The Harvard football team’s game against Cornell turned into a duel between a backup quarterback and an NFL prospect. The backup emerged on top.
With starting quarterback Conner Hempel inactive with a knee injury, Crimson coach Tim Murphy asked senior Michael Pruneau to battle the Big Red’s Jeff Mathews, who has been on the NFL radar while breaking Ivy League records.
Pruneau started slow at Schoellkopf Field, throwing an interception to end his first drive. But he rarely faltered after that. Though Mathews finished with 472 yards, it was Pruneau who left Ithaca, N.Y., with a 34-24 win thanks to a stingy defense and some brilliant plays of his own.
The two signal-callers traded touchdowns for most of the second half, but Pruneau and the Crimson (4-0, 2-0 Ivy) held a lead throughout. Three times Mathews and the Big Red (1-3, 0-2) cut the gap to three with a score, but Harvard responded on the ensuing drive each time.
Mathews' last score came with 6:36 left as he dove in himself. Up 27-24, Murphy had the option of telling Pruneau and the offense to burn the clock, but the coach decided otherwise.
“Coaches were calling plays to win the game and that’s what we intended to do,” Pruneau said, “And that’s what we did.”
Pruneau opened the drive with two passes to move across midfield. On a crucial third down a few plays later, senior Ricky Zorn reached out to snag a pass over the middle and move the chains.
One play later, Pruneau went for the win with a deep pass to senior tight end Cam Brate. Brate, who appeared to be nursing an injured finger earlier in the game, leapt up and brought the pass down in the end zone before falling out of bounds. The touchdown put Harvard up, 34-24, and Mathews was unable to find a response.
Pruneau finished the game with 340 yards on 23-of-29 passing, bouncing back from his early interception.
When sophomore Eric Medes gave the Crimson offense great field position by returning an interception to the Cornell 17 midway through the first, Pruneau took advantage. On the third play of the drive, Pruneau scored the game’s first points with a three-yard touchdown keeper.
In the second quarter, the Big Red tallied 191 yards of offense but only three points. Cornell’s first field goal attempt was good, but its second was blocked and its third strayed wide left in the closing seconds of the first half.
"We've got to be more efficient out there and not leave it up to the kicker," Mathews said. "We didn’t get points and that hurts you."
Both sides opened the second half with a touchdown. Later in the third, Mathews engineered one of his team's several long drives, marching 75 yards over five minutes. The possession ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass that brought Cornell within 3, 20-17.
But Harvard would respond early in the fourth. Pruneau spearheaded a 65-yard drive that included a pair of 28-yard passes. Sophomore running back Paul Stanton ended the drive with three straight rushes, the last of which was a two-yard touchdown push that put Harvard up, 27-17.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Mathews had Cornell driving once again. Four straight complete passes pushed the Big Red to Harvard’s 22, but then Mathews committed his most costly mistake of the game.
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