Last year, Harvard needed just one win to claim the Ivy League title. Penn and Yale did not oblige. This year, the Crimson needs two.
Between Harvard and a championship ring stands two teams—the Bulldogs and the Quakers. Even to have a shot at the top spot, the Crimson must escape its final home game of the year against Penn on Saturday unscathed.
The ask is large and the scene similar to the 2016 matchup in all but records. The Quakers (4-4, 2-3 Ivy), currently ranked sixth in the division, return to the position of spoiler for the third-straight season. In addition to keeping Harvard (5-3, 3-2) from a title last year, the team forestalled a perfect Crimson season in 2015.
The matchup between the two teams is even. So even that since 2001, the teams have split the results with eight wins apiece.
And while Penn is in the position to play the part of spoiler this year, the team is assuredly not an underdog. The Quakers’ record betrays their strength. The squad faced a rough first half of the season, taking a heavy loss to Central Connecticut State and then falling to Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale. The Quakers looked to be on a path straight to the division's last place spot.
Then they downed Princeton.
The same team that hung 52 points on Harvard—the third-most in Crimson program history. Playing in front of a hostile crowd at Franklin Field, that Tigers team fell 38-35 to Penn.
This result, in addition to a rout of Brown, corroborated that the Quakers’ squad was legit. Now, the team has a distant shot at the Ancient Eight crown, in the unlikely event of a seven-way tie for first.
It would be strange to finish the season without either Penn or Harvard at the top. Since 1997, at least one of the teams has earned a share of the trophy 18 times, and 2007 was the last year that neither team finished at the one spot.
“[In] the 24 years we’ve been here, if there’s ever one program who it’s coming down to for the Ivy League Championship, it’s been Harvard and Penn,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “They just happen to be a team that all of the sudden has a whole lot of momentum.”
In addition to the position the Quakers may play as the spoiler, the pieces even mirror the 2016 match. Penn returns wideout mainstays Christian Pearson and Justin Watson, a preseason All-American. In the 2016 match, both players hauled in over 100 yards.
Watson represents a particular threat, one that leads the FCS with 12 receiving touchdowns. The senior pro-prospect has 60 catches for 843 yards. For reference, Pearson ranks second on the Quakers’ roster for receiving touchdowns with just two. The Crimson has nine.
“He’s probably the best player in the league,” senior safety Tanner Lee said. “You just need to keep the ball in front of you and make sure he doesn’t turn stuff into big plays. As long as we prevent big plays and keep the ball in front of us, we’ll be fine.”
Harvard has its fair share of returning playmakers as well. Junior wide receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley has been a threat all season, not so much on the wing as on returns. The junior leads the FCS in both punt returns average and punt returns for touchdowns.
An unforeseen returner for the Crimson comes in the form of senior quarterback Joe Viviano who has reclaimed the starting position under center.
“Joe’s going to be the starter,” said Murphy concerning the swap. “I think he’s earned that.”
The fifth-year play caller initially lost the position to freshman Jake Smith and has not started since the week one loss to Rhode Island.
Last week, Smith was yanked after four interceptions, including three in the first quarter. A strong defensive performance limited the Lions to only seven points off Smith’s turnovers, and Harvard managed to pull out the win.
The Columbia game represented the first time that a quarterback had thrown three interceptions in a quarter since 2016. Specifically, since the 2016 game against Penn. More specifically, since Viviano threw those interceptions.
Last year against the Quakers, Viviano tossed the ball into the hands of awaiting defenders three times in the span of nine minutes and 55 seconds in the second quarter. Much like this year’s Columbia game, the defense stayed strong, not allowing Penn to capitalize on the turnovers. The Quakers’ only points of the half resulted from a pick-six on one of Viviano’s errant passes.
The two teams took to the second half four points apart, and were neck-and-neck as the final seconds ticked down. At 14-14, disaster struck for the Crimson when Watson hauled in six points with 15 seconds left. The visitors did not answer.
The loss kept Harvard from securing an Ivy League championship, as a defeat to Yale one week later ended the Crimson’s three-year title streak. Now Vivano makes his return against the defense that forced his worst game to date.
“[The emotions] carry over,” Lee said. “Penn is the only team my record is negative against. We definitely want to go out there and do our best to beat them.”
The last time that the Quakers came to Harvard, the Crimson sported an undefeated record and 22-game win streak. That 2015 game was just as evenly matched at halftime as the year prior, but with Harvard holding the four point advantage.
Penn scored in the third quarter to resume the lead, but the final nail in the coffin didn’t come to until the final stanza. A blur named Justin Watson outran the edge and then the world on his way to the Crimson end zone, successfully completing the 79-yard scoring run and the subsequent rout of Harvard.
The Quakers’ victory, while not enough to forestall the Ancient Eight Championship, did snap a 22-game win streak.The Crimson has not returned to the top of the division since.
Back in the present. Harvard finds itself in a spot few thought that it would be at the beginning of the season: vying for the division's top spot.
“Three weeks ago, you wouldn’t have thought that we’d be in the position to control our own destiny, albeit, one that’s going to be a much steeper slope and much more challenging than the last two weeks have been,” Murphy said. “As far as we’re concerned we’re playing with house money.”
Penn has Watson. The Crimson has Shelton-Mosley. In what has many seasons been the de facto title game, the stakes are much the same as they have been historically. Harvard needs to win in order to fight for a piece of the Ancient Eight crown. So do the Quakers.
“They have the skill players and weapons to be very dangerous,” captain linebacker Luke Hutton said. “They’re a very good football team and a very good offense. We’re playing the two best teams on our schedule in the last two games. That’s our mindset going in, and we’re ready.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.