Great Expectations

Picked to win the 2022 Ivy championship, the football team got off to a solid start.

Defensive lineman Thor Griffith, a junior, celebrating  two sacks and a game-high nine tackles against Merrimack
THE MIGHTY THOR: Junior Thor Griffith, who had two sacks and a game-high nine tackles against Merrimack, was one of the mainstays of a defensive line that routinely stifled opponents’ runners and harassed quarterbacks.Photograph by Dylan Goodman/courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Late in the evening of Friday, September 16, after nearly 53 minutes of indifferent play in its season opener against Merrimack, the Harvard football team—the school’s 148th—shucked off its rust, flexed its muscles, and showed why pundits in the Ivy League preseason media poll had picked the Crimson to win the 2022 title. Down 21-7 to the unheralded Warriors with a little more than seven minutes to play, Harvard pulled within a touchdown when senior halfback Aidan Borguet blasted up the middle on a draw play and rambled 48 yards to the end zone. On Merrimack’s ensuing series, Crimson senior linebackers Jake Brown and Jack McGowan sacked Warrior quarterback Jack Zergiotis at the Merrimack two-yard line. After a punt, Harvard took over at the Warriors’ 41. A pass from senior quarterback Charlie Dean to classmate wideout Kym Wimberly brought the ball to the Merrimack five—after which Borguet cantered around left end and stepped into the end zone. When senior Jonah Lipel booted the extra point, the game was—somehow—tied at 21.

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Now it was overtime, in which each team would get the ball at the 25-yard line and take turns trying to score until there was a winner. Harvard got the first turn. On the initial play, Dean flicked the ball to the left to Borguet, who was unaccountably uncovered. The turbo-legged back blasted his way over two defenders to the end zone. On Merrimack’s possession, Harvard defenders, led by a pair of linemen, senior Nate Leskovec and junior Thor Griffith, kept the Warriors from reaching the end zone. The final score: Harvard 28, Merrimack 21.

The next week in Providence, with Dean passing for four touchdowns, the Crimson dispatched Brown 35-28 in the Ivy opener for both teams. Back home the following Saturday in an entertaining game against an exceptional Holy Cross team, Harvard matched the Crusaders big play for big play until succumbing 30-21. All told, it was a solid start to a season, one built on a formula of resiliency, rock-ribbed defense, and a rampaging runner. The hope: to surpass 2021’s 8-2 overall and 5-2 Ivy marks, the latter good for third place in the conference.

In his 28 seasons on the Harvard sideline (29 years including 2020, when Ivy play was canceled because of the pandemic), Tim Murphy, the Stephenson Family head coach for Harvard football, has had two mantras above all. First: “Never, ever give up. No matter what, we’re going to find a way to win.” And second: “It’s what’s up front that counts.”

Accordingly, season after season, the Crimson rolls out a stellar group of defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and stuff their running backs. (No doubt it was the defense that swayed many of the voters in the media poll.) In 2021, Harvard had led the Football Championship Series (FCS) in run defense, surrendering 64.6 yards per game on the ground. Despite losing such stalwarts as Chris Smith and Jacob Sykes, this edition of the Crimson featured two of the league’s best in the ferocious Leskovec and Griffith. The mighty Thor—all 6’2’, 310 pounds of him—even was celebrated in the sports publication The Athletic for being one of college football’s physical “freaks.” (This was a positive thing—trust us.) They were not alone. The hard-hitting McGowan, senior defensive back James Herring, and ball-hawking junior defensive back Alex Washington also had received preseason notice.

REAL GRABBER: Though in the clutches of Brown’s Harrison Ochs, Kym Wimberly reached over the goal to score his second touchdown of the game. The Crimson’s senior wideout amassed an Ivy-leading 24 catches in the season’s first three games.
Photograph by Dylan Goodman/courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Against Merrimack, Harvard had a school-record-tying nine sacks, with Leskovec accounting for a record 4.5 and Griffith for 2.5. All told, Griffith piled up a game-high nine tackles while Leskovec had seven. Those performances helped keep the Crimson in the game while the offense sputtered. Quarterback Dean was seeing his first action since he was injured during last season’s sixth game, against Princeton. He was particularly creaky during the third quarter, when he threw two interceptions. Helping to bail him out was Wimberly, who caught the game-winning pass last year against Yale and on this night made seven receptions, some spectacular, for 78 yards. But the ultimate safety blanket was Borguet.

The latest in a line of stocky-and-speedy Crimson backs, the 5’10”, 211-pound senior first literally burst on the scene in 2019 when he raced for four touchdowns and ran for a record 269 yards against Yale. Last year he was the number two running back behind the now-graduated Aaron Shampklin, a 2021 first-team All-Ivy selection. The 2022 preseason media poll made Borguet the favorite to be the Ivy offensive player of the year. Indeed, one of Borguet’s hallmarks is knowing how to wait; after getting a handoff, he will scan the scrimmage line for a split second to see where the hole is, then blow right through it, as he did on that 48-yard run against Merrimack. For the evening he gained 127 yards, a superb 6.3 per carry.

OFF AND RUNNING: Aidan Borguet bolted for a 67-yard score against Brown, Harvard’s final touchdown of the game. In the season’s first three games, the senior back crossed the goal line five times while making the sensational look routine.
Photograph by Dylan Goodman/courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Against Brown Borguet broke another long TD run, a 67-yarder in the third quarter that gave the Crimson a 35-7 lead. On the afternoon, he piled up 131 yards on 16 carries. But this was Dean’s day: the Crimson quarterback completed 20 of 29 pass attempts for 282 yards and those four touchdowns, and was not intercepted. Nor, thanks to his offensive line, was he sacked. That allowed him to spread the ball to nine receivers. Wimberly was magnificent, with a game-high eight receptions, for 115 yards and two 26-yard touchdowns.

But in the second half, committing some heinous personal fouls, Harvard allowed the scrappy Bears to creep back into the game. (Like bases on balls in baseball, personal fouls have a way of catching up with you.) The outcome was not decided until a Brown pass fell incomplete in the Crimson end zone with nine seconds to play. “We beat a good Ivy team on the road. That’s all we’re going to talk about,” Murphy said, in his version of “We had ’em all the way.”

Back at the Stadium the following Saturday, Harvard ran into a Holy Cross team from the Patriot League that was ranked as high as tenth in the Football Championship Subdivision. All afternoon the Crimson hung with the Crusaders. Borguet scored two touchdowns, on runs of seven and 19 yards. After a shaky start Dean played strongly, finishing 19 of 34 and hooking up with Wimberly for a sensational 19-yard scoring play on which Dean showed off his power arm by rolling out left, then firing the ball all the way across the field to Wimberly in the right corner of the end zone. The latter continued his stellar season by making a team-high nine catches. But on the other side of the ball, despite three sacks of quarterback Matthew Sluka, the Crimson always seemed to be a step slow when covering the fleet Crusader receivers, allowing Sluka to complete 17 of 31 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns.

“We just made too many mistakes,” said Murphy. “I give Holy Cross credit for that.” Besides, with the season still young, there was time for those mistakes to be corrected.

TIDBITS Harvard is now 125-21-2 in season openers, and 17-4 in the last 21….Coach Tim Murphy is 19-9 in season openers, and 23-5 in Ivy League openers….Defensive tackle Truman Jones, Harvard’s 148th captain, is the seventeenth consecutive captain to come from the defense. The most recent captain from the offense, in 2004, was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05. (Jones’s immediate predecessor as captain, linebacker Jordan Hill ’20, served for two seasons.)….Among states represented on the Harvard roster, Georgia leads with 11, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (10 each), Texas (nine), California (seven) and Florida (six).

Read more articles by: Dick Friedman

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