It’s true that in his 29 seasons on the Crimson sideline Murphy has seen some spectacular comebacks—by the opponents as well as Harvard—but this one ranks among the most bizarre. Little that preceded it indicated that it would happen.
The Crimson’s quarterback was senior Charlie Dean, who played well last season before being injured against Princeton in the sixth game. On Friday night, the rust was evident, especially early. In the first period Dean was 4-for-8 and Harvard had 10 yards passing and 21 of total offense. Meantime, Merrimack’s quarterback, Jack Zergiotis, was spreading the ball smartly to a corps of receivers. Zergiotis, a transfer from UConn, was employing a quick, two-step drop back in hopes of neutralizing the fearsome Harvard pass rush. It took a while, but the Warriors broke through in the second quarter. From the Crimson five, Zergiotis tossed over the middle to Jacari Carter for a touchdown. Lliam Davis booted the extra point. Merrimack 7, Harvard 0.
As the Crimson offense continued to sputter, the defense kept Harvard afloat. Only a ferocious pass rush by the Harvard defensive line, particularly senior Nate Leskovec and junior Thor Griffith, stopped Zergiotis from adding to the Warriors’ total. With 6:06 left in the period and following a 15-yard Merrimack punt, the Crimson took over on its 42. On the ensuing drive Harvard’s best weapon was the officials’ yellow flag. Three Merrimack penalties—for holding, for roughing the passer, and for an illegal block—were interspersed with a nifty reverse pitch from Dean to 5-foot-8 sophomore Scott Woods II, the latest in a line of Smurf-like wide receivers in the Adam Scott/B.J. Watson mold. Woods scampered around left end for 18 yards. Two plays later Dean faked a handoff and dashed around left end into the end zone. Senior Jonah Lipel booted the extra point. Harvard 7, Merrimack 7. The touchdown not only was the first Crimson score of 2022 but also prolonged the Harvard streak of not having been shut out to an Ivy record 229 games.
Near the end of the half the Crimson barely missed on another chance to score. Lipel’s 48-yard field-goal try had plenty of leg but clanked off the left upright. The first-half statistics told a tale of two attacks: Merrimack had three yards rushing, Harvard 73; the Warriors had 153 yards passing, the Crimson 44.
The third quarter saw the Harvard offense produce two punts and two interceptions. Fortunately, the Crimson defense, led by Leskovec’s three sacks, again stifled the Warriors. But on the play after Dean threw the second pick, Zergiotis found Carter streaking behind the Harvard defense. The perfectly thrown ball hit Carter in stride and he ran into the end zone—a 76-yard touchdown. This time Davis missed the extra point. Merrimack 13, Harvard 7.
It got worse. On the Crimson’s first possession of the fourth quarter, with fourth-and-nine from the Merrimack 43, Harvard sophomore Sebastien Tasko dropped back to punt—but sophomore long snapper Will Troutman sailed the ball way over Tasko’s head. By the time Tasko could corral it, the ball was at the Crimson 19—a loss of 38 yards. On the next play Zergiotis found Hayden Fisher, who beat Crimson defensive back Alex Washington in the end zone. On the conversion, Merrimack went for two. Zergiotis rolled right, then flipped left to Tyler Roberts, who had an easy path to the goal line. Merrimack 21, Harvard 7.
Only 11:50 remained and the Crimson was two scores down. On the next series Harvard went three-and-out. When it again got the ball back, at its 15, the clock was down to 7:02. At last, Dean got in gear, connecting with senior wideout Kim Wimberly for a 27-yard gain. Then, on fourth-and-eight, Dean threw to senior tight end Haven Montefalco for a first down—barely. On such near-misses do comebacks hang. Next came a draw play with Dean handing to Borguet. Bottled up all day, this time the stumpy speedster barreled through a hole, kicked his way out of a tackle, and romped the remainder of the 48 yards. Lipel provided the extra point. Merrimack 21, Harvard 14.
The clock showed 4:31. The Crimson had life—especially when Zergiotis threw two incomplete passes that each halted the clock. A shared sack by senior Harvard linebackers Jake Brown and Jack McGowan drove the Warriors back to their two. After a punt, Harvard took over on the Merrimack 41. Now 3:19 remained. Dean, energized, threw deep down the left to Wimberly. The hero of last year’s Yale game made a diving, one-handed catch in coverage at the five. On the next play Borguet ran around left end and stepped into the end zone, just inside the pylon. Lipel added the extra point. Harvard 21, Merrimack 21.
The most important development in the remainder of regulation occurred when Zergiotis injured his thumb when he was sacked by Crimson junior defensive lineman Tyler Huenemann. Thus Zergiotis would be unavailable for overtime. In the extra session, Harvard got the ball first. Dean took the snap, ran right and flipped left to Borguet, who was curiously uncovered. Borguet got up a head of steam and, though two Warriors were between him and the goal, he was (in football parlance) not to be denied. For the coup de grace Borguet ran over Merrimack defensive back Wesley Matthews and stumbled over the goal. Lipel punctuated. Harvard 28, Merrimack 21.
Now it was the Warriors’ turn. Substitute quarterback Gavin McCusker took Merrimack to the five with a pass to Carter. But then he was sacked twice—first, by Griffith and Huenemann; then, by Griffith and Leskovec. Now back at the 25, on fourth down McCusker aimed a pass for tight end Pat Conroy that Washington batted away. The end.
Harvard had escaped, largely thanks to the defense, but there is much to work on and worry about. Merrimack was throttled on the ground, totaling minus-26 yards. But Zergiotis found some weaknesses in the secondary, amassing a very good 309 yards passing, including those big plays. The Crimson had nine sacks, with Leskovec accounting for 4.5 and Griffith for 2.5. (That pair came as advertised.) For the day, Griffith had nine tackles while Leskovec and junior linebacker Matt Hudson garnered seven apiece. On the Crimson side of the ball, Dean got it going late but was 18-of-35 for only 166 yards; his nadir came on those two third-quarter interceptions. Murphy ascribes some of his problems to the opponent. “They were getting a lot of pressure on our quarterback,” he explained. “They were playing almost exclusively man coverage with some real players, some really great scholarship athletes. And the combination made it really, really challenging.” Borguet gained 127 yards, 6.3 per carry. Wimberly, a spectacular deep threat, came through with seven catches for 78 yards.
TIDBITS Harvard is now 125-21-2 in season openers, and is 17-4 in the last 21….The victory prolongs Harvard’s winning streak in home openers to 21 games….The Crimson is 17-2 in night games at Harvard Stadium….Replacing Jon Sot (now a graduate transfer at Notre Dame), Sebastien Task averaged 41.5 yards on eight punts, placing three inside Merrimack’s 20-yard line.
Brown 44, Bryant 38 (2 OT)
Princeton 39, Stetson 14
Penn 25, Colgate 14
Cornell 28, VMI 22
Dartmouth 35, Valparaiso 13
Holy Cross 38, Yale 14
Columbia 38, Marist 3
Coming up: Next Saturday the Crimson travels to Providence to face Brown in the first Ivy League game of the season for both teams. Kickoff: 1 P.M.. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on WRCA 1330 AM, 106.1 FM, and 92.9. FM-HD2. The Bears are 1-0 in 2022. Harvard leads the overall series 88-30-2 and is riding a 10-game winning streak, including a 49-17 victory last year at Harvard Stadium.
The score by quarters