Final Drive Mirrors Rollercoaster Season

For those less-than-enthusiastic fans just joining the Harvard football team in time for the annual contest against Yale, a quick overview of the season may be necessary.

Just watch the last 44 seconds of Saturday’s game against Penn.

In a way, the Crimson’s final drive of its final home game of the 2003 season was a lot like the season itself: brilliant at the beginning, nail-bitingly tense in the middle and then, dishearteningly, coming up short at the end.

“It’s not the way we would have wanted it to go, and maybe it’s not indicative of how much talent there is this on team,” said captain linebacker Dante Balestracci of the way this season has turned out.

Although the Quakers had come out at the beginning of both halves with lightning-fast scoring drives that set Harvard back almost before it took the field, by the end of the fourth quarter the resilient Crimson defense had positioned junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and his rotating cast of receivers for a comeback with a Benny Butler fumble recovery that set up a Harvard score. Penn went three-and-out and the game came down to the last Harvard drive.

Trailing by eight, Harvard recovered the Quakers’ punt on its own 23-yard line with less than a minute to play. Even as the frozen hometown faithful began to pack up their blankets and space heaters, Fitzpatrick made it clear that the Crimson was not going to let Penn cruise to an easy victory.

“Historically [Harvard Stadium has] always been a tough for place for us to play, it’s always been very tight, it’s always come down to the wire and there’s no reason to think that this year would be any different,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said.

With no timeouts left, Harvard was forced to stop the clock through any and all means necessary.

This meant scrambling for the sidelines, hitting bang-bang first-down tosses and even relying on a peculiar intentional grounding call on which no penalty was assessed.

“Things got really goofy at the end,” Bagnoli said.

On first-and-10, Fitzpatrick searched for an open receiver and, unable to find one, scrambled to the right out-of-bounds for only six yards, taking six seconds off the clock. On second-and-four, wrapped up and on his way to the ground, Fitzpatrick desperately heaved the ball forwards into an empty field in an attempt to avoid a loss of yardage and to stop the clock. A flag went down and players and fans alike groaned at the sure intentional grounding penalty.

But instead of the loss of both a down and five yards, the result customary for that penalty which would have set up third-and-nine, the scoreboard shifted only to third-and-four. After the game it remained unclear what had happened. Bagnoli seemed to believe that something had gone awry; Harvard coach Tim Murphy was of the mind that the call had been retracted.

For the Crimson, there was no time to stop and debate with the officials. Harvard’s last-gasp drive continued with Fitzpatrick hitting three straight receivers in virtually identical fashion. He found senior tight end Matt Fratto for an 18-yard gain, then immediately spiked the ball to stop the clock at 00:20. He found favorite target junior wide receiver Brian Edwards for a 17-yard completion that drove the Crimson to the Penn 36-yard line. Once again, Fitzpatrick spiked the ball with 12 seconds remaining. Then he hit converted sophomore tailback Ryan Tyler on a 19-yard toss that brought Harvard to the Penn 17 and tantalizingly close to redemption.

This time there was no need to spike the ball, as the disconcerted Quakers used one of their timeouts to set up their defense.

Seven seconds remained on the clock. Penn’s defense set itself up. The Harvard offense took the field. The ball was snapped. Fitzpatrick looked around frantically for an open receiver and quickly nipped the ball to Fratto for an 11-yard pickup on the right side of the field.

For a moment it seemed that the tight end would barrel into the end zone to tie up the game. But Quaker linebacker Steve Lhotak blocked his way as the clock expired, leaving the Crimson anticlimactically empty-handed on the six-yard line.

“Our execution was less than perfect,” Murphy said, and the statement held true for more than just that final play or that final drive or the final home game for the Class of 2004.

Still, for those last 44 seconds Harvard played like the beginning of the season, before the offense was decimated by injuries and misfortune. And like the season, the drive was alternately captivating and agonizing.

But it was a wild ride.

—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at kennell@fas.harvard.edu.

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