Football 2021: Princeton 18, Harvard 16
Five overtimes were not enough.
On Saturday at Princeton Stadium, the Harvard football team suffered its first defeat of the season, 18-16 to Princeton in the aforementioned five overtimes, a result that still was being litigated the next day but that we expect will stand, justly or not. The loss dropped the Crimson, which entered the game ranked 16th in the Football Championship Subdivision, to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in Ivy League play; the Tigers (17th) remained unbeaten at 6-0, 2-0.
“We played our hearts out,” said Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football, after the game. “We couldn’t have played any harder. Offense, defense, special teams: we played as hard as we possibly could play. And when it got down to overtime, we executed well on both sides of the ball. We had it won once…had it won twice…Still, the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
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The controversy marred a gripping defensive chess match by both teams, but especially by Harvard, which was facing a superior attack. In an era of high-flying offenses, the contest was an anomaly. The Tigers entered scoring 41.2 points a game and averaging 455.0 yards in total offense. The Crimson held them (in regulation) to 13 points and 257 yards. Harvard harried Princeton quarterback Cole Smith, who had completed 25 of 27 passes the week before against Brown, into a 20-for-40 day with four interceptions. Meantime, the Tigers and coach Bob Surace successfully bottled up the vaunted Crimson rushing attack. Harvard had been averaging 213.0 yards on the ground, but Princeton limited the Crimson to a microscopic and largely inconsequential 47.
The inaugural Harvard interception got the Crimson on the scoreboard first. On the Tigers’ second play of the game, junior defensive tackle Truman Jones, rushing Smith, got a hand on his arm as he was throwing. The ball fluttered into the hands Harvard senior defensive back Khalid Thomas, who returned it to the Princeton 13. But the Crimson was unable to take advantage fully of the opportunity, instead calling on junior Jonah Lipel to boot a 24-yard field goal. Harvard 3, Princeton 0.
The Tigers immediately got into gear, driving from their own 25 to the Crimson 14. There, on third and six, Harvard sophomore defensive back Alex Washington and sophomore linebacker Nate Leskovec sacked Smith for an eight-yard loss. Jeffrey Sexton kicked a 40-yard field goal. Harvard 3, Princeton 3.
The defense-induced stalemate persisted, but the biggest play of the first quarter did not involve scoring. On a third and 10 from the Harvard 20, Crimson sophomore quarterback Charlie Dean attempted to run for the first down. He made it to the 25, then slid to the turf, where he was hit by two Tiger tacklers. Princeton was flagged for a late hit, but on the play Dean injured his left (non-throwing) shoulder. He left the game and would not return. He was replaced by senior Jake Smith, who played capably (21-for-37, 184 yards, two interceptions) but who also lacks Dean’s panache and long-ball potential; Harvard’s longest completion of the day was 20 yards. (The Crimson also was without injured star freshman receiver Kaedyn Odermann.)
In the second period the teams traded field goals, Sexton booting a 29-yarder and Lipel riposting with a 25-yarder with 56 seconds remaining. On Princeton’s first play thereafter, Harvard senior linebacker Jack McGowan picked off a tipped pass by Cole Smith. Again the Crimson couldn’t take advantage. Lipel ended up trying a 37-yard field goal that was wide left. At the half it was 6-6.
In the third period a touchdown was scored, but it was not by either offense. On fourth and 10 from the Harvard 25, the Crimson’s All-Ivy punter, junior Jon Sot, dropped back to the 10. The snap came back, followed closely by Princeton’s Liam Johnson, who blocked the kick. The ball skittered into the end zone where the Tigers’ Cash Goodhart recovered it for a touchdown. Sexton kicked the point. Princeton 13, Harvard 6. The Crimson, which traditionally specialize in punt-blocking, had been hoist on its own petard.
(This is not the first time Harvard has been bedeviled by a blocked kick at Princeton. Back in ’11—1911—the Tigers’ Sam White scooped up a blocked field goal and ran 105 yards the other way for a touchdown. “Sam White’s run” became one of the most famous plays in early-football history. In attendance that day was a student at Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey. The young man was in the process of finalizing his college choice. Afterward, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald wrote, “Sam White decides me for Princeton.”)
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the game at long last produced an offensive touchdown. Smith led the Crimson on an eight-play, 53-yard drive highlighted by tosses to tight ends, sophomore Haven Montefalco (14 yards) and freshman Tyler Neville (17 yards). On third and goal from the Princeton two, Harvard’s junior runner Aaron Shampklin scampered around right edge and into the end zone. Lipel kicked the point. The numbers told the story: With 13:13 remaining, it was Harvard 13, Princeton 13. After Sexton missed a 37-yard field-goal try, regulation ended.
The first two periods of overtime (if both are needed) are played with each team attempting to score from the 25-yard-line. In the first OT, both kickers booted field goals: Harvard 16, Princeton 16. In the second, the Tigers intercepted a Jake Smith pass, and the Crimson blocked a Sexton field-goal try.
So the teams went to further overtimes, whose rules have been changed this year. These are now glorified two-point conversions: each team getting one play from the two-and-a-half yard line, with the sides flip-flopping opening possessions, no kicks allowed.
The third OT was the controversial one. After Harvard broke up a Princeton pass, the Crimson offense lined up with a chance to win the game. Smith flipped a pass over the middle to junior wideout Kym Wimberly in the end zone. Complete! Crimson wins! Thuh-uh-uh Crimson WINS!!! But…hold the phone! Surace was out on the field, arguing that he had called a timeout (which a coach is allowed to do) before Harvard had snapped the ball, and that the officials simply had failed to notice him. Ultimately, the officials agreed. Do-over.
Now it was Murphy’s time to take to the field and argue that the play should stand. At one point, Murph, clearly irate, threw his trademark camo cap to the ground. To no avail.
So the Crimson tried again. This time Smith threw to senior wideout B.J. Watson in the end zone. Good! Crimson wins! But…hold on—there’s a flag on the play! This time Montefalco was called for pass interference. Penalized 15 yards, Harvard failed on its next attempt. In the fourth overtime, both teams misfired. Finally, in overtime no. 5, Cole Smith flipped a pass to the back of the end zone on which wideout Jacob Birmelin made a sensational leaping catch, good for two points. Harvard responded with Jake Smith tossing to senior tight end Adam West. Good! But wait…the Crimson had called timeout before the play. On the next snap, Smith threw an incompletion. That was your ballgame: Princeton 18, Harvard 16.
On Sunday the Ivy League issued this statement: In the third overtime, Harvard threw a pass for a successful two-point conversion. After the play, the replay booth stopped the game for an official review. While the review did determine that the Princeton head coach called for timeout before the ball was snapped, the officiating crew made a procedural error as a timeout can only be recognized and granted prior to the snap by an on-field official and is not reviewable. Therefore, the timeout should not have been granted and the play should have resulted in a successful two-point conversion. The outcome of the game will stand as a win for Princeton. The league office will address the error with the officials.
This is supposed to mollify us? It does Yogi Berra one better, essentially saying, “It ain’t over till it’s over. But even when it’s over, it ain’t over.” Preposterous. A travesty of a mockery of a sham. Going back to 2019, this was the sixth straight Harvard loss that’s been by a touchdown or less. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t beginning to take it personally.
The outcome in no way dims a brilliant performance by the Harvard defense. McGowan led the team with 11 tackles. (Princeton’s spectacular Jeremiah Tyler had 12.) Leskovec had six; it just seemed he had more. He is bidding to be the next great Crimson linebacker in the mold of (to name just a few recent examples) Isaiah Kacyvenski ’00, Jake Lindsey ’15, Matt Koran ’16 and the current captain, Jordan Hill ’20 (’22).
There will be no letup. Dartmouth comes next, in a game crucial to Ivy title hopes. Previously unbeaten, the Big Green was shocked (to say nothing of shut out) by surprisingly 5-1 Columbia, Harvard’s foe in two weeks. “Our kids are going to bring a locked-in, 100 percent, all-in unbelievable effort,” said Murphy. “That’s what you’re going to see against Dartmouth. That’s the only thing they know. That’s the only thing we do.”
A Princeton man may have put it better: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
TIDBITS: Princeton now has won the last four against Harvard. The series stands at 58-48-7 in favor of the Tigers….Harvard is now 6-5 in overtime games.
3.2 FOR BEN. The Harvard Varsity Club once again is conducting a virtual “3.2 for Ben,” a 3.2-mile run/walk in honor or Ben Abercrombie ’22. Ben, who wore number 32 as a member of the Harvard football team, suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury playing in his first collegiate game. He is continuing his Harvard education while remaining a member of the Harvard football program, but he and his family continue to face an uphill battle. The Harvard Varsity Club has committed to supporting Ben, and his family, throughout their journey. The Abercrombie Fund provides support to the Abercrombie family and any future Harvard undergraduate student-athlete who incurs a severe or catastrophic injury while competing for the Crimson while enrolled in Harvard College. For details, go to https://events.elitefeats.com/ben21.
Columbia 19, Dartmouth 0
Yale 42, Penn 28
Brown 49, Cornell 45
Coming up: On Saturday Harvard returns to the Stadium to face Ivy rival Dartmouth. Kickoff: Noon. The game will be telecast on NESN, streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on WRCA 1330 AM, 106.1 FM, 92.9 FM-HD2, and WHRB 95.3 FM. The Big Green is 5-1 and 2-1 in the league. In a series that began in 1882, Harvard leads 71-47-5 but has lost the last two, including the 9-6, last-play defeat in Cambridge in 2019.
On Saturday at Soldiers Field the Harvard Athletics Department will celebrate its Fall Fest, during which there will be Crimson men’s and women’s home games in eight other sports, plus tailgates, live pregame music, food trucks, a beer garden, yard games and more. For details, see tickets.gocrimson.com.
THE SCORE BY PERIOD
Harvard 3 3 0 7 3* 0** 0*** 0**** 0***** — 16
Princeton 3 3 7 0 3* 0** 0*** 0**** 2***** — 18
*OT, **2OT, ***3OT, ****4OT, *****5OT
THE SEASON SO FAR: follow Dick Friedman’s dispatches.
Week one: Harvard 44, Georgetown 9
Week two: Harvard 49, Brown 17
Week three: Harvard 38, Holy Cross 13
Week four: Harvard 24, Cornell 10
Week five: Harvard 30, Lafayette 3