As Harvard senior Collier Winters stepped onto the field this weekend, the pressure to perform was elevated more than ever before as he returned to his starting role at quarterback.
With an additional stress on his shoulders, Winters not only quieted skeptics, he put on one of the best performances in Crimson football history.
Entering the game against Princeton, Winters was replacing the defending back-to-back Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week, junior Colton Chapple, at quarterback. While Winters had been out with a hamstring injury, his backup tied the school record for the most touchdowns thrown in a single game, with five.
Despite Chapple’s consistently dominant performances, Harvard coach Tim Murphy kept faith in his senior, and gave Winters the start against Princeton.
“Collier is a fifth-year senior, and he came back, was healthy, and showed that he could play in practice this week,” said freshman Ivy Special Teams Player of the Week Seitu Smith III. “It’s hard for the coaches to decide between two quarterbacks that have played so well, but I think it comes down to senior leadership.”
After battling for the starting job in each of the past two seasons, Winters seemed to have the spot locked up heading into his final semester at school. But strong performances by Chapple put his spot in jeopardy once again.
“Of course he had something to prove,” Smith said. “Being the upperclassman senior quarterback, he’s supposed to be the leader of the team, leading us to the Ivy League Championship this year. It was an HYP [Harvard-Yale-Princeton] rivalry game, so he had to play hard to prove to the fans, the coaches, and the league that he’s still one of the top players.”
Winters silenced anyone questioning Murphy’s decision on the Crimson’s second drive of the game. Showing no signs of rust, the senior QB marched the offense 69 yards down the field and ultimately took the ball in himself for a one-yard touchdown run.
“You expect it from Collier,” Smith said. “When he sees the goal line, he’s not pitching the ball.”
On the next drive, Winters went to the air, leading Harvard on an impressive aerial attack. Picking apart the Tiger defense with throws to junior running back Treavor Scales and sophomore receiver Matt Brown, Winters helped carry the team 74 yards downfield. He capped off the drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass as he went back to Brown in the end zone.
Over the next three quarters, Winters continued to rely on his arm and racked up over 400 yards in his first game back. While some would look to get comfortable with a “go-to” receiver after missing several starts, Winters ran a balanced offense throughout. In total, the senior threw a record-tying five touchdowns to five separate receivers.
During Winters’ mammoth aerial barrage on Princeton’s secondary, the Crimson offense found balance in its rushing game as well. Harvard ended the game with three more rushing attempts (45) than passing attempts (42), and finished with just shy of 160 yards on its feet. Winters himself ran for 29 yards on 14 attempts. This dynamic offense kept the Tigers on edge.
“Collier’s rushing opened up the playbook and stretched the defense for the receivers,” Smith said.
When Winters went to the air, he did so with precision. The quarterback missed only eight of 42 pass attempts, and threw only one interception, which occurred midway through the second quarter.
As the Tigers gained momentum in the third quarter, putting up 22 points in less than ten minutes, Harvard turned to Winters to stop the bleeding.