Under a cloudless sky at the Centennial Celebration of Harvard Stadium, with 12,186 on hand to enjoy the sun, the game, and, unexpectedly, the return of star Crimson quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick from injury, the Dartmouth football team came to town and crashed the party in a big way.
Harvard (6-1, 3-1 Ivy) was plagued by major defensive lapses, unnecessary penalties and key turnovers on the way to its first loss of the season, a 30-16 drubbing by the Big Green (3-4, 2-2).
The loss stunned Harvard players and fans—who were hoping for the team’s first undefeated season since winning the Ivy crown in 2001—and dramatically reduced the Crimson’s chances of winning this year’s title outright over rivals Penn and Yale.
“The bottom line is we didn’t play well enough to win,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “They just outplayed us.”
Dartmouth employed a high-flying, aggressive attack, set up by runs from reliable tailback Chris Little and punctuated by long passes from quarterback Charles Rittgers to a bevy of large, athletic receivers in single coverage.
The Crimson blitz never caught up to the Big Green quarterback, who was able to unload long passes seemingly at will almost immediately after the snap.
Rittgers passed for 344 yards on only 17 completions, for an average of more than 20 yards-per-pass, a statistic Murphy deemed “ungodly.”
“It literally seemed to me on the sideline that, at times, the ball was just heaved up there as a prayer,” Murphy said. “It was amazing how many times they came down with it.”
The most outstanding example of this strategy was the game’s turning point.
Moments after Fitzpatrick uncorked a 55-yard, momentum-turning touchdown catch to junior wide receiver Rodney Byrnes in the fourth quarter—cutting Dartmouth’s lead to 23-16—Rittgers completed passes of 28 yards and 38 yards in the ensuing drive that led to an eventual touchdown with 12:23 remaining.
The second of the two passes was the back-breaker. After the game’s most bizarre play—Rittgers scrambled backwards in the Harvard red zone until he was accidentally tripped by the referee for an 18-yard loss—the Dartmouth QB heaved his next pass high in the air on third-and-28, towards junior wide receiver Andrew Hall in double-coverage.
Hall jumped backwards, reached back with one outstretched arm and reeled in the overthrown pass as he crashed to the ground in a heap of players on the Harvard two-yard line. The completion electrified the Dartmouth crowd and had the Harvard contingent staring in disbelief.
Dartmouth head coach John Lyons called the catch “one of the most unbelievable I’ve ever seen.”
Rittgers then ran the ball in for a score, putting Dartmouth up by two touchdowns.
For a while, there didn’t seem to be any special reason for Harvard fans to panic. The Crimson’s 16-9 halftime deficit marked the third straight week Harvard had been down at the half, and would have been the third such margin it had overcome. In addition, Fitzpatrick—who had been a candidate for I-AA player of the year before breaking his hand against Cornell Oct. 11—was back after the better part of a month.
Unfortunately, the Crimson blew several chances in the red zone, thanks to crippling penalties and momentum-blowing turnovers.
Harvard was stopped twice within the Dartmouth 10-yard line during the second quarter, turning the ball over first on downs with 9:07 left, and then on Dartmouth DB Mike Ribero’s interception of junior quarterback Garrett Schires at the goal line to end the half.
In the fourth quarter, Fitzpatrick—who maintained that he was playing with no ill effects from his hurt hand—turned the ball over three times, on two interceptions and a fumble. The fumble occurred on a fourth-and-10 with 10:33 left, just as he appeared to cross the first-down marker. Dartmouth’s Chris Green recovered the ball on the Dartmouth 23.
Harvard’s next drive also ended in a turnover. The Crimson again drove into Dartmouth territory, and after a 12 men on the field penalty from Dartmouth gave Harvard a first down on the Dartmouth 34, Fitzpatrick was intercepted by linebacker Lyle Campbell with 3:49 remaining, sealing Harvard’s fate.
Campbell credited Dartmouth’s defensive success to a “bend but don’t break” defense and some hard hitting.
“In my four years here that’s the best hitting I’ve seen in a ball game,” Campbell said.
Harvard gained 545 yards, but turned the ball over four times on interceptions and fumbles and four more times on downs.
The Crimson game plan revealed a lack of confidence in the kicking game, as Harvard attempted several risky plays on fourth down while in Dartmouth territory. A poor snap to extra-point holder to senior Adam Gordon squandered the team’s first extra point after a Clifton Dawson 71-yard touchdown run gave Harvard a 6-0 lead on just the Crimson’s second play from scrimmage.
“If I felt more confidence in our kicking game, we would’ve played more for field goals,” Murphy said.
Dartmouth’s special teams fared better. Kicker Tyler Lavin boomed a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter to knot the game at nine.
However, Lavin had a shorter 42-yard kick partially blocked with 6:42 left in the fourth quarter, which appeared to give the Crimson new life.
Harvard’s next drive ended in the Campbell interception. Fitzpatrick said after the game that he was trying to do too much with the offense in the second half.
“I was trying to hit those home-run balls,” he said.
While the Crimson offense was hurt by penalties and turnovers, it was the Big Green’s ability to move the ball that mystified observers. Aside from Hall’s miraculous catch in the fourth quarter, he also had a 20-yard catch for a touchdown—Dartmouth’s first of the game—and tight end Casey Cramer added a 23-yard touchdown catch 3:16 before halftime to make the score 16-9.
Little, the 5’8 Big Green tailback, ran a 35-yard touchdown strike up the middle on a blitz with 2:41 left in the third quarter to extend the lead to 23-9.
All in all, it was a rough day for a team whose hopes for an undefeated season ended prematurely.
Captain linebacker Dante Balestracci said that the team should be recovered in time for the most difficult part of the schedule, which includes a meeting with undefeated Penn at home in two weeks.
“It’s a huge wake-up call,” he said.