PROVIDENCE, R.I.—The Harvard football team can only be thankful that every game has two halves.
Facing a 21-0 deficit barely 10 minutes into the game and a 31-10 disadvantage at the half, the Crimson (2-0, 1-0 Ivy) rallied in the final two quarters to narrowly top Brown 35-34 and claim a crucial win to open the Ivy season.
“We have one adage we live by, and as corny as some people think it is, it’s, ‘Never, ever give up,’” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “I’m just so proud of our players from a character standpoint for how they turned that thing around.”
By halftime, the Bears (1-1, 0-1) had already amassed 451 yards of offense, on pace to shatter the record for most yardage by a Crimson opponent. But Harvard charged out of the locker room looking nothing like the shell-shocked team of the first half.
The Crimson received the kickoff and promptly put together a purposeful downfield drive to the Brown 35-yard line. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick lofted a perfect pass to sophomore wide receiver Corey Mazza near the right sideline. Mazza, with a good six-inch advantage over Bears cornerback Rashad Collins, easily pulled down the ball and tumbled into the endzone to cut the deficit to 35-17.
“I think when the ball’s in the air it’s just whoever wants it more,” Mazza said, “and I think all the guys on this team, looking around at them, second half, you knew that we wanted it more.”
“We knew—especially the seniors, the guys up in the offensive front—we knew, that in that second half we needed to score at least four touchdowns, three touchdowns, to keep us in the game,” Fitzpatrick added.
It was the swing in momentum that Harvard needed. On the ensuing Bears possession, the Crimson held the Brown offense to three-and-out for the first time the entire game. Unlike the first half, when everything had gone right for the Bears, suddenly everything began to swing Harvard’s way.
“The defense really helped us out, as far as we were able to get some points on the board early and they were able to come up with some big stops,” Fitzpatrick said. “And that’s when you knew that the momentum started to shift and be in our favor.”
After failing to score on its next series, the Crimson punted deep to Collins on his own 12-yard line. Sophomore Dylan McCrory charged in to level a decisive hit on Collins, causing the ball to squirt free back towards the Brown endzone. A cadre of players arrived on the scene, but it was junior Gary Garcia who pounced on the ball at the Bears two-yard line and gave control of the game back to Harvard.
“That’s a huge play,” Murphy said. “That was basically a freebie for us, for the offense…that was a huge field position thing.”
“It really came down to special teams,” said Brown coach Phil Estes. “We just fell apart right there.”
With Harvard down to the one-yard line, Fitzpatrick faked the handoff to Dawson, who dramatically lunged over the heap of players into the endzone while Fitzpatrick rolled out right searching for a receiver. As a Brown defender dragged him to the turf, the Crimson captain flipped the ball underhand to junior fullback Kelly Widman for an apparent score.
But before Harvard could even rejoice, the play was called back due to an ineligible man downfield. Fitzpatrick’s next pass attempt to junior wide receiver Ryan Tyler fell incomplete and the Crimson had to settle for a 22-yard field goal to get within 11 points.
Still, the tide had definitely turned. The rejuvenated Harvard defense kept Hartigan and DiGiacomo in check on the Bears’ next possession, and the ball was once again in Fitzpatrick’s reliable hands. On second-and-five from the Crimson’s own 20-yard line, Fitzpatrick handed off to Dawson who broke through a mass of linemen, escaped several ankle tackles, and careened down the field 80 yards for a touchdown. Dawson finished the day with 142 yards and three TDs.
Fitzpatrick kept the ball for the ensuing two-point conversion, scrambling left and barely into the endzone to bring Harvard within three.
The Crimson benefited from excellent field position on its next drive. From its own 43, Harvard pushed steadily towards the Brown goal line on the strength of short but effective rushes by Dawson and a 29-yard dash by Fitzpatrick. It was Dawson who finally took the ball in for the score on a third-down option, giving the Crimson its first lead of the game 35-31.
But the game’s outcome was far from sealed, as Brown stormed into Harvard territory and threatened to score for the first time in the second half.
DiGiacomo converted on fourth-and-l5 with a 17-yard pass to Schreck to bring the Bears as close as the Crimson’s 10. The Harvard defense stepped up big, however, wrapping Hartigan and pressuring DiGiacomo’s receivers. Brown decided to settle for a field goal to get back within one, 35-34.
The Bears got a break on the Crimson’s next possession when Fitzpatrick was sacked deep in the backfield by Zak DeOssie. Fitzpatrick made a last-ditch attempt to throw the ball away, but it slipped out of his hand and was recovered by Pat Curran, giving Brown possession at the Harvard 20. Once again, the defense locked down on Hartigan to hold the Bears out of the endzone. Kicker Steve Morgan, who had already missed a short field goal in the first half, sent his 30-yard field goal attempt wide right and the Harvard lead held.
“I was trying to get rid of the ball, to throw it away,” Fitzpatrick said of the sack, “and again that’s just a credit to their defense. They were very tough, and they played us tough all day. We knew coming into the game that we couldn’t turn the ball over. That was a big swing, and luckily our defense stepped up at the end.”
The three-touchdown comeback ties for the largest in Harvard history. The other time was against Dartmouth in 2001, when Fitzpatrick, in the first start of his career, led the Crimson to a win following a 21-0 halftime deficit.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Murphy said. “Having that foundation [of the Dartmouth win] for this senior group and having that experience certainly helped us.”
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at email@example.com.