The Harvard football team rolled into New Haven this year with everything going wrong. The offense lacked the explosiveness that led the Crimson (7-3, 4-3 Ivy) to a 6-0 start. Junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had practiced three-and-a-half times in the last five weeks and his receiving corps appeared to be decimated. The defense that had been so clutch in the first six contests couldn’t buy a turnover. Not surprisingly, Harvard headed into the season finale against Yale (6-4, 4-3) reeling—losers of three in a row.
But nothing cures a seemingly disappointing season like a 37-19 thrashing of the Bulldogs in front of 53,136 at the Yale Bowl.
The Crimson salvaged its season and avoided finishing the year with a losing Ivy League record for the first time since 1999. And for the first time since the squad’s 27-0 win over Cornell on Oct. 11, all facets of Harvard’s game clicked into place.
Fitzpatrick and the offense resembled the team that averaged over 500 yards-per-game for much of the season rather than the team that could barely muster anything against Columbia two weeks ago. And the defensive secondary, which had struggled in recent weeks to contain taller, stronger receivers, made big plays when they were needed and kept the Bulldog offense out of the end zone.
Yale moved the ball well between the 20-yard lines, with quarterback Alvin Cowan turning in a record-setting day with 438 passing yards—the most in Bulldog history.
But as Yale got deep into Harvard territory, its drives stalled. In six opportunities in the red zone, the Bulldogs managed only two touchdowns.
“We had 500 and something yards of offense,” said wide receiver Ralph Plumb, who contributed 15 catches and 158 yards to that total. “And how many points did we score? 19? That’s laughable. That’s awful.”
The most important stop for the Crimson defense came late in the third quarter. Trailing 24-13, Yale strung together an impressive 17-play, 80-yard drive down to the Harvard five-yard line. But that was when the Crimson defense stepped up.
After the Bulldogs failed to move the ball effectively on their first three plays, they then took a timeout and opted to go for a touchdown rather than taking a field goal, hoping to reduce Harvard’s lead to eight. Yale returned to the field with 6’7 tight end Nate Lawrie split wide left, paired with 5’8 senior cornerback Benny Butler.
Cowan recognized the mismatch immediately and launched a high-arching pass deep into the back left corner of the end zone. But Butler’s coverage was perfect and he knocked the ball away from Lawrie before the tight end had a chance to make the play.
“That was a huge point in the game,” said captain linebacker Dante Balestracci. “To withstand that like we did…that just turned the momentum right around in our favor and we were able to roll on that.”
On the ensuing drive the Crimson took advantage of the big defensive stop and gave itself breathing room. On a third-and-four from the 21-yard line, Harvard coach Tim Murphy called an underneath route for his receivers in order to pick up the first down. Luckily for the Crimson, junior wide receiver Brian Edwards made a mistake.
“In all honesty, Brian ran the wrong route on that one,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was supposed to run a five-yard hitch.”
Despite the confusion, Fitzpatrick hit Edwards in stride deep down the left sideline as defender James Beck fell down and Edwards went untouched into the end zone, giving the Crimson a 31-13 lead.
Junior cornerback Gary Sonkur provided further insurance for Harvard late in the fourth quarter when he stepped in front of Cowan’s pass to receiver Ron Benigno and returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown.