Trailing by eight with seven seconds remaining, the Harvard offense stood on the 17-yard line, poised not only to draw even with No. 8 Penn—after trailing by 20 less than 15 minutes before—but also to heal a year-old wound inflicted on the battleground of Franklin Field. But the promise of a better outcome than last year quickly disappeared in the creeping shadows of Harvard Stadium and the arms of Quaker linebacker Steve Lhotak as the Crimson fell 32-24, extending its losing streak to its third week.
After notching 15 fourth-quarter points and marching his team 71 yards downfield in just 37 seconds despite throwing to a wide receiving corps depleted by injuries, junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick faded back in the pocket and waited for an opening in the smothering Penn (9-0, 6-0 Ivy) defense. He found it in senior tight end Matt Fratto, who slipped away from his coverage and came open at the six-yard line, where Fitzpatrick found him with a perfectly placed ball.
But unfortunately for Harvard (6-3, 3-3), as Fratto turned and headed upfield, Lhotak—who bedeviled Crimson blockers all day, recording four-and-a-half sacks and 16 tackles—found him too, planting a game-saving tackle that prevented the completion of Harvard’s fourth-quarter comeback and locked up the Quakers’ second-straight Ivy title.
Penn set the tone in the early minutes of the game by capitalizing on favorable wind conditions and field position to squelch the Crimson offense, building a 22-point lead just 1:36 into the second period.
“This was a team that has jumped on everybody early,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “I said the one thing we couldn’t do is be behind the eight ball after the first quarter and that’s exactly what happened. They jumped out on us.”
With winds that gusted to 30 miles per hour bolstering the Penn defense, Harvard managed just 28 yards of total offense in the first quarter, all of them coming on the ground as Fitzpatrick—who had practiced just twice in the past five weeks due to his hand injury—completed none of the three passes he attempted in the period.
“There was a lot of rust there,” Murphy said.
With senior punter Adam Kingston kicking into the wind, the Quakers began each of their initial drives inside Crimson territory—and they took advantage.
After taking over on the 32-yard line, quarterback Mike Mitchell found wideout Dan Castles for his second straight reception, and a first down and a Harvard personal foul advanced Penn to the 11-yard line. Following two straight incompletions, Mitchell hit wide open tight end Brian Adams across the middle for the opening score.
Following the Crimson’s second straight three-and-out, Mitchell capitalized on his first opportunity, threading a pass through double coverage to Castles, who split the pair of defenders and headed 44 yards for paydirt to take a 14-point lead with 10:13 remaining in the first quarter.
“He’s just an extraordinarily accurate passer,” Murphy said of Mitchell. “All he does is just throw the ball on the money.”
Mitchell’s touchdown pass to fullback Kevin DeSmedt and the ensuing two-point conversion following a botched extra-point snap left Harvard down 22 early in the second quarter and well on its way to a repeat of last year’s meltdown in Philadelphia.
But with the wind finally at its back, the Crimson offense kicked into gear.
Fitzpatrick gave the drive an early burst of energy, spinning left on a broken play and out of trouble, avoiding a sure sack before dashing across the middle of field and inside Quaker territory. Finding junior wide receiver Brian Edwards down the left side of the field in single coverage for his first completion of the game, Fitzpatrick advanced the ball inside the 25-yard line, setting up freshman tailback Clifton Dawson.
With his wide receivers swamped downfield, Fitzpatrick swung the ball out wide to Dawson, who bounced off four defenders for a 14-yard gain. After a short Fitzpatrick rush, Dawson took over, pounding the ball three straight times and punching through the Penn defensive line for a two-yard score on the final carry to pull within 15.
Dawson, who rushed for 108 yards on 25 carries for two touchdowns, became the first freshman in Ivy history to surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark.
But in spite of yet another strong showing from Dawson, Harvard’s possession of the momentum was short-lived.
As in the first half, Penn seized control in the opening moments of the second half and sent the Crimson reeling.
Despite starting on their own nine-yard line with the wind in their faces, the Quakers marched 91 yards downfield in just 1:16 to reclaim a 22-point lead. Mitchell completed three-of-four passes for 70 yards on the drive before Mich Recchiuti completed the drive on a two-yard rush.
“We kinda wanted to make a statement coming out of the gates there,” said Mitchell, who completed 21-of-35 passes for 271 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. “We wanted to get in a little attack and we threw the ball downfield on them.”
After the two squads traded short drives, Harvard took over on the Penn 47 thanks to a short punt straight into the wind. On the strength of Dawson’s legs and three passes from Fitzpatrick to Edwards—the last of which brought the Crimson just inside the five-yard line—Harvard moved into a position to strike back.
With many of his top targets injured, Fitzpatrick looked to Edwards all game long, completing only six passes to him for 102 yards but firing many more his way.
“They sent a linebacker over to double Brian and with Brian’s speed it wasn’t really working out too well,” said Fitzpatrick, who completed 17-of-34 for 250 yards, one score and one interception while rushing for 59 yards on 22 carries. “That’s my go-to guy. That’s the guy I’m going to be looking at and he stepped up huge in the second half.”
But when linebacker Ric San Doval sacked Fitzpatrick two plays later, tweaking his knee and forcing him to the sidelines, hopes for a quick counterstrike quickly dissipated.
Junior backup QB Garrett Schires took the helm, but met with little success. Schires threw behind Edwards on third down and took a sack on fourth, ending the scoring threat.
The Crimson defensive threat, however, did not slacken.
With the ball on the 14-yard line, Mitchell attempted to hand off to Sam Mathews, but with captain Dante Balestracci and junior linebacker Bobby Everett both rushing the center, the line of scrimmage could not hold. Everett reached Mitchell before he managed to complete the handoff, jarring the ball loose. Though the Quakers recovered on their own one-yard line, the stingy Harvard defense allowed no breathing room on either of the next two plays from scrimmage.
Appell fielded the long snap and stepped out of the back of the end zone, ceding the safety rather than risking having his punt blocked. The ploy worked to perfection as the Crimson went three-and-out with Schires still running the offense on its next drive.
But when Fitzpatrick returned, so did the energy.
Fitzpatrick advanced the offense 70 yards downfield, capping the drive with a five-yard third-down pass to Matt Fratto, who was all alone on the right side of the field alongside the goal line. Following the extra point, Harvard was within 13.
Senior free safety Chris Raftery’s interception on Penn’s next play from scrimmage—a pick that literally fell into his lap as he spun to look for the ball—gave the Crimson possession once more inside Quaker territory.
But after an 18-yard reception by freshman wide receiver Corey Mazza, Harvard stumbled, with two incomplete passes and a false start penalty setting up a crucial fourth-and-10.
Under heavy pressure, Fitzpatrick scrambled from side to side, desperately searching for a man open downfield. After slipping one sack, he found himself wrapped up by a second pursuer, but, unwilling to succumb to the tackle, Fitzpatrick put the ball up for grabs and Penn’s Luke Hadden snatched the ball out of the air.
After the Quakers tacked on a field goal to extend their lead to 16, the Crimson stormed back downfield to the six-yard line, with Fitzpatrick accounting for 66 of 77 yards gained. But on first-and-goal, a miscommunication at the line led to a fumbled snap—and once again, when Harvard made a mistake, Penn was there, this time recovering the ball at the 10-yard line.
On this occasion, however, the Crimson had an answer.
Desperately trying to regain control of the ball with the clock winding down, Harvard’s defenders pounded Mathews, trying to strip the ball from his grasp.
After seven tries, the ball sprang loose, and senior cornerback Benny Butler snatched it up. Seemingly uncertain about whether the ball was live or downed, he slowly began to move towards the Penn goal line before sprinting to the one-yard line where he was tackled as he dove for the corner pylon.
“We needed to get the offense the ball back and we were going to do everything we could to punch and rip at the football and find a way to get it out,” Balestracci said. “I don’t know if he hesitated or what but he picked it up and stood there for a second. We practice picking up the football and running them back for touchdowns and that’s what we had to do.”
Dawson leaped over the pile on the next play and Fitzpatrick’s rush right on the ensuing poing after to convert for two points brought Harvard within eight.
After failing to recover the onsides kick, the Crimson defense clamped down, allowing no yards on three plays. It stuffed Mathews on two straight plays and forced both a timeout and an incompletion on the third, giving the ball back to Harvard with just 44 seconds left.
“That was bad communication,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “We should have run the ball, then put ourselves in a position to punt with 25 or 30 seconds left instead of 52 or 53 seconds left. That was just poor on my part.”
Fitzpatrick rushed for six yards and threw for 54 more, placing the Crimson within 17 yards with seven seconds remaining, leaving time enough for just one shot.
Fratto was open, Fitzpatrick took his chance. But the window of opportunity was slammed shut, the wounds of a year ago left to fester for another season.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.