“We still do this thing where we seem to give up a touchdown in the first series, and then we seem to play pretty much lights out for the rest of the game,” said senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland. “It worked today, but we're going to try to cut that out.”
While the trend was continued in Worcester, the Crimson (4-1, 2-0 Ivy) wasted no time in taking control of the game after an initial stumble to race ahead to an early lead that it would never relinquish. Boosted by defensive takeaways and 24 consecutive points in the first 20 minutes of the contest, Harvard swiftly retook the driver’s seat and spoiled a well-attended Holy Cross (3-4, 1-0 Patriot League) homecoming game, 31-21.
“It's huge, the ability to get takeaways by our defense, because the opponent's not getting anything,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “It created short fields, created scoring opportunities, and it flat out was the difference in the game. Neither team was able to mount long drives, so when you had an opportunity, you better cash it in, and we were fortunate to get that early in the game.”
On just the third play of the game, Holy Cross lined up to attempt a conversion on third and one. Quickly darting between defenders just behind his offensive line, senior running back Domenic Cozier hit daylight just after crossing over the line of scrimmage. For the next 66 yards, he would go untouched into the end zone for the first score of the game, just 76 seconds into the contest.
“We've had three of our five games this year [where] the opponent has scored on the first or third play in the game,” Murphy said. “We've come back to win two of those and our coaches have done a great job making adjustments.”
Harvard, hoping to match the Crusaders on its first possession, did little to swing the momentum back in its favor before even running a play. A delay of game set the Crimson offense back five yards prior to ever snapping the football.
Setup by a Holy Cross pass interference, Harvard capped off a nine play, 75 yard drive as junior quarterback Jake Smith found senior receiver Jack Cook streaking down the sideline. The passer fit the ball into an over-the-shoulder window for an 18 yard touchdown to tie the game at seven points apiece.
Despite an unsportsmanlike penalty on Smith following the touchdown setting the kickoff back to the Crimson’s own 20, a fumble recovery on the kickoff sent Harvard’s offense right back onto the field. Poking the ball away was sophomore defensive back James Herring, whose special teams playmaking ability was highlighted last week by two blocked punts.
“Our defense came up huge on forcing some takeaways in the first half, and that really was the biggest focal point of the game,” Murphy said. “To have short fields and be able to punch those in and jump on these guys was really tell of the game.”
Harvard was propelled by impressive playmaking ability from its defense. The Crimson forced four fumbles, recovered three, got to the quarterback for five sacks, and added on an interception, all without captain defensive back Wes Ogsbury.
“I thought our defense played very well today,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “You know, we had some guys that were nicked up, we played a lot of different guys on the defensive line and we still managed to get pressure, and we still managed, to most of the time, be able to dominate the run or at least contain the run.”
This impressive defensive line performance was spearheaded by McPartland. The senior exploded for three sacks, gashing the Holy Cross offensive line. The veteran, playing in only his second game of the season, brought his season total to an impressive seven sacks.
“It feels good to be back,” McPartland said. “This my second game back, so I’m just excited to be back with the boys playing football again.”
“You know there were times we had two guys on [McPartland] and he’s still able to get to the quarterback,” Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney said.” He's a very good football player, and I think that's something that we had anticipated and had an idea of, and he just had his way with us at times.”
Chesney was not the only person in attendance to recognize McPartland’s impressive play. The senior was honored as the Johnny Turco Memorial Trophy winner following the contest.
“I didn't even know they did a trophy, it's cool that they give a trophy to the other team and I'm just happy to receive it,” McPartland said. “It's gonna get dedicated to the D-line as a whole. That’s not just me, that’s a whole group effort.”
The defensive line certainly earned its stripes against the Crusaders’ offensive front. After the early 66 yard burst, the defense allowed only 16 rushing yards to compliment its five sacks.
“We've had to make that our identity this year, we just try to nut the run and then we know they're going to have to drop back and that's where we really strive, we’ve got a lot of guys can get after the quarterback,” McPartland said. “We thought they were probably the best O-line we’ve faced so far, but that's our bread and butter so we love that, we love competing trying to get at the quarterback.”
Despite the slowing of the game’s tempo, Harvard kept the momentum in its favor behind the line of scrimmage. Following a sweep blown up four yards in the backfield by senior defensive back Cole Thompson, scrambling Crusader quarterback Connor Degenhardt was stripped on just the second play of the drive, setting up yet another short field for Harvard.
This time around, the Crimson wasted no clock in capitalizing on the turnover. A 22 yard pass from Smith found junior tight end Ryan Reagan in the back of the end zone, putting Harvard up 17-7. Following its model of consistency, another unsportsmanlike conduct followed the score, setting the kickoff back 15 yards once again. Senior receiver Cody Chrest was the culprit this time around.
Despite the improved field position, a quick three-and-out ended in a quick Holy Cross punt. By the conclusion of the first quarter, the Crusaders had only controlled possession for three and a half of the first fifteen minutes of play.
Unfortunately for Holy Cross, the second quarter started much like the first. First, the Crimson floundered just as they did to start the game. Two negative plays set Harvard up for a third and 20, yet junior punter Sean McKeogh pinned the Crusaders on their own five yard line.
Again, however, the tide quickly turned back to Harvard. The Crusaders’ third lost fumble in their own territory came at its own three yard line, setting up the shortest field yet for Harvard. Yet another score on the first play of the drive came from junior running back Devin Darrington, who darted, juked, and spun around three missed tacklers in the backfield before waltzing into the endzone to add to the Crimson’s now 17 unanswered and give Harvard a two possession lead.
Holy Cross did little to quell the swinging the Crimson tide. A holding on the ensuing kickoff, despite a fair catch touchback, was followed by a false start to start the drive on the Crusader’s own 10 yard line. A negative rush, a dropped pass, and another fumble ended the drive before it even got the chance to get off the ground. Luckily for Holy Cross, its fourth fumble squirted out of bounds and allowed the team to mercifully punt.
Possibly uncompelled by the Crusader’s minimal efforts to shift the momentum, a ferocious block that sealed Smith’s 30 yard scramble to start Harvard’s next drive was called back for a questionable blind-side block penalty. The Crimson would punt to Holy Cross, setting up another seesaw that would result in a total of seven consecutive punts, a trend broken up only by halftime.
This back-and-forth continued throughout the entire contest, with a combined third down conversion rate below 25 percent and a total of 19 punts between the two teams.
The break offered more excitement than the the last 11 minutes of the first half thanks to the Crusaders’ fire-wielding baton twirler.
This slowing of offensive playmaking heading into the break was a new development for Harvard, yet came as no change for Holy Cross. The Crusaders finished the half with only 66 total yards, the same amount gained on their rushing touchdown on the third play of the game. This play also served as the Crusaders’ only first down of the first half.
Despite a three-and-out from Harvard, a booming 76 yard bomb from sophomore punter Jon Sot pinned Holy Cross on its own 10 yard line flipped the field and gave the Crimson better field position following the Crusaders’ respective punt.
“A 76 yard punt,” Chesney said. “Damn. It got over our kid’s head. Our kid was at 55, not thinking [Sot] could kick 70 something in the air, and he did.”
Following a 10 yard loss due to the third errant Harvard shotgun snap to touch the ground, the Crimson pinned yet another punt inside the Crusaders’ 20 for the third time in the contest.
“I was a little disappointed in the special teams field position as well,” Chesney said. “But you know that little bit of wind, and the two different punters pose a little bit of a problem.”
For the second week in a row, the punt game proved immensely important for Harvard. Coming off of an impressive week against Cornell averaging 56.3 yards per punt, Sot’s 76 yard boot topped his previous career high by a single yard.
“You feel like you're in an alternate universe, the way that our punters are punting the ball,” Murphy said. “We knew they were good. Obviously Jon was the first team All-Ivy kid as a freshman, but the combination of both those guys in different situational punts has been a weapon beyond even what we expected.”
Jon’s counterpart McKeogh finished the game having downed five of his six punts inside the Holy Cross 20 yard line.
“We knew they were talented,” Murphy said. “All of a sudden they're really embracing their role as being able to impact the game.”
Outside of this early score, the back-and-forth punting was finally broken in a bizarre manner. A short punt taking a huge Harvard bounce was inexplicably jumped on by Crimson senior linebacker Joey Goodwin, despite the punt never having been touched. Instead of taking the advantageous field position, the mistake allowed Holy Cross to take over from Harvard territory. Luckily for the Crimson, sophomore Crusader kicker Derek Ng pulled a 49 yard field goal wide left.
Harvard wasted no time in capitalizing on the miss. For the third time this game, the Crimson would find the endzone on the first play of the drive, this time from 68 yards out on a deep catch and run from Chrest to give Harvard a 31-14 lead.
After Harvard’s next drive, a punt from McKeogh pinned Holy Cross on its own six yard line, the fourth time the Crimson and the third time McKeogh forced the Crusaders to start a drive inside its own 20. The ensuing punt setup helpful Harvard field position at midfield, a position that helped McKeogh pin Holy Cross inside its own red zone once again. Despite finally gaining another first down, consistent pressure on the quarterback forced the Crusaders to punt yet again.
Having been bottled up for an underwhelming average of 2.9 yards per carry in the first three quarterbacks, Darrington showed off his speed and elusiveness to start a Harvard drive with two consecutive carries for 43 yards to eclipse 90 rushing yards for the fourth straight game. He would finish with 28 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown.
Harvard was able to start in the red zone deep into the game thanks to another turnover deep in Holy Cross territory on a diving interception by junior linebacker Jack McGowan at the 16 yard line. On the first play of the drive, Smith threw a poor ball into traffic, but a sure Crusader interception was soiled by a second defender colliding into the defensive back and inadvertently breaking up his own team’s turnover. An incomplete Crimson pass on fourth down a few plays later saved Holy Cross from the costly mistake.
With just over three minutes to play, the Crusaders finally started to show more life in their offense. Back-to-back screen passes for 48 total yards setup a 30 yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Tenio Ayeni and cut the deficit to 10 points with just 1:42 left in the fourth.
The score proved much too little, too late, as an unsuccessful onside kick gave Harvard possession once again. Just before the clock expired, McKeogh booted the ball down to the Holy Cross six yard line for his fifth inside the 20 on the contest, sealing the 31-21 victory for the Crimson.
—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JMinatelTHC.