In his inspirational locker room speech in “Any Given Sunday,” Al Pacino’s character Tony D’Amato, coach of the fictional Miami Sharks, states, “The inches we need are everywhere around us.”
For the Harvard football team, the inches it needed were right in front of it on Saturday against Penn (7-2, 6-0 Ivy), but they ultimately proved too elusive for the Crimson (6-3, 5-1 Ivy) in a 17-7 loss.
In what—in all likelihood—served as the Ivy League championship game, Harvard faced a 4th-and-1 well inside the one-yard line with 2:49 left in the final quarter.
Junior quarterback Collier Winters took the snap and tried to run up the middle, but a wave of Quaker defenders plugged the hole. Winters changed course and wrapped around to the outside, but Penn cornerback Chris Wynn was waiting. Wynn hit Winters, and Winters hit the ground, arm and ball outstretched. The referees conferred and marked Winters down just inches shy of the endzone.
The play effectively ended the Crimson’s comeback attempt, as well as its aspirations for a third-straight Ivy League title, giving the Quakers the Ancient Eight crown for the first time since 2003.
“It took me a minute to believe it,” Wynn said. “I looked for a flag or something. It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s been a long time coming...Best feeling of my life.”
In the days leading up to the game, the contest was hyped as a matchup between Harvard’s Ivy-best offense and Penn’s top-ranked defense. But the Quakers showed the most offensive prowess early on, scoring on their first possession, when Penn quarterback Kyle Olson hit receiver Marcus Lawrence on a screen pass. Lawrence found himself with an open field in front of him and took full advantage, sauntering into the endzone for a 51-yard touchdown reception.
“The ball came out like a wet fish,” Olson said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s going to hit the ground.’ He caught it...and he just broke away. Marcus is one of the fastest guys on the team, and he really showed it.”
The teams held each other scoreless for the rest of the first quarter, but Penn struck again in the opening minutes of the second. The Quakers blocked a punt by senior Thomas Hull, giving them excellent field position on the Harvard 29-yard line. Olson worked his way up the field, eventually running the ball in himself from the one to give Penn a 14-0 lead.
The Quakers tacked on three more points with a field goal in the last minute of the half to head into the locker room on top, 17-0—a margin made more daunting by heavy rain that soaked up the field throughout the game.
“A score is like 10 points instead of seven points in a weather game with really outstanding defenses,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “There’s no question that at halftime our back was to the wall.”
But the Crimson defense rallied in the second half, holding Penn scoreless and giving its offense a chance to make a comeback.
“We didn’t do too much different, we just executed better,” said Harvard captain and defensive lineman Carl Ehrlich. “We came out in the first series, and they made a couple big plays on us. We played on our heels a little bit. The second half, we got ready in the locker room, we got focused.”
Unfortunately for the Crimson, it could not take advantage of its newfound defensive stinginess, stymieing its own offensive momentum with costly turnovers.
On Harvard’s first possession of the second half, junior wideout Adam Chrissis fumbled the ball away at the Penn 38. After a quick Quakers three-and-out, the Crimson commited another turnover—this time a fumble by rookie running back Treavor Scales.