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An Ivy title—dimmed by defeat in the Game
As so often happens, The Game came down to the end. This time for Harvard it was a bitter one. On a blustery day at Yale Bowl, the Crimson had come from behind to take an 18-17 fourth-quarter lead, then saw Yale go back ahead 23-18. Now Harvard had advanced the ball to the Elis’ six. On fourth down and two, the ball was snapped. Harvard quarterback Jaden Craig immediately was pressured by Yale’s Abu Kamara. When Crimson receiver Cooper Barkate worked his way free at the back of the end zone, Craig stopped and fired in his direction. But the throw was “too tall,” in gridiron parlance. Barkate went up to catch it, but when he came down, he was outside the boundary line. Yale’s ball, with 3:36 remaining. The Crimson did get one more possession, but a last-ditch Craig-to-Barkate heave would fall incomplete, and the score stood: Yale 23, Harvard 18.
“It sure would have been nice if we could have completed that pass,” ruefully said Tim Murphy, Stephenson family head coach for Harvard football. Murphy had seen an outright title slip from his grasp. The defeat dropped the Crimson, which finished 8-2 overall, to a 5-2 Ivy League record, tied with Yale and Dartmouth for the 2023 Ivy crown. It was only the second shared Ivy championship among three two-loss teams.
Nevertheless, Murphy and his team could look back on the season with much pride. Picked in the Ivy pre-season media poll to finish fourth, the Crimson ended up claiming Harvard’s eighteenth title. This despite beginning with no established quarterback or running back, and with an inexperienced offensive line and a defensive backfield that looked questionable. “Plus,” as Murphy noted, “we made a quarterback switch at midseason.” Given such handicaps, this might have been Murphy’s best coaching job in his 29 seasons on the Crimson sideline (30 years all told, including the season lost in 2020 to COVID).
The 2023 season marked the 150th anniversary of Harvard football, one that would turn out to be festooned with other milestones, especially for Murphy. It had begun with three solid wins: a 45-13 triumph over St. Thomas, a 34-31 nail-biter over explosive Ivy rival Brown, and a 38-28 upset of highly touted non-league foe Holy Cross (see “Exceeding Expectations,” November-December 2023, page 20).
The victory over the Crusaders, however, would mean little if it were not validated the following week in a league game against Cornell. On a Friday night at the Stadium, the Crimson prevailed 41-23, with junior quarterback Charles DePrima running for three touchdowns and throwing for three more. DePrima gained 152 yards and had scoring romps of 42 and 58; on Harvard’s final touchdown, he dropped a perfect 19-yard pass into the arms of junior wideout Ledger Hatch. The Crimson defense, led by senior linebacker Matt Hudson and sophomore safety Ty Bartrum (nine tackles each), made the Big Red sweat for its points. The next week, against Howard at the Stadium in the season’s final non-Ivy game, the Crimson enjoyed a 48-7 walkover. Harvard rolled up 469 yards of total offense, 341 of them on the ground. Sophomore reserve running back Isaiah Abbey gained 120 yards rushing and rumbled 52 yards for a score.
The next week, the Crimson traveled to Princeton and came away with a bruising 21-14 defeat. The rugged Tigers bottled up the Harvard offense, limiting the Crimson to 68 yards on the ground. DePrima completed only 15 of 36 pass attempts and was intercepted three times. Nevertheless, with the defense playing valiantly, Harvard forged a tie courtesy of a DePrima pass to senior wideout Kaedyn Odermann and a one-yard run by junior running back Shane McLaughlin. But a late-game 45-yard drive gave the Tigers the winning tally and its sixth straight victory in the series.
Bouncing back, the Crimson returned to the Stadium for a late-afternoon kickoff and outlasted Dartmouth 17-9. The most significant development was a quarterback change. After DePrima threw his second interception, Murphy inserted Craig. The sophomore attempted only eight passes, completing two, but ran for two scores. McLaughlin took up the slack, powering for 156 yards on the ground. The game was in the balance until Craig directed a late drive that produced a 22-yard field goal by senior Cali Canaval that put Harvard ahead by two scores. The day, however, belonged to the defense, which kept the Big Green out of the Crimson end zone. Roaming the field from sideline to sideline, Bartrum amassed 13 tackles. The victory was Murphy’s 136th in Ivy League competition, surpassing Yale’s legendary Carmen Cozza for the most by any coach in conference games. Fittingly, the crowd—22,515—was biggest at the Stadium for a non-Yale game since at least 2009.
The following week, in a stress-free 38-24 victory at Columbia, Craig got his first start and played crisply, completing 13 of 18 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown (with no interceptions). The real star was senior defensive back Kaleb Moody, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown and made two sensational interceptions. This triumph was the 900th in Harvard history.
At this point, the standings showed the Crimson in first place, leading four teams by a game—which brought things down to a two-game season. The home finale, against Penn, was a humdinger. The Crimson outlasted the Quakers 25-23 in three overtimes. With Craig completing seven passes to his roommate Barkate, Harvard jumped to a 20-10 halftime lead. But Penn forged a tie, and when Canaval missed a short field-goal try near the end of regulation, the teams went to overtime. In the second extra period, Harvard took the ball down to the Penn one-yard line but had to settle for a tying field goal. In the third overtime, the ball was placed on the two-yard-line and the teams alternated on two-point conversion tries. First, the Crimson stopped the Quakers. When it was Harvard’s turn, the Crimson ran a “special”: Craig handed to junior wideout Scott Woods II, who was coming around from the right; Woods flipped to Barkate, coming from the left. A double reverse! Meanwhile, Craig, uncovered, had filtered into the end zone. Barkate threw. Craig caught. Game over! The victory clinched a share of the Ivy title. It also was Murphy’s 200th at Harvard and his tenth crown, tying him at the top with Cozza.
Venturing to New Haven, the Crimson was facing a Yale team that also had gone to overtime the previous week—two overtimes, in fact, in a 36-28 victory at Princeton. This meant that a triumph in The Game would give the Elis not only bragging rights but a share of the title. They got both. This year’s Game played out eerily like last year’s, with Harvard making a comeback to forge a second-half lead before Yale quarterback Nolan Grooms rallied his team for the decisive score. Harvard picked an inopportune day to put on its most profligate performance of the season—having two punts blocked, missing an extra point, and losing a fumble for the first time all year.
In the first half, Yale pushed Harvard all over the Bowl. One of the blocked punts led to a touchdown that gave Yale a 10-0 lead. It could have been worse: an interception of a Craig pass was run back for a touchdown, but the score was called back because of holding on the return. The second blocked punt gave the Elis the ball at the Crimson nine. Here Harvard senior defensive tackle Thor Griffith made a huge play, sacking Grooms for a 25-yard loss and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Hudson.
In a little more than two minutes, the Crimson was in the end zone. The big play was a 35-yard pass from Craig to Odermann that brought the ball to the Eli nine. After Yale stuffed McLaughlin for a two-yard loss, Craig zinged a pass into the end zone to senior tight end Tyler Neville. Touchdown! But the extra-point try by Canaval was blocked. Yale 10, Harvard 6. As the half ended, the Crimson was fortunate to be in it, having rushed for a grand total of six yards.
In the third quarter, Yale scored a touchdown to extend its lead to 17-6. But this is Harvard-Yale, which means torture. Late in the period, starting at its own 42, the Crimson offense got in gear. McLaughlin ran for 20 yards. Then, on a slick flanker reverse, Barkate rambled for 28 to the Eli 10. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Craig ran seven yards for a score. The two-point conversion try failed. Yale 17, Harvard 12.
Momentum, that elusive twelfth man, had switched uniforms. The Crimson defense forced a three-and-out. The offense took over at its own 42. Craig connected with Barkate for 30 yards. Then, on a Craig pass intended for junior wideout Ledger Hatch, Yale was flagged for pass interference, bringing the ball to the Eli 14. On third-and-three from the seven, Craig took the snap and, in the face of a ferocious Yale rush, kept retreating. On the run, he whipped a pass that threaded the needle to Hatch at the pylon in the right front of the end zone. Touchdown! Though the two-point conversion again failed, it was—somehow—Harvard 18, Yale 17.
Back came Grooms. A 62-yard drive was ignited by a catch by superb Eli receiver Mason Tipton, who somehow kept his feet in bounds for a 30-yard gain. Yale reached the Harvard 13, but on second down Grooms, harried, threw a pass that was intercepted by Crimson freshman defensive back Damien Henderson. Sighing with relief, Harvard took over at its own seven. Two plays later, Craig, jolted by Yale linebacker Joseph Vaughn, fumbled. The Elis took over at the Crimson 14. Three plays later, they were in the end zone when Grooms threw a pass that wideout David Pantelis held on to despite tough defense from Crimson freshman defensive back Langston Rogers. (So often it comes down to these “strong catches,” as Harvard’s Kym Wimberly ’22 proved two years previously.) This time the Elis went for the two-point conversion and were stopped. Yale 23, Harvard 18.
Your move, Mr. Craig. He had been injured on the fumble but gamely he trotted back on. In two plays—a 17-yard pass to Barkate and a 44-yard hookup to senior tight end Tim Dowd—he moved the Crimson to the Eli 14. Four plays later came Craig’s end-zone incompletion intended for Barkate. The roommates can replay that one during the offseason.
However stinging was the fifth loss in The Game in seven years, Harvard was back on top for the first time in eight years—a drought unprecedented during the Murphy era. There were many reasons that the Crimson exceeded expectations, but here are three primary ones:
Defense in depth. Inspired by senior captain Nate Leskovec, it often bent but rarely broke. The 6-foot-2, 320-pound Griffith led the team with 11.0 sacks and could have had many more if he hadn’t been double-teamed on almost every play. When opponents concentrated on blocking The Mighty Thor, they left the door open for Leskovec and Hudson—one of the hardest hitters in recent Crimson annals—and a host of other linemen and linebackers who were rotated in regularly. At safety, Bartrum was the breakout star, leading the team in tackles (78.0) and picking off three passes. “We knew he was good,” said Murphy, “but we didn’t know just how good.” And the rest of that “questionable” pass defense? A new defensive back or linebacker seemed to emerge every week, as did Moody against Columbia and sophomore defensive back A.J. Lopez, who against Holy Cross had five tackles, a forced fumble, a pass breakup, and an interception. Nine players had at least one interception.
The quarterback switch. No matter how well DePrima had played in the season’s first half—and he showed how devastating he is as a runner—his passing was problematic. Craig, also a very good runner, throws a zippier, more accurate ball, which gives the offense a dimension it had been lacking. Craig seized the job with a maturity beyond his class status. “He showed great poise,” lauded Murphy. Both quarterbacks benefited immensely from the emergence of McLaughlin, a steady, pounding running back who averaged 92.2 yards rushing, second in the Ivy League.
Excellent reception. Seven players caught 10 balls or more. As a breakout, Barkate was the offensive equivalent of Bartrum. He led the Crimson with 40 receptions, and also used his speed on end-arounds. This season the offense also made solid use of a weapon too frequently overlooked in recent times: the tight end. Neville had 24 catches, including four touchdowns, and Dowd had 11 grabs, including an 83-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
In the end, though, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, which is a tribute to the coaching and to the team-first ethos developed by Murphy and his staff. As always, many stalwarts will depart: Leskovec, Griffith, Hudson, Neville to name a few. They will be missed. But in 2024, many others will return: Bartrum, Barkate, McLaughlin. Most important, to paraphrase the Beatles’ “Baby, You Can Drive My Car,” we found a quarterback, and that’s a start.
TIDBITS Yale now leads the overall series 70-61-8….Shane McLaughlin ’25—a running back from Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, a resident of Leverett House, and an economics concentrator—was elected the 150th captain of Harvard football. McLaughlin is the first offensive player to be captain since Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05.…Four players (all seniors) were named to the All-Ivy first team: running back Shane McLaughlin (unanimous selection), tight end Tyler Neville, offensive lineman Jacob Rizy, and defensive lineman Thor Griffith. Named to the second team were defensive back Ty Bartrum, defensive tackle Nate Leskovec, linebacker Matt Hudson, and offensive linemen Spencer Cassell and Austin Gentle. The Crimson also placed seven players on the honorable mention list.
Ivy Games / Overall