Clinging to a 13-9 lead, No. 23 Harvard faced third-and-six at the Columbia 41-yard line and needed only a single first down to clinch the victory.
But junior quarterback Garrett Schires—who struggled all afternoon—fired his next pass straight into the arms of Lions defensive back Prosper Nwokocha, who returned the ball to the Harvard 45 to set up the game-wining score.
Three plays later, Columbia quarterback Jeff Otis connected with Zach Van Zant for an easy 10-yard touchdown to put the Lions ahead 16-13 with 1:08 remaining.
After a desperate last minute drive ended with Nwokocha intercepting Schires again, the Lions (3-5, 2-3 Ivy) danced on the sidelines celebrating their biggest win of the season, while Harvard (6-2, 3-2)—reeling from its second-straight loss to an Ivy weakling—was left to wonder what went wrong.
“The bottom line is, Columbia made the plays when it had to,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “That’s why they won the football game.”
An overdose of injuries to Harvard helped the Lions out quite a bit as well.
With junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick already sidelined with a broken hand, junior wide receivers Rodney Byrnes (ankle) and James Harvey (knee) both left the game with injuries in the first quarter.
Without the trio, the Crimson passing game was horrible.
Against a unit ranked dead last in the league in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense, Harvard could muster only 88 yards through the air.
In the second half, Schires completed just two of 11 passes for 15 yards and two interceptions. Going into the game, the Lions defense had only posted two interceptions the entire season.
“Today more than any day I can remember in years, we really struggled throwing the football,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “How much of that was missing Rodney and James and Ryan, I don’t really know, but there’s no excuse. Whoever’s healthy has got to get it done.”
Columbia jumped out to an early 6-0 lead, when it marched 66 yards downfield to score on the game’s opening drive. Lions quarterback Jeff Otis completed four-of-four passes for 64 yards before tailback Ayo Oluwole capped the drive with a one-yard TD run.
But that would be the Lions’ best drive of the day.
The Harvard defense—coming off a poor performance in a 30-16 loss to Dartmouth last week—regrouped quickly and smothered the Lions for most of the game. In the first half alone, the defense intercepted Otis three times, twice leading to Harvard’s only scores of the day.
After an Adam Kingston punt was partially blocked with six minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Lions took over at their own 48-yard line. But that Columbia drive quickly came to an end.