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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For the third time this month, it all came down to the final play for Harvard. And for the third time this month, the Crimson failed to deliver. Unfortunately for Harvard, a game that began with a celebration of players in their final year came to an end with a failed last-minute drive in the final quarter. Harvard dropped this Saturday’s home contest to the Pennsylvania Quakers, 24-20.
“Once again, we played really hard,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Once again, at times, we played really well in all phases. But déjà vu. They just made one more play than we did.”
Both the Crimson (4-5, 2-4 Ivy) and the Quakers (5-4, 3-3) entered Harvard Stadium with a flat record; however, the momentum was on the side of the visitors. While Penn just narrowly cruised to victory over its last two opponents, the Crimson had suffered a pair of disheartening defeats over the course of its most recent two games. Against Dartmouth, a last-minute Hail Mary warded off the Harvard upset; at Columbia, an overtime interception clinched a Lions victory; and today, a one-handed Quaker snag landed Penn the game-winning touchdown.
“If you look at the Ivy League right now and you look at the scores today, there's so much parity in the league and there’s so many good players,” Murphy said. “You've got to play really well every single week, there’s very little margin for error. And you have to finish. Not the first time I've said that, you have to finish. We did a lot of things well today. We’ve just got to finish.”
The last few minutes of Saturday’s contest were a whirlwind for both teams. Down by three with seven minutes to go, the Quakers were just inside the Crimson redzone on fourth down. Having already missed two field goal attempts, the Penn offense elected to go for the conversion, a decision that most certainly paid off for a team whose kickers are an abysmal three-for-nine on field goal attempts this season. Quarterback Nick Robinson launched the ball just as the pocket collapsed around him, his pass seemingly a few inches too far for a Rory Starkey snag. However, the Quaker wide receiver extended his arm just far enough to secure the one-handed catch, tipping the ball into his own hands and the lead into Penn’s.
“At the line, it was a run-pass-option and at the line [Robinson] chose to go with the pass option,” Starkey said said. “Initially, when I saw the ball in the air, I didn’t think I was going to catch it. It was an extremely hard ball to catch, but I just stuck my hand out there and it stuck.”
The game was not yet over. Just over seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter and Harvard was set to receive the kick. Set to recover the four-point deficit, the ball was left in the hands of Crimson junior quarterback Jake Smith. The offense took its time in moving down the field, Smith gaining the first down on every other play. Upon crossing the fifty-yard line, Harvard freshman running back Aidan Borguet snagged a 26-yard pitch, finding a hole in the Quaker defense before being taken down by four defenders. That left the Crimson 10 yards from the endzone. A series of incomplete passes added up to a Harvard turnover on downs.
“We had some bang-bang plays that now are kind of the story of our life lately,” Murphy said. “Close but no cigar.
Over the next twenty seconds, the Crimson called all three of its timeouts, its defense pushing just hard enough to keep Penn from escaping chain gang territory. The Quakers were forced to punt with just over two minutes left, Harvard’s desire for a winning record once again left to Smith.
The Crimson quarterback tossed an eight-yard pass to receiver Cody Chrest to start the drive. Smith, however, would not get much closer to the endzone. A few short rushes forced a pair of reviews, but both times the referees responded in the negative. After a final run was stuffed for no gain, Harvard was forced to relinquish to Penn both the ball and the victory.
“What was a little strange about it was that the call by the official was that it was right there,” Murphy said. “Everybody agreed that it was clear that he made the first down. Penn didn't even challenge it because they thought it was a first down. And the replay official says no, for me looking here from space. Doesn't look like a first down. But I do digress.”
For the Crimson, this game was truly a back-and-forth affair. The Harvard offense entered the fourth quarter with their heads held high, thanks in no small part to the squad’s mid-game dominance.
On the defensive side, the Crimson’s territory was largely secured by defensive back Max Jones. A second-quarter incompletion forced by Jones on Penn receiver Mac Humble foreshadowed his next few plays, holding the Quakers to minimal yardage and keeping the team’s offense humble. After that pass drop, though Penn was a mere 17 yards from the endzone, Harvard’s defense prevented a number of Quaker pass attempts and held them to a field goal, the red zone truly becoming the Crimson zone.
On the next drive, the Crimson offense failed to match its defensive counterpart: for the third time in the contest, Harvard was ushered off the field after a four-play drive. Penn’s victory, however, was short-lived: a few minutes later, the stadium erupted in cheers and jeers as Jones seized a Robinson lob for the interception, his third straight game with a pick.
Smith then retook the field and, in a series of rapid-fire completions, led his offense on a trek through Quaker territory. A 28-yard field goal by Harvard senior Jake McIntyre was just enough to tie up the score, creating a detente that would not last for long.
Robinson’s subsequent crusade through Crimson country was not nearly as successful. Two penalties on Penn served as precursors to a Harvard punt block, the pigskin clobbering a Quaker on the helmet for the second time in the half. The Harvard special teams unit leads the country in blocked kicks, coming up big once again.
Smith, however, a mere 25 yards away from his second endzone toss, was unable to bring it home for the Crimson. After a series of incompletions, McIntyre was summoned onto the field once again, propelling the ball through the goalposts from 42 yards, tying a career-long mark for Harvard’s all-time leader in field goals as the half came to an end.
“Coming out of halftime, I wanted to be first on the field,” Penn coach Ray Priore said said. “I wanted them to see us as they come out of the tunnel. I wanted our guys to look at them as they were coming out after. That was really important for us: to take that field, to play fast, and to finish.”
If the Quakers left the field disheartened after their second-half slip-up, they certainly returned reinvigorated. Within less than a minute, Robinson launched a 70-yard touchdown pass to Starkey, the teams trading the lead once again. However, that Starkey bang was followed by an offensive whisper — both Harvard and Penn were forced to punt on fourth-and-many over the next two drives.
That offensive inaction didn’t last for long. Repetition quickly turned to redemption for the Crimson as receiver Cody Chrest traded his E for an I, taking his spot as savior of the Harvard lead. Smith completions to three different Crimson receivers, along with a rush of his own, left Harvard eighteen yards away from retaking scoreboard dominance. That’s where Chrest came in: a breakaway rush was capped off by a clean juke and the Crimson touchdown.
Penn failed to find a savior of its own on the next drive; a series of short passes was not enough to carry the Quakers to the redzone. For the third time, Penn kicker Daniel Karrash was summoned onto the field to attempt a field goal, and for the second time, the three-point kick was no good. However, Karrash was not alone in his failure to find the goalposts. Though the Harvard offense was able to get within Penn’s 20-yard line on the next drive, a McIntyre field goal attempt was also wide, keeping the score 20-17 as the third quarter wound to a close.
The game started with just as many slips of the Penn. Saturday afternoon may have began as senior-centric as Harvard’s veterans took to the field in celebration of their last home game, but it was the Crimson juniors that were employed in Harvard’s short first possession. After being forced to receive, running back BJ Watson brought the Crimson offense to the 20-yard line, setting up what would be a short first drive. A few short runs by Watson and roommate Devin Darrington were not enough to secure a Harvard first down, and the Adams House residents were replaced by the Crimson punting squad.
For Harvard, the next play would be indicative of the game as a whole: though a Jon Sot punt came down directly on the noggin of a Penn receiver, the Crimson was unable to take possession even after a midfield scramble. Instead, a Quaker recovery and scramble started the visitors a mere 40 yards from the endzone.
After Penn gained a quick first down, the Crimson defense began to show its true colors, putting pressure on Robinson for the first time of many. However, a snap toss by Robinson paved the way for a 35-yard pass-rush by Penn running back Karekin Brooks, bringing the offense to the red zone less than two minutes after taking the field. One play later, Robinson found a hole in the defensive line, running the pigskin to the endzone for the first touchdown of the contest.
“We had some big third down conversions,” Robinson said. “That's what builds momentum. Big plays like that motivate you to keep going. You build some momentum and I think we did that pretty well.”
Once again, the Quaker kickoff sent Harvard to the back of the field and, once again, the Crimson offense was forced off the green after a single drive. A fourth-down punt attempt by Harvard’s Sean McKeogh was foiled by Penn’s Hunter Hayes in a move more melodic than any of his namesake’s country ballads, pouncing on the punter as he dropped the snap.
However, eight yards away from doubling their score, the Quakers were unable to find the endzone or the goalposts, as a short field goal attempt by Karrash was no good.
In a drive that started out mirroring the Crimson’s last two, the Harvard offense retook the field, struggling to reach first-and-10. However, a late-quarter snatch by Watson bookended his early-game reception, leading to a 47-yard catch-and-run for a Crimson touchdown.
The score tied and quarter nearly over, the Quaker offense stalled upon taking possession, punting after only a few playcalls. The Crimson matched with a four-play drive of its own, the Darrington-Watson duo unable to break a carry over five yards.
Over the course of the next minute, the two teams racked up a penalty apiece. The Quakers, having been pushed back five yards for delay of game, were forced to punt, however, a roughing-the-kicker call on tight end Adam Shepard led to a flurry of flags and resuscitated any chance Penn had of scoring on that possession.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Quaker defense began to stir. Penn’s defensive line pushed the Harvard offense down the field on the team’s first drive of the quarter, resulting in a loss of yardage and a punt by Sot.
Robinson took to the field at Harvard’s eighteen-yard line, a false start pushing his squad back even further. The quarterback, not to be outdone by the Penn defense, scrambled for a twelve-yard run on third-and-ten, lighting anew Quaker hopes of victory.
A series of plays for over twenty yards propelled Penn into enemy territory, the air battle becoming a fight on the ground as Brooks ran for four consecutive gains. As time would tell, the Quaker’s late-game offensive dominance would only continue, leading to a one-handed catch, a conversion, and a win.
— Staff writer James Joyce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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