It was billed as a high-powered shoot out between crosstown rivals, the top two offenses in Division I-AA colliding in what had the potential to be an epic scoring battle. But the Harvard defense had other plans for Northeastern.
Captain Dante Balestracci and his cohorts forced the Huskies to turn the ball over three times and held the celebrated Northeastern rushing attack to under 100 yards to lead the Crimson to a 28-20 victory Saturday at Harvard Stadium.
Junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 13-of-22 attempts for 244 yards and two touchdowns—both to junior wide receiver Brian Edwards, who finished with seven catches for 180 yards—and ran for another 92 yards on 22 carries to lead the Harvard offense.
“Our defense played great the whole game and our offense did what it had to do against a very good defense,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “It was a solid across-the-board effort.”
Despite a comfortable 28-6 Harvard lead at the start of the fourth quarter, the Huskies made the game’s final moments interesting by scoring two late touchdowns to pull to within eight with one minute remaining. On the ensuing onside kick, Northeastern looked to be in business for a brief moment as the ball slipped through Balestracci’s grasp.
Fortunately for the Crimson, senior tight end Matt Fratto was there to grab the ball as it squirted loose to secure the victory.
The game started off on the right foot for the Crimson, as senior Adam Kingston’s kickoff sailed deep into the end zone only to be run out by Northeastern returner Shawnn Gyles. It proved to be a bad decision, as Harvard senior Collin Blackburn forced Gyles to cough up the ball which Robert Balkema recovered for the Crimson.
The Harvard offense took the ball on the Huskies 21-yard line and summarily marched into the end zone in five plays, scoring on a sweep by Fitzpatrick behind a crushing block from sophomore halfback Ryan Tyler.
“It was great to get the ball back on the opening kickoff,” Fitzpatrick said. “We felt really comfortable as an offense out there and we were able to follow from the lead of the defense and special teams.”
After trading punts, Northeastern was able to make it into Crimson territory on a 24-yard completion from quarterback Shawn Brady to Pat Graham. But the drive stalled and kicker Miro Kesic converted a 44-yard field goal to put the Huskies on the scoreboard, down 7-3.
After Harvard got the ball back on the kickoff, Fitzpatrick and Edwards went to work. On the first play of the drive, Fitzpatrick executed a beautiful play-action fake that froze the Husky defense before throwing over the top to Edwards for a 43-yard gain. After Fitzpatrick sneaked for a first down when he faced fourth-and-one on the Northeastern 24, he again completed a pass to Edwards for a 16-yard gain that set up Fitzpatrick’s second rushing touchdown.
“We knew coming into the game that Fitzpatrick was mobile,” said Northeastern linebacker Liam Ezekiel. “He creates a lot of opportunities coming out of the pocket, and you can only cover people down field for so long. He’s very smart and he played well.”
Harvard finished the first-half scoring with another quick touchdown drive in the middle of the second quarter. Fitzpatrick went to Tyler on a dump off on a big third-down play on the first series of the drive. Tyler seemed to be stopped short of the first-down marker before bowling over Husky defender Joe Okrah to move the sticks. Fitzpatrick rewarded Tyler’s effort by going back to him three plays later on another long third-down play and Tyler again delivered with a 26-yard gain down the field. Two plays after a 22-yard Fitzpatrick scramble, the junior quarterback delivered another bullet to Edwards for a 16-yard score.
“Brian is an unbelievable receiver and a great target,” Fitzpatrick said. “He always seems to find the holes in the defenses and he makes my job much easier by getting open so much of the time.”
Northeastern had a chance to pick up some points as the half wound down, but two costly holding penalties halted the drive.
Another long Kesic field goal and another beautiful strike from Fitzpatrick to Edwards put the Crimson up 28-6 after the third quarter.
The Northeastern offense woke up in the fourth quarter, however. Brady was intercepted by senior Benny Butler on the Huskies’ first series of the final frame, but Fitzpatrick gave it right back on the very next play, throwing straight into Ezekiel’s waiting arms.
Brady capitalized on Fitzpatrick’s mistake, completing a 36-yard pass to wide receiver Quintin Mitchell to set up tailback Tim Gale’s one-yard touchdown run to pull Northeastern to within 15 points at 28-13.
The Harvard defense buckled down and stopped the Husky attack on two drives in the fourth, but Fitzpatrick was unable to convert for any first downs in the fourth quarter, going three and out on three separate occasions against a rejuvenated Husky defense led by the powerful Ezekiel.
“Being up by so many points on a great defense kind of hindered our ability to be aggressive on offense and we just kind of held on at the end,” Murphy said.
Finally, with 2:43 left in the game, Brady engineered an efficient drive downfield, completing passes four times to favorite target Mitchell. The offensive push culminated in a beautiful 23-yard touchdown pass right between the double coverage of senior back Mante Dzakuma and senior free safety Chris Raftery. However, Balestracci and Fratto combined to recover the onside kick and put the game out of reach for the Huskies.
Despite Edwards’ eye-popping numbers and Fitzpatrick’s solid performance, the defense clearly ruled the day for Harvard. In addition to Butler’s interception, junior Gary Sonkur also nabbed an interception for the second straight week. The defense combined for seven sacks on Brady and held him to 19-of-47 passing.
“That’s a team that had been able to run against a lot of teams almost at will, Murphy said. “[Defensive coordinater] Kevin Doherty and our defensive coaches had a great game plan and our team went out and executed.”
—Staff writer Robert C. Boutwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.