In 2015, Penn upset Harvard football to disrupt a perfect season.
In 2016, the Quakers scored in the final minute to prevent a historic four-peat for the Crimson.
In 2017, the stakes were lower, but the result was the same. On a brisk afternoon at Harvard Stadium, Penn (5-4, 3-3 Ivy) froze out the Crimson offense, holding the team under double digits for the first time since 2009.
The result was a dispiriting 23-6 defeat that dashed Harvard hopes of an Ivy League championship. Combined with Yale’s 35-31 win over Princeton, the loss to the Quakers pushed the Crimson (5-4, 3-3) out of the title race.
“We just did not offensively capitalize on our opportunities,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Stating the obvious, you just need to score more points to be in the game against a really good football team like Penn.”
Down 10-3 at halftime, Harvard emerged from the locker room with energy. Completions to senior halfback Ryan Antonellis and junior wide receiver Henry Taylor advanced the Crimson into Penn territory, and Harvard soon earned a first-and-goal at the nine.
Then quarterback Joe Viviano made a mistake. The senior telegraphed a throw to junior Justice Shelton-Mosley along the sideline. Defensive back Conor O’Brien stepped forward for the pick. That play, along with a lackluster first half, led Murphy to replace Viviano with freshman quarterback Jake Smith in the third quarter.
Three plays after the interception, the Quakers were in the end zone. On first-and-goal from the 19, quarterback Will Fischer-Colbrie absorbed a hit from senior Tristan Tahmaseb but still found favorite target Justin Watson in the end zone. Penn 17, Harvard 3.
On the day, Viviano led the Crimson with 109 passing yards on 6-of-14 throwing. He added 58 rushing yards. With the senior at the helm, however, Harvard struggled on third down, converting two of 13 tries.
The Quakers seized control thanks to running back Tre Solomon. On the first play from scrimmage, the senior swept right and sprung through a hole. He raced down the Penn sideline past whooping teammates for a 77-yard score.
“That was an interesting one, to say the least,” Murphy said. “It put us behind the eight ball early, but our kids dug in…. I thought we played very solid defense the rest of the day.”
The sprint bore eerie similarity to a 79-yard jet sweep that Watson broke off at Harvard Stadium in 2015. The All-American played a major role in the Quakers’ previous wins over the Crimson, totaling 269 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Harvard mostly shut down that threat, as Watson failed to hit 50 receiving yards for the first time in 2017. Even so, he set an Ancient Eight record with nine consecutive games with a receiving score.
The Crimson fell victim to something else—a powerful Penn running attack. The Quakers accumulated 281 yards on 40 carries, more than Harvard had conceded in any previous game. The closest comparison came in week four, when Cornell churned for 233 rushing yards in a 17-14 victory.
“A lot of plays were getting a lot of vertical push,” Solomon said. “A lot of players are just feeling more comfortable with the game plan, and we were just able to open up a lot of holes.”
The ground game was on display midway through the second quarter, when Penn added to Solomon’s early score. Starting at their own 16, the Quakers pushed into Harvard territory after sophomore Karekin Brooks cut past several tacklers on a 17-yard run.
Penn got within five yards of the end zone, but the possession stalled thanks to linebacker Chase Guillory. The senior batted down a third-down pass to force a 37-yard field goal, which gave the visitors a 10-3 lead.
On that drive, and throughout the game, the Crimson defense gave up yardage but made stops to keep the game within reach. Another example occurred in the third quarter, when the Quakers took over at the Harvard 38 after a wobbly kick by senior punter Zach Schmid.
After conceding a 16-yard rush, the Crimson held strong. Senior safety Tim Haehl broke up passes on consecutive plays, and Penn settled for another field goal and a 20-6 advantage.
Three minutes later, senior safety Tanner Lee gave Harvard some hope by forcing a fumble at the Crimson 35. Down two scores, the offense pranced onto the field. But less than a minute later, Penn was the one celebrating. On a first-down run, the Quakers poked the ball away from Booker and regained possession at their own 45.
That turnover essentially sealed the result, as Penn mounted a four-minute drive. The possession finished with a 36-yard field goal that pushed the score to 23-6, meaning a three-possession contest.
By that point, freshman quarterback Jake Smith had replaced Viviano. Murphy made the decision after Viviano failed to notch a touchdown in three quarters.
“You’ve got nothing to lose,” Murphy said. “Really, we needed a spark. When you’re playing two quarterbacks, it’s obviously symbolic that you’re not exactly happy with your offense. We’re not in a great place.”
The Quakers secondary deserved much of the credit, as defensive backs smothered wide receivers. In the first half, Viviano completed two passes for 17 yards.
The Crimson got on the board early in the second quarter thanks to an 11-play drive that took 4:51. Freshman running back Aaron Shampklin pushed Harvard into the red zone with a 15-yard rumble in which he bounced off several defenders.
The Crimson failed to capitalize, though, as Viviano scrambled for a loss on third-and-goal. Harvard settled for a 24-yard field goal and a 7-3 score.
The offense produced more points on the second drive of the third quarter, when Shelton-Mosley revived fans with a 45-yard catch deep in Penn territory. While Harvard pushed to the eight, a chop block penalty stalled the drive and led to a 32-yard kick.
Lost in the final score was the early obstinance of the Crimson defense, which forced Fischer-Colbrie to toss two picks before halftime. One occurred early in the second quarter, when junior safety Cole Thompson undercut a post route. That turnover led to a field goal.
The other interception came just before intermission. Penn had advanced to the Harvard 25. With eight seconds left, Quakers coach Ray Priore elected to run a play before trying a field goal. Fischer-Colbrie made him regret that decision, as safety Lee grabbed the pass in the end zone.
Ultimately, those turnovers proved insignificant. Crimson players, especially seniors, wanted a win over Penn to erase the bitterness of the past two seasons. Now they will have to deal with the taste of a new defeat.
“We approach every single game the same way with maximum effort [and] focus,” captain Luke Hutton said. “That’s what we're going to do this week. I have all the faith in the world that we have the leadership to do so.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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