PHILADELPHIA—Five times this season Harvard football has had its back to the wall, and four times the Crimson’s miracle train has kept on chugging.
Other than the week two loss at Brown, Harvard has managed to come up with big play after big play to secure unbelievably close victories.
Saturday’s win was no different.
The game-sealing interception with less than 15 seconds left saved Harvard from many things, not the least of which was losing an Ivy League title shot next weekend against Yale—a sort of redemption after the team came down to Philadelphia two years ago with the same hope and left empty-handed.
But it certainly wasn’t easy, and at times it wasn’t pretty. The Crimson came just inches from losing a game it lost statistically in almost every category.
Harvard couldn’t stop the run—the D gave up 254 yards rushing, 174 of those to Quakers quarterback Keiffer Garton. The Crimson didn’t win the offensive matchup despite a lackluster Penn attack showcasing its third-string quarterback—the Quakers outgained Harvard 445 to 261 and had 27 first downs to the Crimson’s 12. And the team didn’t win the time of possession battle, its Achilles’ heel all season—Penn held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game.
“It’s interesting that you have 27 first downs to their 12 and you rush for 254 yards and you still lose the game,” Quakers coach Al Bagnoli said. “You’re kind of sitting there saying, ‘what’d you do wrong?’ But, you know, that’s…I don’t know what else to tell you. We had 445 to 261, and we managed to lose the game.”
So how exactly has Harvard been winning these games?
“There are three or four games on our schedule we easily could’ve lost if our kids didn’t have such great attitudes and such great intensity and effort,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We had to come back from 18 down to beat a very good Holy Cross team. We had to make a play to beat Lehigh, we had to make a play today. We’ve been in a bunch of games like that. We’re not a dominant team. We’re a team that finds a way to win.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
All season I’ve waited to see the breakout game. With most of the team returning from last year, it seemed only natural that Harvard would return from the summer to be the dominant team we all saw perform last November at the Yale Bowl.
But in the end, Murphy is right: this isn’t a dominant team. Yes, the Crimson is 8-1 and steps it up where and when it needs to, like on special teams this weekend, something that has plagued it all season. Although that was just about the only area in which Harvard bested its counterpart.
But that’s about it. Harvard does the little things it needs to squeak by—a forced fumble at the end of the Lehigh game to seal a victory or a late sack to stop a potential game-winning drive at Princeton. And for the most part, it’s succeeded. But at some point you have to start wondering, how much longer can it work?
After a less-than-stellar performance in the Columbia game last year, Harvard challenged itself to step things up and make the big plays it had had the potential to all season. Now it has to do exactly that again if it has any hope of beating a Yale squad that has improved tremendously since its slow start to the season.
Yes, the Bulldogs are a two-Ivy-loss team with virtually no chance of winning the title, but if history’s any indication, that won’t make any difference.
Yale won’t let Harvard get away with the mental lapses—the missed point after attempts and penalties—that have been plaguing the Crimson all season. As the cliché goes, Harvard better go big or go home next week. The team has to be a dominant force throughout the game, not just on game-sealing turnovers, because if that potential doesn’t show up, it’ll be yet another nailbiter at Harvard Stadium. And who knows if the Crimson has yet another miracle up its sleeve.
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.