As the fourth quarter began, things were looking eerily similar to last year. Down 28-10, Cornell (1-3, 0-2 Ivy) boldly decided to go for it on 4th-and-16. As Harvard (3-1, 2-0 Ivy) defensive linemen crashed on Big Red quarterback Richie Kenney, the play-caller tossed a prayer that defensive back Max Jones just missed plucking out of the air, instead, knocking it down.
Flags delayed the change in possession as the refs penalized the Crimson for roughing the passer, resetting the downs. Cornell capitalized, and Kenney tossed a trusting lob to wideout Phazione McClurge, who had Harvard junior defensive back Isaiah Wingfield in his face.
McClurge leapt over Wingfield, pulled the ball into his chest, planted a foot in the endzone, and fell backwards out of bounds. Referees rushed at the duo with their hands in the air — touchdown. The score, coupled with the missed PAT, cut the Crimson’s lead to 28-16.
Harvard followed the Big Red’s touchdown up with a three-and-out, sending the ball back to the visitors having only spent a minute of the fourth quarter.
The past two seasons, on the heels of an 11-game win streak by the Crimson in the series, Cornell has managed consecutive double-digit comebacks. In 2017, the Big Red erased an early Havard 14-point lead with 17 unanswered points. In 2018, Harvard led by 10 with 10 minutes remaining and Cornell still won. Now, in 2019, the Crimson led by 12 with 13:06 to play.
“The fourth quarter rolls around and you’re like ‘this is very similar,’” Jones said. “It was just knowing the work we’ve put in, knowing how it went the last two years, and just really willing to make sure that didn’t happen.”
This year would not be the same as last. The Big Red followed Harvard’s three-and-out with one of its own, and neither team scored for two more drives. As Cornell set up to punt the ball to the home team, Crimson sophomore safety James Herring found the body of the ball, cutting its distance traveled to nine yards. Herring had been close to blocking a punt all night, having tipped one in the second quarter and nearly touching another in the third.
With the ball at the Big Red’s 32-yard line, three plays — two of which solicited Cornell timeouts — set up the scoring toss. Junior tight end Ryan Reagan planted his foot and flipped his defender around, creating an open pocket for quarterback Jake Smith to thread the ball in. The score put Harvard up, 35-16, with just over five minutes left to play.
The Big Red would score once more, but with only one timeout, the Crimson managed to waste the rest of regulation, securing its first victory against the squad from Ithaca in since 2016.
“History will tell you, alright we’ve got them right where we want them,” Cornell coach David Archer said. “I didn’t think we were out of it. I thought we were going to come back and win the game like we did the last two years but [we] just weren’t able to make enough plays to do it today.”
The contest pitted one of the nation’s best offenses, in Harvard, against one of the nation’s best defenses, in the Big Red. Prior to this week, Cornell led the nation in red zone defense while the Crimson was second for red zone offense. Today, Harvard scored in each of its three red zone appearances.
Prior to Saturday’s contest, the Cornell defense had surrendered just five offensive touchdowns across three games. The Crimson doubled that number.
Both the Big Red and Harvard ranked nationally in rushing defense with the former placing 10th and the home team sixth. Cornell ranked sixth nationally in overall defense. Only the Crimson’s defense played the part, limiting the Big Red’s running back, Harold Coles, to just 34 yards.
Coles entered the game second in the Ancient Eight and sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 111. That’s 77 more yards than he earned Saturday afternoon.
“Harvard, this year and part of their identity over the years, they’ll play like 90 linemen,” Archer said. “Being a former offensive lineman myself it’s always like a hockey game to the D-line. It’s like a line shift. You get a whole fresh new set of guys. That makes it difficult [for the offensive linemen].”
Aiding that performance, in part, was the return of Crimson senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland. The senior tallied two of the team’s six sacks, for 14 yards lost.
“He was our top veteran defensive linemen coming into the season,” Murphy said. “We’ve been playing four sophomores on the defensive line pretty much as starters. To have Brogan, it just takes a lot of pressure off the young guys. You know you’re going to get some pass rush production.”
Leading the defense was junior linebacker Jordan Hill with 10 tackles. Harvard led the nation in average team sacks per game prior to Saturday with 4.67 per game. The team will likely maintain its spot on the leaderboard after the six-sack performance against Cornell.
The beginning of the game didn’t look so promising for the Crimson as the Big Red took the early lead in the first drive of the contest. Cornell’s first drive didn’t look like it was going to be a scoring drive. The team ran six plays for only 12 yards and a single first down before punter Nickolas Null entered play. Null’s punt spiraled downfield before bouncing off a Harvard player's arm and onto the turf. The Big Red’s Demetrius Harris dove on the bouncing ball and Cornell resumed possession at the Crimson 17-yard line.
From there, a drive marked by a successful fourth-down conversion and several Harold Coles runs was capped off by a pass rocketed from quarterback Kenney to Eric Gallman on a drag route across the middle of the Harvard end zone. Gallman cradled the pass in his chest as he fell onto the turf for six.
The Crimson would equalize the score, but the 7-7 tie didn’t last long.
As his pocket collapsed, Harvard’s Smith tried to escape the mounting pressure by stepping up. As he tried to get the ball off, his arm was hit by the Big Red’s defensive lineman Mo Bradford. The ball sputtered down the Crimson 30-yard line and was jumped on by Cornell linebacker Lance Blass.
With only 28-yards to score, the Big Red’s offense couldn’t get anything going. An incomplete pass from Kenney, a three-yard rush from Coles, and a sack by Harvard’s senior linebacker Cameron Kline forced the special teams unit onto the turf.
Instead of punting, Cornell entered its field goal unit. Punter, and now also placekicker, Null converted on his career-long boot from 49 yards to return the lead to the Big Red for the second, and last time, of the game.
The field goal was the first of a 24-point second quarter. From there, three straight, unanswered touchdowns not only flipped the advantage to the Crimson but granted the team an 18-point lead heading into the locker room at the half.
It began immediately after the field goal. Four plays, 75 yards, and just under two minutes were all Harvard needed for the score. Smith hit junior B.J. Watson on his back shoulder as the quarterback sprinted out of the pocket to the right. That went for 21 yards. Smith then found senior tight end John Stivers in the middle of the field, who carried several defenders for 25 more.
Junior running back Devin Darrington capped things off. Dished the ball on what looked to be a broken play, Darrington bounced off a friendly lineman before finding an open lane and sprinting up the visiting sideline for six. The lead, achieved with just over 10 minutes remaining in the half, was the Crimson’s first of the contest.
Junior linebacker Jack McGowan cut the following Cornell drive short. As Kenney took a look over the middle of the field, he tried to thread his pass over the head of McGowan. Harvard took over on its opponent’s 33-yard line.
On 3rd-and-9, the Big Red defense feigned blitz before dropping back into a three-high zone. Senior wide receiver Cody Chrest planted at the 10-yard line, drawing the deepest defender before slipping behind him. With no one within 10 yards of his target, Smith tossed a high 32-yard lob which Chrest secured before walking into the endzone. The drive took three plays and a minute and a half.
“Cornell statistically is one of the best defenses in the Ivy League, before this game,” Smith said. “Really what it was was just game planning. We saw what their defense was doing on film and our coaches went to work and put us in a good game plan and good situations out there on the field today.”
The Crimson’s next drive took a bit longer but achieved the same result. As Harvard knocked on the door of the endzone, it faced a third-and-four. Smith went for six, attempting to hit Reagan on the slant.
The pass was knocked down by safety Jelani Taylor, who jumped up excited, only to see several flags littering the field. The ensuing pass interference call moved the Crimson to the three-yard line and reset the downs. A quick jet sweep to Watson with only 16 seconds remaining in the half iced the drive and sent the teams to the locker room.
Following the gunslinging second quarter was a scoreless third. A dominant second quarter is usual for the Harvard team. The squad has dominated opponents over the last three games in the second stanza, outscoring them 69-3.
Helping the Crimson defensively was Cornell’s loss of senior quarterback Mike Catanese to injury. The veteran has led offensive production for the team and his season-ending injury forced the Big Red to rely exclusively on Kenney.
Smith had himself a solid day, throwing for 217 yards and three touchdowns. Darrington ran for 94 yards and one touchdown.
Hard to see on the stat sheet but visible during play was the impact of Harvard’s punting unit. The Crimson used two punters on the afternoon, sophomore Jon Sot and junior Sean McKeogh. Sot’s three punts averaged 56.3 yards. McKeogh punted four times.
“Suffice it to say, 33 years as a head coach, this is the first time I’ve ever invited two punters to the press conference,” Murphy said. “Today was probably as good a day kicking the football and putting teams in bad field position as we’ve had in a long, long time.”
The victory for the Crimson means Cornell still hasn’t won at Harvard Stadium since 2000. Murphy is now just two wins shy of the all-time Ivy League record for most wins as a head coach.
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @THC_CadePalmer.