Exceeding Expectations

Harvard sophomore safety Ty Bartrum runs an intercepted St. Thomas pass back 96 yards for a touchdown.

HOUSE CALL Having intercepted a St. Thomas pass, Harvard sophomore safety Ty Bartrum took it back for a touchdown. The 96-yard pick-six was the fifth-longest interception score in Crimson history. | Photograph by Dylan Goodman/Harvard Athletic Communications

This year marks the 150th anniversary of football at Harvard. (Because the 2020 Ivy League campaign was canceled due to COVID, this is the 149th season of play.) But entering the 2023 season, the outlook for the Crimson was murky. In the century and a half since the first game took place—Harvard vanquished McGill 3-0 on May 14, 1873—rarely has the Crimson fielded a squad with less experience than that first aggregation. But Tim Murphy, Stephenson Family head coach of Harvard football, may have come close in the opening days of ’23, trotting out untested starters at several key positions.

However, with enthusiasm (and talent) trumping inexperience, the Crimson thrashed St. Thomas 45-13, survived Brown 34-31, and upset highly regarded Holy Cross 38-28. The very promising start served notice that Harvard would be a contender for the Ivy League title, which for Murphy (in his thirtieth year on the Crimson sideline) would be a record-tying tenth.

It was mainly because of uncertainty on offense that Harvard was consigned to fourth place in the preseason poll of Ivy League media members. The Crimson might have been rated even lower save for a staunch defense anchored by two ferocious senior defensive linemen, captain Nate Leskovec and First Team All-Ivy Thor Griffith. On the other side of the ball, last season’s quarterback, Charlie Dean, and All-Ivy running back Aidan Borguet had graduated. Succeeding them after spirited preseason position battles were two juniors from New Jersey, Charles DePrima and Shane McLaughlin. There was little to go on for either. DePrima, the new signal-caller, had not thrown a pass in varsity play; first-string running back McLaughlin had rushed the ball a meager 21 times for 65 yards.

So it was with trepidation that the faithful took their seats in Harvard Stadium for the opener against first-time foe St. Thomas. Some doubts were allayed on the Crimson’s initial play from scrimmage. DePrima handed the ball to McLaughlin, who blew through a huge hole created by All-Ivy senior offensive lineman Jacob Rizy, then cut to the right sideline and accelerated all the way to the end zone. That opened the floodgates, with Harvard scoring the game’s first 38 points. DePrima, who completed only seven of 18 pass attempts, showed some leg in a 69-yard touchdown run. But the lengthiest play came from the defense when sophomore safety Ty Bartrum picked off a Tommies pass at the Harvard four-yard line and set sail in the opposite direction, not stopping until he reached the end zone 96 yards away. “When I saw the grass—I knew it was a lot of grass!” Bartrum said. (His father, Mike, played 11 years in the NFL.) It was the fifth-longest interception return for a touchdown in the program’s history.

Harvard player receives ball handoff from another player
PRETTY GOOD, FOR STARTERS On their first play from scrimmage, running back Shane McLaughlin (29) received a handoff from fellow newly installed starter Charles DePrima and rumbled 79 yards for a touchdown. | Photograph by Dylan Goodman/Harvard Athletic Communications

The following week brought a sterner and more meaningful test when Brown visited the Stadium for the season’s first Ivy League contest. In a nighttime shootout, the Crimson prevailed. Harvard spotted its foe during the game’s first 10 points, then used a goal-line stand and the power running of McLaughlin (152 yards in 16 carries, one touchdown rushing and another receiving) to keep the battling Bears at bay. DePrima added 98 yards on the ground and, as a passer, showed poise, completing 15 of 26 attempts. His favorite target was sophomore wideout Cooper Barkate, who made 10 receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown. The scoring play was a 15-yard toss to the back of the end zone on which DePrima showed exquisite touch. The victory was Murphy’s 134th in Ivy play, putting him one shy of the record amassed by Yale’s Carmen Cozza from 1965 through 1996.

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The next week, in its road upset of Holy Cross, the Crimson produced its best performance against a quality opponent in many a season. Harvard excelled in all three of football’s components: offense, defense, and special teams. The latter got the Crimson off and winging when freshman Xavier Bascon took the opening kickoff 62 yards to set up Harvard’s first touchdown. DePrima ran for a game-high 89 yards and threw for two touchdowns. Barkate caught five passes and scored twice. The ball-hawking secondary made three interceptions; sophomore A.J. Lopez ran back his pick for a 26-yard touchdown. No doubt the rest of the Ivy League was taking notice—but there is a lot of season yet to play.

TIDBITS Harvard’s all-time record in season openers is now 122-25-2 …The Crimson has won 12 straight games against Brown, and also has beaten the Bears 12 consecutive times at Harvard Stadium….Massachusetts is represented the most on the 2023 roster, with 11 players, followed by New Jersey (10), Texas (nine), Georgia (eight), and California and Pennsylvania (seven each)….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.  

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