Football 2023: Harvard 38-Holy Cross 28

The Crimson springs a major upset.

Holy Cross player has ball and Harvard players try to tackle with additional Holy Cross players in pursuit

MAKE WAY FOR THOR Harvard's Thor Griffith (90) sacks Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka. The senior defensive lineman had six tackles. | PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLAS T. JACOBSSON/THE HARVARD CRIMSON

Football consists of three components: offense, defense, and special teams. On Saturday at Polar Park in Worcester, Massachusetts, Harvard excelled in all three. The upshot was a major upset, with the Crimson taking down Holy Cross 38-28.

The Crusaders, of the Patriot League, entered the game ranked No. 5 in the Football Championship Subdivision; the Crimson was No. 24. But Holy Cross ran into a buzzsaw, with Harvard jumping to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter and controlling the game the rest of the way. The Crimson is now 3-0 overall (1-0 in the Ivy League); the Crusaders dropped to 3-2 overall (1-0 in conference play). Holy Cross’s other defeat was to Boston College, a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

This victory has many fathers. On offense, Harvard junior quarterback Charles DePrima ran for a game-high 89 yards and completed nine of 20 pass attempts for 151 yards and two touchdowns—with no interceptions. DePrima’s running is a major weapon that all future opponents must account for. His favorite aerial target, sophomore sensation Cooper Barkate, snared five passes and scored twice. (One came on a running play.) Junior back Shane McLaughlin, running behind a powerhouse offensive line, rumbled for 82 yards, many of them hard-earned, with one touchdown.

After some early lapses, the defense tightened up on the Crusaders’ highly touted quarterback, Matthew Sluka, limiting Holy Cross to seven points in the second half. Harvard senior linebacker Matt Hudson had a team-high eight tackles and an interception (one of three Crimson picks) as he pressed an early bid for Ivy defensive player of the year. He was followed closely by sophomore safety Ty Bartrum and All-Ivy defensive tackle Thor Griffith, who each had six tackles. Yet another sophomore defensive back, A.J. Lopez, took back an interception for a touchdown and forced a fumble. On special teams, freshman Xaviah Bascon received the opening kickoff and ran it back 62 yards to set up the first Harvard touchdown, while senior kicker Cali Canaval booted a 40-yard, fourth-quarter field goal that essentially clinched the game. And so on.

“We played really good team defense tonight,” said Tim Murphy, Stephenson Family head coach of Harvard football. “That was the biggest part of the game.” Perhaps—but the plain fact is, everyone for Harvard played well.

 

The five-foot-nine Bascon got things going, taking the kickoff from Holy Cross’s Daniel Porto, cutting to his left and scampering to the Crusaders’ 33. From there Harvard drove to the Holy Cross eight. On third down, the Crimson beautifully executed a wide receiver jet sweep, with Barkate coming from the right, taking a handoff from DePrima, and waltzing into the end zone. Canaval converted the point. With a little over three minutes gone, it was Harvard 7, Holy Cross 0. (The last time we recall the Crimson so successfully executing a jet sweep was in 2018 at Fenway Park, when Tyler Adams ’21 scored against Yale.)

Later in the period Sluka showed why he has been so widely heralded. From the Crusaders’ 26, he dropped back and rifled a long pass down the left to his equally heralded receiver, Jalen Coker, who had beaten Lopez. Coker (who is almost impossible to be covered by one man) took it all the way to the end zone. Luis Palenzuela kicked the point. Harvard 7, Holy Cross 7.

Harvard player positions himself to catch the ball
QUITE A STRETCH Harvard wideout Dean Boyd reaches to grab a 26-yard touchdown pass. This was the Crimson sophomore's first career reception. | PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLAS T. JACOBSSON/THE HARVARD CRIMSON

But on the next series Harvard took the lead right back courtesy of three sensational plays. First, DePrima threw short to senior tight end Tyler Neville, who turned the play into a 29-yard gain by dragging tacklers much of the way. Then, McLaughlin made a nimble cutback to gain 19. Two plays later, from the 26, DePrima threw a dart to sophomore wide receiver Dean Boyd, who had run a crossing pattern. Touchdown! Canaval converted. Harvard 14, Holy Cross 7.

The second period began with Hudson’s interception, which came on fourth and three and which he ran back to the Holy Cross 45. In nine plays the Crimson was in the end zone. The big one was a 19-yard toss from DePrima to McLaughlin, who had snuck out of the backfield and was wide open down the middle. Two plays later he barreled three yards for a touchdown. Canaval booted. Harvard 21, Holy Cross 7.

Harvard player running with ball with Holy Cross players in pursuit
TURNING THE CORNER Harvard's Charles DePrima gets by Holy Cross's Jacob Dobbs (27) and Frankie Monte. The Crimson signal-caller ran for 89 yards on 16 carries. | PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLAS T. JACOBSSON/THE HARVARD CRIMSON

Back came the Crusaders. After succeeding on a fourth-and-three, Sluka fired a 30-yard pass to the estimable Coker, who went up and grabbed the ball in the end zone. Palenzuela converted. Harvard 21, Holy Cross 14.

After a 43-yard punt by Crimson junior Sebastian Tasko, the Crusaders took over on their 13. On third and three, Sluka was hurried by Griffith and threw a pass that was tipped. The alert Lopez snatched it and rambled 26 yards into the end zone. Canaval kicked. Harvard 28, Holy Cross 14.

It took only a minute for the Crusaders to narrow the lead. Sluka and Coker connected again, this time for 40 yards. Five plays later Sluka threw a four-yard pass for a touchdown to Byron Shipman. (Covered closely by Crimson junior Gavin Shipman: Shipman on Shipman.) Palenzuela kicked. Harvard 28, Holy Cross 21. The half ended.

 

Were we going to have the kind of shootout we had the previous week against Brown? The irresistible force against the irresistible force? Mercifully, no. After intermission, things quieted down considerably. Late in the third period the Crimson faced fourth and eight from the Crusaders 31. Coach Murphy decided to go for it—and how. DePrima threw to the right corner of the end zone, dropping it right into the breadbasket of Barkate for a touchdown. (DePrima is still a work in progress as a passer, but he is showing considerable touch on such deep balls.) Canaval booted. Harvard 35, Holy Cross 21.

Harvard player running with ball into end zone
FINDING A HOLE  Harvard's Cooper Barkate canters into the end zone.. The sophomore wideout scored twice--once each rushing and receiving. | PHOTOGRAPH BY DYLAN GOODMAN /COURTESY OF HARVARD ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

Starting at the end of the third quarter and continuing into the fourth, the Crimson kept the ball out of Sluka’s hands by remaining on offense for more than eight minutes. When the drive stalled., it was time for Canaval to attempt his first field goal of the season. It drifted a bit to the left but sailed through the uprights: not perfect, but good. Harvard 38, Holy Cross 21.

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For good measure, on the ensuing series Lopez forced a fumble that was recovered by junior defensive lineman Brandon Svets. Sluka did mount another drive, tossing a three-yard touchdown pass to Byron Shipman to account for the final score.

This was the Crimson’s most impressive victory over a quality opponent in many a season. No doubt the Ivy League is taking notice. But we must invoke the words at the end of the movie Patton: “All glory is fleeting.” Especially this week, with Friday night bringing Cornell to the Stadium.

TIDBITS: Harvard has now won the last two times it has played at a baseball stadium. The Crimson defeated Yale 45-27 at Fenway in 2018….Senior Garrett Sharp, a defensive back and molecular and cellular biology concentrator from Carmel, Indiana, and Eliot House, was named a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded for combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership. Finalists will be announced on October 25.

Weekly Roundup

Princeton 10, Columbia 7

Brown 42, Central Connecticut State 20

Dartmouth 23, Penn 20 (OT)

Colgate 35, Cornell 25

Yale 45, Morgan State 3

Coming up: The Crimson returns to Harvard Stadium for a Friday-night matchup with Ivy rival Cornell. Kickoff: 7 P.M. The game will be televised on ESPNU and broadcast on WRCA 1130 AM/106.1 FM. The Big Red is 2-1 overall and 0-1 in league play. In a series that began in 1890, Harvard leads 50-34-2 and has won the last three, including a 35-28 victory last season at Ithaca.

THE SCORE BY QUARTERS

Harvard

14

14

7

3

 

 

38

Holy Cross

7

14

0

7

 

 

28

 

Attendance: 7,906

 

THE SEASON SO FAR: follow Dick Friedman’s dispatches.

Week one: Harvard 45, University of St. Thomas 13

Week two: Harvard 34, Brown 31

Read more articles by: Dick Friedman
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