As time was running out in the first half of Saturday’s title-deciding game, Harvard football was down but not out. With 27 seconds on the clock, the Crimson received the ball after a Penn field goal made the score 17-0.
Harvard didn’t have great field position—a return from sophomore Matthew Hanson had put the team on its own 34—but the expected play would have been a long bomb to at least make a push for the endzone.
Instead, the Crimson knelt and let the clock run out—a play-it-safe strategy that continued even into the fourth quarter, when it became a two-score game.
With just under 10 minutes remaining in the game, Harvard was faced with a 4th-and-2 situation on its own 28. Rather than go for it, Crimson coach Tim Murphy called for his punt unit.
“We really felt like, law of averages, we were going to force a turnover in the weather, really being very aggressive on defense,” Murphy said. “I didn’t want to put us in a position with nine or 10 minutes left to panic.”
Harvard also didn’t take many risks with its play-calling, sticking mainly to runs up the middle from its tailback tandem of junior Gino Gordon and freshman Treavor Scales to move the ball up the field, a strategy that wasn’t as successful as it had been throughout the season.
“Their coverage was pretty good,” junior quarterback Collier Winters said. “Their rush was good, and they didn’t allow anything deep, so it was hard to get a big play.”
With Penn maintaining a stranglehold on the line of scrimmage, though, it was only when the Crimson did go to its riskier plays—long balls to junior wideouts Chris Lorditch and Marco Iannuzzi—that it put itself in position to score.
“I really felt like we had enough time, if we could get a turnover or some field position,” Murphy said. “And if we had cashed it in on the last one, onsides kick, we had a shot—but we just didn’t quite pull it off.”
BACK ON TOP
With Saturday’s win, Penn broke a six-season Ivy title drought—and in the process put a serious damper on the Crimson’s chances for a three-peat.
Now 6-0 in the Ivy League, the Quakers have clinched at least a share of the conference title, the team’s first since 2003. Penn finished third a year ago, one win behind co-champs Harvard and Brown.
The Crimson’s championship was only possible last year because the Quakers handed the Bears their only loss on the season—and if the matchup between Harvard and Penn had gone differently, the Quakers could have worn the Ivy crown a season earlier.
Then-junior Ryan Barnes picked off Penn quarterback Keiffer Garton in the endzone with 10 seconds remaining to preserve the 24-21 win—and his team’s title chances—while sending a rapidly-improving Quaker team to a disappointing finish.
“I’m more happy for our seniors,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “They played Harvard tough last year, and we came up a little short. This year, they were determined…I couldn’t be happier for them.”
Now heading into the last week of the season, the Quakers are in the driver’s seat. Penn is alone atop the Ancient Eight standings, and the Crimson needs to beat Yale and have the Quakers lose to a struggling Cornell team to claim a share of the title.
Though a crown is still possible, Harvard’s reign as Ivy champions is likely over. The team has secured at least a share of second place and will record its ninth consecutive winning season.
“It was the kind of game that we anticipated—hard-fought,” Bagnoli said. “We had to play for 60 minutes against a program that we have the ultimate respect for—with the job that Harvard has done, in terms of their consistency over the last five years.”
—Staff writer Kate Leist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.