Despite two failed field goals and three botched extra-point attempts, the Harvard football team relied on a versatile offensive attack and its ever-improving defense to thump Penn 29-3 at Harvard Stadium on Saturday.
H-back and tight end Kelly Widman had three touchdown receptions—one more than he had all season coming into the game—and the Crimson (6-4, 4-2 Ivy) held the visiting Quakers (5-4, 3-3) without a touchdown for the first time since 1997, when Harvard beat them 33-0.
“We probably are playing the best defense in the league right now,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We’re peaking defensively, much as we did a year ago at this time.”
With league co-leader Princeton’s 21-14 loss to Yale, the Crimson is now in a three-way tie for second in the Ivies with the Tigers and Bulldogs. All are 4-2 in the league, one game behind 5-1 Brown, which beat Dartmouth 24-14.
Harvard could still secure a share of first if the Bears fall to Columbia on the road next week, but the Lions—0-6 in the Ivy League—are unlikely to prove much of a test for streaking Brown.
As a result, next Saturday’s showdown in New Haven will likely be only for the customary bragging rights, as well as a chance for the seniors to close out their season and careers on a high note.
“It’s a one-game season for us,” said senior wide receiver Ryan Tyler. “Yale’s a big game, whether it’s a championship or whether we’re 0-9.”
As was befitting of Senior Day, it was the Harvard veterans making crucial plays on both sides of the ball against the Quakers. Tyler had 11 catches for 177 yards to accompany Widman’s trio of scores.
The Crimson needed stability from somewhere, because it certainly wasn’t going to be found on special teams.
“I thought we executed our game plan across the board,” Murphy said, “with maybe the exception of field goal, PAT.”
Harvard scored twice in the first quarter on touchdown receptions by Widman. Employing little-used receiver Peter Scully and tight end Jason Miller for the first strike, sophomore quarterback Liam O’Hagan moved the Harvard offense into the red zone. From the four-yard line, O’Hagan lobbed the ball high up to Widman in the back of the endzone where the 6’2 senior reached above his defender to pull in his third touchdown of the season.
Widman displayed surprising acrobatic ability on his second catch, stretching out horizontally to snare an 18-yard pass from O’Hagan.
“We have a lot of offensive weapons,” Widman said. “I’m doing everything I can do to complement those guys, trying to get open any way I can.”
Widman’s performance and the 12-3 lead were encouraging, but the Crimson’s kicking woes were cause for concern. Sophomore kicker Matt Schindel’s first two extra points were botched, the first due to a bad snap and the second on a poorly executed fake.
With the third-string long snapper in the game after injuries to captain Erik Grimm and backup junior Dylan McCrory, Murphy said, “things just fell apart.”
“We were completely out of sync,” he said.
It helped that the Quakers were unable to accomplish much in the air, or on the ground against the best rushing defense in Division I-AA.
Penn quarterback Pat McDermott found his wide receivers with ease on the Quakers’ first drive but then stalled, forcing Derek Zoch to kick a 39-yard field goal for Penn’s only points of the afternoon. McDermott completed only 18 of 38 passes for 158 yards, and he was intercepted twice.
“We were just trying to keep them off-balance with our play calling, keep it mixed up,” Murphy said.
The Quakers finally gained momentum in the second quarter with a 10-play, 60-yard drive to the Harvard 26-yard line. But on second-and-10, McDermott’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Matt Thomas. Two plays later, Clifton Dawson found space and blocking on the right side and raced down the sideline to the endzone. A Harvard penalty for clipping brought the ball out to the 22-yard line, but O’Hagan found his leading receiver, Widman, to put the Crimson up 18-3.
But Schindel’s extra-point attempt was blocked, and the kicker, who was 7-of-7 on field goal attempts before Saturday, also had a blocked field goal in the second quarter and missed wide right in the fourth.
O’Hagan, whose 22-of-36 for 293 yards and three touchdowns was his best showing of the season, capped the first-half scoring with a 12-yard touchdown run. His rushing two-point conversion gave the Crimson a 26-3 halftime lead.
“It was a very forgettable first half on all counts,” said Penn coach Al Bagnoli, whose team has dropped three Ivy contests for the first time since 1999.
For Harvard, everything but the kicking game was worth remembering.
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.