Two undefeated teams. It was the No. 1 offense in the Ivy League against the No. 1 defense in the FCS. With stakes that high, Harvard coach Tim Murphy put it perfectly heading into the weekend:
“Something’s got to give.”
At least for the first half of Saturday’s contest between Crimson football and Penn, it was the No. 1 offense that broke down.
Having relied all season on its senior offensive line—featuring future NFL draft pick James Williams, as well as classmates Ben Sessions, Alex Spisak, and John Paris—Harvard could not hold up to the stifling Quaker defense that ranks first in the FCS in nearly every defensive category.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we felt that we would have to control the line of scrimmage to win this football game, and that was going to be a challenge,” Murphy said. “Their defense was as advertised. I thought in the second half we did a better job running the football…In the first half, we never got any momentum. We never got into any rhythm offensively and never got any field position, and that obviously put our back against the wall.”
“We knew this wasn’t going to be a track meet with the quality of both defenses and the weather conditions,” Murphy added. “We knew you had to make the very most of all your opportunities because you weren’t going to get as many. You weren’t going to get as many plays, you weren’t going to get as many drives, and you weren’t going to get as many red-zone chances.”
Penn held the Crimson to just 57 total yards in the first half, knocking Harvard quarterback junior Collier Winters back for 16 yards lost and forcing a fumble.
The Crimson couldn’t even manage a red-zone attack in the first half hour of play.
“I think the best thing they do, especially on a wet day when it’s harder to notice the speed difference, but they just don’t allow a whole lot of big plays,” Winters said. “So you just kind of have to chip away at them, but when you have the fumbles and penalties, it’s hard to do that.”
Junior Gino Gordon and freshman Treavor Scales—used to picking up significant gains through the broad alleys opened up by their line—were held to just 26 net rushing yards in the first half.
“You want to make them play from behind against our defense,” Bagnoli said.
And though Harvard was able to get things going in the second half—finishing the game nearly even in terms of total yardage (250 total offensive yards to the Quakers’ 263)—it proved too little too late, as the Crimson faced a gaping 17-point deficit heading into the last two quarters.
“We were confident,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “There’s no reason for us not to be confident. Our kids were ready to play. We’re peaking at the right time.”
Saturday’s showdown between the opposing lines reached its apex late in the fourth quarter, when Harvard found itself on the Quaker half-yard line. The Crimson opted for the quarterback sneak, but Winters was unable to punch it in.
“The snap was fine, the three front D-linemen just kind of submarined our guys, and we didn’t really get a push, so I tried to take it around the edge,” Winters said.
“Our kids have been really resilient, and our defense has been stingy when they’ve had to be stingy,” Bagnoli said. “They came up with some huge plays, and there’s probably none bigger than stopping them on the six-inch line. We’ve been riding the backs of the defense the majority of the year. It was no different today.”
The play seemed a fitting end to a battle that had been hyped up for weeks. But in the end, something had to give, and Penn came out victorious.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Penn tri-captain Chris Wynn, who laid the goal-line hit on Winters. “Best feeling of my life.”
—Staff writer Dixon McPhillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.