Ups and Downs
The football team were kings of the road, but struggled at home.
The shadows on the field at Harvard Stadium were lengthening, and so were Harvard’s chances of stealing the 138th playing of The Game from favored Yale, when Crimson quarterback Charlie Dean led his offense onto the field with 1:25 left in the third quarter. Harvard trailed 13-7 and had struggled to move the ball, save for a 64-yard pass-and-run play from Dean to sophomore wideout Scott Woods II in the second quarter. Now, though, Harvard began to drive. As the third quarter turned into the fourth, Dean mixed rushes by star senior running back Aidan Borguet with three pass completions to sophomore wideout Kaedyn Odermann that brought the ball to the Yale 24. There, on first down, Dean took the snap, dropped back—and spied junior tight end Tyler Neville wide open along the right sideline. Dean threw, Neville caught and hurried into the end zone. When senior Jonah Lipel added the extra point, Harvard had the lead, 14-13, with 13:34 to play.
Could the Crimson hold on? Alas, no. Showing his sang-froid, Bulldog quarterback Nolan Grooms engineered a 75-yard march that culminated in a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jackson Hawes. Though the extra-point attempt failed, the 19-14 score held up. When Penn upset Princeton, Yale had a 6-1 league record (8-2 overall) and its eighteenth Ivy League championship. Harvard finished 6-4 overall and 4-3 in league play—respectable but disappointing, especially in view of the preseason media poll that had tabbed the Crimson the title favorite.
The up-and-down nature of the Game symbolized Harvard’s season. It was one of the quirkiest in Harvard annals: the Crimson was 5-0 on the road and 1-4 at home. True, three of the four toughest opponents visited the Stadium, but the defeats had the faithful grumbling nonetheless. The team had several strong points, particularly rushing offense and defense, but often sputtered and was vulnerable to the pass. In the end, perhaps that overoptimistic preseason forecast was Harvard’s toughest opponent.
The season’s crazy-quilt nature was no surprise to Stephenson Family head coach for Harvard football Tim Murphy, who has been on the Crimson sideline since 1994. “The reality is that the league has never been more competitive,” he says. “Every week is a challenge. In a given week anyone can beat anyone.” This was proven during the 2022 campaign when Columbia nipped Harvard and middle-of-the-pack Penn knocked off powers Yale and Princeton. The Crimson, meanwhile, lost to the Elis and the Tigers but crushed the Quakers. Go figure.
Harvard’s early season had been promising, with victories over Merrimack at the Stadium and Brown on the road followed by a defeat to Holy Cross at home (“Great Expectations,” November-December 2022, page 24). No disgrace here; the Crusaders would finish 10-0 and become one of the powers of the Football Championship Subdivision. For the season’s fourth game the Crimson traveled to Cornell and outlasted its Ivy rival 35-28. Dean was 15-of-29 passing with two touchdowns. Senior wideout Kym Wimberly and sophomore Ledger Hatch each had five catches. Harvard scored on a blocked punt—something of a specialty in recent times—when senior Kobe Joseph smothered a kick by Cornell’s Ayden McCarter and junior Jelani Machen scooped up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. The Crimson defense limited the Big Red to 65 yards rushing on 37 attempts: 1.8 per carry.
Photograph by Juilian Giordano/The Harvard Crimson
After a slow start, Borguet piled up 163 yards on 28 carries. On a fourth-quarter drive he essentially ran out the clock, churning for 57 yards on eight carries and capping his exertions with a two-yard touchdown. This season Borguet cemented his legacy as one of the great runners in Harvard history. The 5’10”, 211-pound back was like a turbocharged Porsche Carrera, with acceleration, speed, power, and cornering ability. He would finish the season as the Ivy League’s leading rusher; his 1,182 yards were 437 more than the total of Grooms, the second-place finisher. (Both had 5.7 yards per carry.) It was also the fifth-highest single-season total in Harvard history. Borguet ended his career with 2,429 total yards, seventh on Harvard’s all-time list. He also was named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, presented to the outstanding offensive player in the FCS. Usually in 2022, as Borguet went, so went Harvard.
Photograph by Eldon Lindsay/Cornell Athletics
After Cornell the Crimson traveled to Washington, D.C., to face Howard. The Buffs, of the Mideastern Athletic Conference, gave favored Harvard a tussle before falling 41-25. Borguet gained 119 yards in 22 carries. The Crimson again had a punt block (by senior safety James Herring, the team’s season leader in tackles, with 55.0) and added a field-goal block (by senior defensive lineman and captain Truman Jones, sack leader with 6.0).
The rest of the schedule was all Ivy—football in earnest, as it has been termed. Princeton arrived at the Stadium for a freighted Friday-night matchup: both teams were unbeaten in league play (the Tigers were 5-0 overall), with the Crimson thirsting to avenge the previous season’s controversial 18-16, five-overtime defeat that had cost Harvard the title. Instead, nearly 11,000 spectators and an ESPNU audience witnessed Princeton shellack the Crimson 37-10. Borguet was somewhat contained, with 96 hard-earned yards on 15 carries. Harvard had no answer for the Tigers’ high-powered attack. Princeton dominated in total offense, 469 yards to 303; in time of possession, 36:55 to 23:05; and in rushing yards, 191 to 112. (Harvard had entered the game surrendering an average of 78.0 yards on the ground.) After three difficult quarters Dean was pulled and replaced by senior Luke Emge. The hero of the previous year’s Yale game punctuated this dreary night by tossing two interceptions.
When the going gets tough, what do the tough do? They follow the Animal House plan: “Road trip!” This one took the Crimson to Hanover, New Hampshire, where in what Murphy called a “tough, gritty, grind-it-out kind of game,” they subdued Dartmouth 28-13. Starting at quarterback, Emge was solid and smart, going 11 of 17 for 195 yards. But this was a day for Borguet, who rambled for 179 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a highlight-reel 12-yard jaunt on which he stopped, restarted, and pinballed off of four Big Green tacklers. Wimberly scored Harvard’s other two touchdowns, the second on a sweet end-around. Unfortunately, he also suffered an injury that essentially ended his playing days for Harvard. At the time, Wimberly was leading the Ivy League in receptions. He had provided sure hands and grit, and was missed the rest of the way.
Photograph by Angela Dela Cruz/The Harvard Crimson
His absence in scoring territory was felt the following week at the Stadium, when lightly regarded Columbia sprung a 21-20 upset. Lions coach Al Bagnoli kept Borguet in check, holding him to 108 yards but never letting him break loose for one of his patented long gainers. Bagnoli gambled successfully by going for two points—the eventual game-winners—after Columbia’s final touchdown; then Lipel’s 42-yard field-goal attempt caromed off the left upright and fell to the turf, no good. The defeat, among the most disappointing of the Murphy tenure, severely wounded the Crimson’s title chances.
So what was left? The final road trip, to Philadelphia. Naturally, the Crimson delivered its most impressive all-around victory, demolishing Penn 37-14. Back as the starter, Dean put on a first-half clinic, completing 23 of 27 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, he was 29 of 38, spreading the ball to nine receivers. The most remarkable play was a 29-yard catch-and-run by senior wideout Joe Young, who came back to the ball, kicked his way out of the grasp of a tackler, and proceeded to the goal line where he dove into the end zone.
Now for Yale.
The Day of the Game dawned crisp (in the 30s) and clear. This was the first time in six years that Harvard and Yale were to play at the Stadium, the 2018 edition having taken place at Fenway Park and the ’20 renewal having been canceled by COVID-19. As they filed into the 119-year-old edifice, the sellout crowd of 30,006 could contemplate a bizarre possibility: if Harvard beat Yale and Penn beat Princeton, there would be a four-way tie for the title, the first in the Ivy League’s 67-season history.
The Quakers held up their end, but the Crimson did not. Behind its mighty offensive line, Yale ran 79 plays to the Crimson’s 57. With Grooms and his backfield cohorts, Joshua Pitsenberger and Tre Peterson, pounding away, the Bulldogs won the possession battle by a mind-numbing 40:27 to 19:33. When Harvard did have the ball, Borguet was held to a hard-earned 62 net yards on 18 rushes, with a long gain of 16 yards. That put extra pressure on Dean, whom the Yale defensive line harassed unmercifully; he finished with 15 completions in 33 attempts for 229 yards, and was picked off four times.
Late in the first period Yale drew first blood when Peterson scored on a one-yard touchdown run. Jack Bosman kicked the extra point. In the second period the Crimson knotted it up. From the Harvard 36, Dean flicked a pass on the right to Woods. He caught it, cut around a Yale defender and, doing a passable Wimberly imitation, scampered the rest of the way for a touchdown. Lipel kicked the extra point.
Bosman added two field goals to make the score Yale 13, Harvard 7, but the Elis failed to cash in on a couple of other promising opportunities. That allowed the Crimson to hang around, setting up Dean’s pass to Neville that gave Harvard the lead. But Grooms was up to the challenge, coolly leading the Elis on their 75-yard touchdown march. On the final play he retreated against the Harvard rush to spy Hawes running left-to-right in the end zone, uncovered.
In the final 6:29 Harvard had the ball three times but could achieve only one first down. On a fourth-down scramble, Dean came up a yard short. The scariest moment for Yale came when Harvard senior defensive back Khalil Dawsey got his hands on a Grooms pass with nothing but green grass ahead of him—but Dawsey couldn’t hold on.
Finally, the Crimson got the ball at its own 25 with 42 seconds left, a time of great portent for those who recall 1968, when Harvard scored twice in that span to forge a 29-29 tie. Not this time. On second down, Dean was tackled and flung the ball away backhanded—right into the hands of Yale defensive back Hamilton Moore. Game over. Season over.
Several Harvard stalwarts depart on a bittersweet note: among others, the sublime Borguet, Wimberly, Jones, Herring, Dean, and linebackers Jake Brown and Jack McGowan. For 2023, the senior-laden defensive line, headed by Thor Griffith, Tyler Huenemann, and captain Nate Leskovec, again should be rugged, and the receiving corps is well-stocked. But Coach Murphy must fill huge holes at quarterback, running back, linebacker, placekicker, and in the defensive backfield. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again.
Ivy Games Overall
Yale 6-1 8-2
Princeton 5-2 8-2
Penn 5-2 8-2
HARVARD 4-3 6-4
Columbia 3-4 6-4
Dartmouth 2-5 3-7
Cornell 2-5 5-5
Brown 1-6 3-7
TIDBITS With the Bulldogs’ victory in The Game, the series now stands at Yale 69 wins, Harvard 61 wins, and eight ties. The Bulldogs have won four of the last six….Nate Leskovec ’23—a defensive lineman from Solon, Ohio, a resident of Cabot House, and an economics concentrator—was elected the 149th captain of Harvard football….Six players were named to the All-Ivy first team: defensive lineman Truman Jones (who also was named Academic All-Ivy), running back Aidan Borguet, senior linebacker Jack McGowan, senior offensive lineman Mason Williams, defensive lineman Thor Griffith, and tight end Tyler Neville. Named to the second team were wide receiver Kym Wimberly and junior offensive lineman Jacob Rizy.…The 149th season will kick off on Saturday, September 16, 2023, at the Stadium against the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota).