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.