“It was obviously really high and I lost it in the sun for a second but it came back in, and I saw one guy tip it and it just fell right in front of me,” said Dartmouth junior wide receiver Masaki Aerts. “I just grabbed it and held onto it.”
With only six seconds left on the clock and no timeouts remaining, Dartmouth lined up at Harvard 43-yard line for what was likely to be the last play of the game. Junior backup quarterback Derek Kyler, who had entered the game for the injured starter just before halftime, took the shotgun snap and immediately found himself surrounded by the Harvard pass rush.
“I don’t know how I got outta it,” Kyler said. “I saw the dude come free on the end, and I knew the one thing I couldn’t do was take a sack, so I was just trying to find a way and on a play like that you’re not going to be looking for an open receiver, you’re more so throwing it in the crowd, hoping it’ll find its way into someone’s lap like it did for Saki.”
Somehow, the mobile quarterback spun and scrambled to his left, finding space to launch a pass into the end zone. Aerts found the tipped ball and secured it for a walk-off touchdown, winning the game, 9-6, for the Big Green.
“It was a classic,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “To say that we got our guts ripped out might be the understatement of the century.”
Harvard (4-3, 2-2 Ivy) seemed to have the game in hand as the fourth quarter clock wound down. With under four minutes to play, the No. 14/15 Big Green (7-0, 4-0) found itself facing a tough fourth down and six, trailing by only three points. Kyler scrambled backwards and launched a ball down the field, where senior linebacker Joey Goodman darted towards the sideline and made a leaping interception. While an impressive pick, Goodman's catch set Harvard’s offense to start at its own 30-yard line, while simply batting the ball down would have started the drive at Dartmouth’s 44.
Following a three-and-out, Goodwin’s decision seemed to greatly alter the game’s outcome. Snagging the snap off of the ground, junior punter Sean McKeough booted the ball 53 yards, starting the Big Green on its own nine-yard line with only 1:31 left in the contest.
The previous events of the game suggested it would take a strong push from Dartmouth’s offense to take the lead. The Big Green would never get the chance, as pressure from senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland and sophomore defensive lineman Truman Jones forced a fumble recovered by McPartland.
Harvard, however, failed to run out the clock. On what seemed to be another befuddling Crimson decision, junior running back Devin Darrington darted along the sideline and was forced out of bounds to stop the clock.
“Clock management, somehow in the heat of passion, in the heat of the game, can go out the window real fast,” Murphy said.
After an unsuccessful fourth down conversion, Dartmouth took over at its own four-yard line with exactly one minute left on the clock. A 96-yard drive and one Hail Mary later, the Big Green would escape with a victory, effectively eliminating Harvard from contention for the Ivy League title.
The third quarter would remain otherwise scoreless, with each defense refusing to give an inch. Darrington, who averaged six yards per carry in the first half, was held to two carries for three yards in the third quarter. Following McIntyre’s second field goal, the two squads slugged it out, forcing five straight punts and allowing only 46 total yards between the two offenses.
“I’m so proud of our kids,” Murphy said. “Our defense couldn't have played any better. It just feels predictively so cruel not to get down on the winning side.”
Hoping to spark its offense, the Crimson started to shake up its game plan, handing the ball to freshman running back Aidan Borguet four times for 15 yards to slowly chug across midfield. The big spark came on a 14-yard completion across the middle of the field to junior tight end Adam West. Smith stood strong in the pocket and took a large shot for a roughing the passer penalty, moving Harvard into the red zone.
The stout Dartmouth defense held tough, however, forcing a short Crimson field goal attempt. A low snap skipped the turf and helped to force McIntyre to miss his second field goal, pulling the 25-yard chip shot wide to the right. Harvard’s all-time leader in field goals would finish the close defensive game two-for-four. The kicking game clearly made a difference in a barnburner matchup during which points were at a premium, as the Crimson failed to score a touchdown for the first time this season.
On Harvard’s first drive, junior running back B.J. Watson made his return felt quickly, making up for lost time with three catches for 30 yards. After having missed the previous two games, the running back was lined up out wide and showed off his speed on screen passes to help put Harvard in position to cap off its 11-play drive with a 43-yard field goal from McIntyre.
Before the contest even began, the Crimson welcomed the return of another familiar face: captain defensive back Wes Ogsbury represented Harvard at the coin toss before taking the field for the defense. The senior had missed the previous two games due to injury as well, but his start mirrored Watson’s. The first play from Dartmouth setup a screen at Ogsbury, who broke through the block and made an open-field tackle at the line of scrimmage.
The defense especially excelled throughout the day up front, allowing only 52 rushing yards.
“I think we're really stout up front and that's the driver for everything we do,” Ogsbury said. “You know [the line] sets the tone for us and the linebackers, the secondary, we’ve been practicing keep our eyes in the right places, running to the ball, having great discipline, and you know, minimizing the big plays. I think we were able to do that, and up front we were able to stop the run for the most part.”
The Crimson’s second drive started with a bang, as Smith scrambled to the left and created time for senior wide receiver Cody Chrest to slip behind the defense for a 35-yard gain. In the previous week, Smith struggled, throwing three interceptions that helped seal the game for Princeton. This week, however, the quarterback rebounded early, completing seven of his first eight passes for 89 yards in the first quarter.
Despite a punt at the end of the drive, Harvard’s offense would quickly get another chance. On the Big Green’s second play of the drive, senior quarterback Jared Gerbino aired out a long ball for senior wide receiver Drew Estrada. The wideout seemed to have multiple steps on Crimson junior defensive back Max Jones, but Gerbino, who had completed his first five passes of the game, underthrew his intended target. Estrada seemed to meet the ball in the air, but Jones wrestled it away before the pair hit the ground to secure an impressive interception just before the end of the first quarter.
After a huge, 23-yard carry from Darrington, Harvard found itself in a position to change the defensive nature of the contest. Facing a fourth down and three yards to gain on the Big Green 22, Murphy opted to allow his team to remain on the field instead of taking the field goal attempt. The gamble paid off, as Darrington carved through the middle of Dartmouth’s defense for eight yards and a first down.
The field goal team would see the field later in the drive, as a scrambling Smith escaped pressure and rolled left but was unable to connect with a receiver on third down. McIntyre’s second attempt of the day, however, missed wide left from 34 yards.
Despite Harvard’s strong start, the defense carried an offense that began to slow closer to halftime. Smith stumbled following a strong first period, going tw0-for-seven with only 11 yards through the air in the second quarter. Darrington’s seven carries for 62 yards in the second quarter helped the Crimson to keep control of the possession battle before halftime.
Attempting to capitalize on the Crimson mistake, the Big Green quickly found itself in a similar offensive position, facing a fourth and inches near midfield. Dartmouth matched Harvard’s aggressiveness, keeping the punt team on the sideline and converting on a quick reverse to Estrada.
Later in the drive, the Big Green would also feel the taste of missed opportunity. Gerbino once again missed a wide-open receiver for a would-be touchdown, robbing Dartmouth of a sure lead. The veteran quarterback would not get a chance to makeup for his third missed touchdown throw of the game. On the next play, Gerbino scrambled left and pulled out an ankle tackle from Harvard, but he immediately slowed and trotted out of bounds, finding the trainer’s tent and exiting the game. The Big Green would settle for a field goal, tying the defensive game at 3-3 heading into halftime.
“I don't think we could have played any better defensively,” Murphy said. “Two great defensive teams, and at the end of the day, I think that’s what the strength of both teams are.”
“It breaks my heart that our players weren't able to enjoy victory, out of that,” Murphy said. “What I said to them, there's not much solace but in any endeavor in life, something you really pour your heart and soul into, if you've given it everything you possibly can, you have no regrets. The problem is you have plenty of pain. But you can have no regrets.”
—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JMinatelTHC.