In Saturday’s matchup with league-leading Columbia, it was yellow flags, not blue jerseys, that nearly stole Harvard coach Tim Murphy’s 200th career victory.
The Crimson (5-3, 3-2 Ivy) headed into the fourth quarter up 21-7. On the Lions’ first drive, though, the offense closed the gap to seven thanks to three Harvard penalties. On the next Columbia possession, senior linebacker Chase Guillory was ejected for targeting.
The penalties set up a dramatic ending, as the Lions regained the ball with 3:24 left, needing a touchdown to tie. Columbia (6-2, 3-2) pushed closer and closer, converting a fourth-and-10 thanks to an 11-yard scramble by quarterback Anders Hill.
With under a minute left, the Lions earned a first-and-goal at the eight. But the Crimson defense stood strong. On fourth-and-goal with 26 seconds left, sophomore linebacker Joey Goodman deflected a pass to ice the game.
“It felt like at times it was uphill much of the game, even when we had the lead,” Murphy said. “But the defensive effort was just so heroic, and those kids just weren’t going to settle for anything other than getting off that field with a win. And it was a really good game plan by our staff and really outstanding execution by our defense.”
Drawing 10 flags for 110 yards, Harvard nonetheless accounted for its missteps. The defense limited standout wide receiver Josh Wainwright to 63 yards, and the offense outgained the Lions by more than a yard per play.
“They’ve got really good athletes, they’ve got a really good scheme, they’ve got a really good coaching staff, and they’re used to playing in big games,” Columbia coach Al Bagnoli said. “They’re certainly formidable. Let’s leave it at that.”
After not seeing the field since mop-up duty against Lafayette, senior quarterback Joe Viviano pulled the Crimson back into the game.
Freshman Jake Smith started the game under center, but Vivano took the reins after four interceptions in 20 minutes. The veteran’s first drive netted only a punt. His second, however, went to the end zone. Viviano lobbed a pass to junior wide receiver Henry Taylor, who shed his cover for a 65-yard score.
Vivano’s second touchdown came with his feet. An interception by Cole Thompson put the Crimson at the Columbia 27. On third-and-goal from the one, the quarterback kept the option left and jumped into the end zone. Harvard 14, Columbia 7.
All told, Viviano tallied 120 yards on six completions. In the third quarter, he fired a short play-action pass to senior halfback Jake Barann to give Harvard its largest lead of the game, 21-7.
“Intangibly, we’ve never had better kids,” Murphy said. “We just fight so hard, and I’m just so proud of our kids. It was a tremendous effort.”
Columbia truncated the lead to seven with a 10-play, 88-yard drive. Much of that yardage came on penalties, as Harvard was whistled for a facemask tackle, unsportsmanlike conduct, and defensive holding.
Once the Lions reached midfield, Hill completed four passes. The final one—a 16-yarder to senior running back Chris Schroer—landed in the end zone.
“I think it’s really important in this game just to have a short memory,” said senior defensive tackle Stone Hart. “Last play doesn’t matter—it’s the next play. There were two consecutive [penalty] plays where I was able to get in the backfield and do some damage, but it didn’t matter to me. You go, you do your job.”
Much earlier, Columbia had taken a 7-0 lead off an interception by Smith. The freshman began his first drive well, completing passes to Taylor, Shelton-Mosley, and senior halfback Jack Stansell. On his fourth throw, though, Smith directed an ill-advised pass toward the sidelines. Linebacker Michael Murphy jumped the route and sprinted to the Crimson 25.
The Lions took advantage. A 19-yard connection to wideout Kyle Castner set up a first-and-goal, and two plays later, freshman quarterback Josh Bean found Caster in the end zone.
“They have probably the second-best pass offense in the league, only to Princeton,” Murphy said. “They’ve got great receivers. Anders Hill [is] a tremendous quarterback.”
The Crimson was lucky not to face a larger deficit after four Smith interceptions in the first 20 minutes. There was Murphy’s sideline pick. There was a deep pass that Smith threw to Taylor, only to watch safety Landon Baty jump for the ball. There was a check-down pass that Smith zipped to linebacker Sean White.
Columbia largely failed to convert turnovers into points. The most egregious example came after Smith’s third interception, when the Lions started at the Harvard 16.
After a one-yard rush, a sack, and an incompletion, Columbia lined up for a field goal, which sailed through. But a holding penalty negated the play. On the next play, the snap was high, and Crimson defenders pulled down holder Ryan Suitt.
Columbia’s offensive struggles were even more poignant given defensive dominance. In the first quarter, the Lions held Harvard’s run-strong offense to 14 yards but still trailed at halftime.
Meanwhile, the Crimson defense posted a heroic performance. After the first-quarter touchdown, Harvard kept Columbia off the board for 41 minutes.
“It’s just sticking to the game plan,” senior safety Tanner Lee said. “Stop the run first and second down and then get them to third down and stop the pass.”
For the first time in several games, Shelton-Mosley was not a major factor in the return game. Entering Saturday, the junior led the FCS with 23.1 yards per punt return. The Lions took notice and opted for pooch kicks and high punts—anything to keep the ball away from the elusive runner.
“Seventeen is really special back there,” Bagnoli said. “We call him the Devin Hester of the Ivy League…. We had to take some precautions of how many times he touched the ball.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.