But Harvard (8-1, 5-1 Ivy), as it has all season, finished with a flourish, as senior Ryan Barnes grabbed his third interception of the day in the end zone with 10 seconds remaining, and the Quakers (5-4, 4-2) threatening at the Crimson’s 12-yard line. The pick preserved a 24-21 win in front of 7,352 mostly hostile fans that keeps Harvard atop the Ivy standings and puts a share of the Ivy title on the line for the Crimson in The Game.
The pick would never have been necessary without a furious Penn comeback that made a snoozer into a thrilling contest. After the Crimson converted one of Barnes’ interceptions into a 20-yard field goal by junior kicker Patrick Long to make the score 17-0 with 6:55 remaining in the third quarter, the Quakers offense came to life. Statistically among the worst units in the Ivy League, Penn’s offense marched 74 yards on 12 plays behind third-string quarterback Keiffer Garton, who started because of injuries to the Quakers’ starter and backup. Penn running back Mike DiMaggio’s 1-yard plunge made it 17-7, and the rally was on.
A quick three-and-out for the Crimson was followed by the longest play for the moribund Quakers offense all season, as Garton took a quarterback draw 63 yards for a touchdown, shriveling the lead to three in the space of 2:04.
Harvard responded almost immediately with its most complete drive of the game, moving 67 yards in five plays and capping it off with a 2-yard touchdown strike from senior quarterback Chris Pizzotti to junior tight end Nikolai Schwartzkopf, Pizzotti’s second touchdown pass of an otherwise statistically down game (16-for-23, 156 yards). The highlight of the drive was a 42-yard strike from Pizzotti to junior wideout Matt Luft, the second-longest play of the day for the Crimson.
Penn countered once again, moving 79 yards and reaching the Harvard 6-yard line, primarily on the strength of Garton’s mobility, and on third down Garton threw for receiver Kyle Derham in the end zone. Quaker fans cheered what they believed was a touchdown, but the pass was ruled incomplete, and kicker Andrew Samson missed a field goal. It was only Samson’s third miss of the season in 16 attempts, and his first from inside 30 yards.
“I thought I had a pretty good angle on the touchdown that was called an incomplete, and I’d be curious to see that one as well,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said.
After dodging another bullet, the Crimson’s offense stalled out. Another three-and-out gave Penn the ball back, and Garton once again devastated Harvard’s defense. Garton carried twice for 29 of his 174 yards on the game, including a 13-yard touchdown scamper that pulled the Quakers within three once again with 4:36 to play.
“We knew this kid was athletic,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We knew that really, as a young quarterback, running was going to be more his forte, so we were very aware of it, we practiced it. We didn’t tackle great, for one thing.”
A sack, an incompletion, and a short completion spelled another three-and-out for the Crimson’s offense, which had an uncharacteristically weak day, gaining just 261 yards of total offense, significantly below the 412 yards per game Harvard averaged prior to the contest.
“We didn’t have much of a rhythm on offense,” Pizzotti said. “They’re basically one of the best defenses in the league and the country, and I think we saw why today. They were very good at [limiting] the run, really made some plays in the passing game when they needed to, and then just at the end of the game I wanted to wind the clock, so I was trying not to throw the ball away, and I probably should’ve made a play rather than holding onto the ball.”
Penn took the ball back at its own 25, and Garton went to work once again. Garton completed a 20-yard pass on fourth-and-6, then converted another fourth down with a short run. A 17-yard strike to wideout Kyle Derham moved the Quakers to the Harvard 12, where Garton dropped back, pump-faked, and overthrew an open receiver in the end zone. Barnes grabbed the interception, sealing the win for the Crimson.
“You always want to try to go up and make a play,” Barnes said. “You know in your mind you think somebody’s going to make a play, we’re going to get out of this situation, we’re going to get off the field.”
The climactic second half came after a first half that was largely a stalemate. Harvard squandered an early chance when Pizzotti threw an interception in the end zone, and neither team scored until midway through the second quarter. The Crimson capped off a 34-yard touchdown drive with Pizzotti’s first touchdown pass of the day, a 10-yard toss to sophomore Levi Richards. Harvard quickly expanded its lead in the second half, as sophomore running back Gino Gordon took the second offensive play of the third quarter 63 yards for his fourth rushing touchdown of the year.
The win puts the Crimson in position to win back-to-back Ivy titles for the first time in school history.
“I couldn’t ask for a better situation,” Pizzotti said. “This is what we’ve trained all year for.”
—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.