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For the first time in the 2021 season, Harvard (3-0, 1-0 Ivy) faced a team ranked higher than it as it traveled to Worcester, Mass., to face No. 24/RV Holy Cross (3-2, 0-0 Patriot League). The Crimson stepped up to the challenge, opening the game strong and pulling away in the fourth quarter with crucial defensive stops on fourth downs to secure a 38-13 victory. The 3-0 start marked its best stretch to open a season since 2016, when it won its first four games en route to finishing with a 7-3 record, and sent a message to the rest of the Ivy League. In a preseason media poll, Harvard was predicted to finish fourth in the Ancient Eight, behind Princeton, Yale, and Dartmouth. So far, the Crimson has presented a strong case to contend for a title, winning each of its first three games by an average of 27.33 points.
Just as it did against Georgetown and Brown, the Crimson offense came out of the locker room hot. Senior quarterback Jake Smith earned the start against Holy Cross as sophomore quarterback Charlie Dean, who opened each of the first two games of the season, continued to recover from the injury he suffered against Brown. Junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly opened the scoring just 4:46 into the game, taking a screen pass from Jake Smith 41 yards down the left sideline and outracing everyone before squeaking past the goal line for a touchdown. The score marked the second of Wimberly’s collegiate career and the second time in three games this season that the Crimson has scored on its first offensive possession.
“Throughout the week, coach always tells us to play fast. It was a turbo call, and it was a quick little noz screen, and then I hit it and I definitely felt like it changed the momentum for the game at the beginning of the game,” Wimberly explained. “I always tell myself to try to be a spark plug throughout the game, and in that first quarter, there was definitely a spark plug today.”
Against Holy Cross, Harvard exhibited its dangerous passing attack more than it had in the wins over Georgetown and Brown. Smith returned for his senior season after the Covid-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 campaign and ranked fourth in career completion percentage for the Crimson (59.2 percent) and ninth in total passing yards (4,113) entering the season. After seeing limited action in the second half against Brown, he completed 20 of his 31 passes for 229 yards, easily the Crimson’s most aggressive aerial attack so far this season. 79 of his yards were earned by Wimberly, who set a new career-high in receiving yards.
After the game, Wimberly credited the team’s all-around effort for his individual success.
“I mean, it honestly wasn’t me. We have some great play calls. Jake was putting the ball in a great spot, so I would say it’s me, but it for sure wasn’t me. We do a great job,” he said. “[The wide receivers] have a great room, and I think we have one of the best rooms on the team. Those guys are always going to bring energy, and we always want to make the big plays in the game, being that spark plug.”
The Crusaders defense, led by junior captain Jacob Dobbs, a linebacker who was selected to the All-Patriot League First Team in the shortened spring 2021 season, did an admirable job limiting Harvard’s traditional spark plug: its rushing attack, led by junior Aaron Shampklin, who led all of FCS with 152.0 rushing yards per game prior to the Holy Cross contest. Overall, before the game, Harvard had the second most prolific rushing attack in the nation, with its 289.0 rushing yards per game, trailing only North Dakota State. However, the Crusaders limited the Crimson to just 139 on 39 attempts, for a relatively pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry.
“I think they did a great job covering us. We knew that they were going to stay physical, and they’re definitely the most physical team that we’ve played so far, and I think we did a great job matching their physicality,” Wimberly said. “We knew that they were doing a good job at stopping the run. They have a good defense; they have some good linebackers for sure. And as a receiver, for me, it’s just about keeping that tempo, keeping running the football.”
After Wimberly’s score, it was mostly defense and special teams that applied the pressure on Holy Cross’s offense and allowed the Crimson to race out to a 24-0 halftime lead. Facing constant pressure from Harvard’s front seven, quarterbacks Marco Siderman and Matthew Sluka combined for just 125 passing yards as they completed only 13 of their 39 passes. Throughout the game, Crimson defenders deflected their passes at the line of scrimmage, prompting a series of overthrows when trying to avoid the outstretched arms of the defensive line. All day, Siderman and Sluka attempted to connect with wide receiver Ayir Asante, but they consistently overthrew him. Despite being targeted 11 times throughout the contest, Asante only managed to pull down two passes for 16 yards.
Pressure from the defensive line also forced two turnovers in the second quarter that proved to be crucial. After junior punter Jon Sot, who had been named an All-Ivy League First Teamer in each of his two seasons with the Crimson, booted a 64-yard punt to pin Holy Cross on its own two-yard line, three Peter Oliver runs brought the Crusaders a fresh set of downs on the 16. On first down, Siderman decided to be aggressive, lofting a deep ball into tight one-on-one coverage up the left hash marks. Senior cornerback Khalid Thomas high-pointed the ball and out-jumped the receiver for his first interception of the season.
Harvard quickly made Holy Cross pay for its mistake. Smith opened the drive with a quick 23-yard strike to Wimberly, who would later pick up another first down with an eight-yard reception. A pair of touches by sophomore running back Aidan Borguet, the 2019 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, brought the Crimson to a third and five on the Crusaders’ 19-yard line. Smith then completed a crucial pass to first-year wide receiver Kaedyn Odermann. The 6’3” receiver’s feet came down in bounds for a touchdown to extend Harvard’s lead to 14-0.
After tossing an interception on its previous possession, Holy Cross switched quarterbacks, with Sluka re-entering the game. Throughout the game, the Crusaders alternated between their two signal-callers, with each playing for two drives before being substituted out. Sophomore cornerback Khalil Dawsey noted that while the two quarterbacks brought different strengths, each of them presented a challenge for Harvard’s defense.
“We knew [Sluka] was more of a runner than a passer, and we knew [Siderman] was definitely their dropback guy. Being aware of that, being alert to that, we were definitely more pass defense-heavy when [Siderman] was in the game. But both of them are pretty dynamic so we just had to knuckle up for both of them. There’s a reason they both play,” he said.
On the first play of the possession, though, Sluka dropped back to pass. Holy Cross was in a good position on Harvard’s 48-yard line after wide receiver Justin Shorter produced a 46-yard kickoff return. However, the Crusaders failed to capitalize; the ball bounced off Sluka’s receiver’s hands and straight into the waiting arms of Dawsey, who sprinted down the right sideline and into the end zone for a pick-six. After falling just short of the end zone on a 77-yard return against Brown, Dawsey extended Harvard’s advantage to 21-0. After the game, he credited the pressure exerted by the defensive line for both his and Thomas’s interceptions.
“Our front seven makes opportunities for us. We were able to get two picks because of the pressure that they put on the offense, so our front seven is definitely very important and they have the biggest impact on the secondary. And we’re lucky enough to have one of the best front sevens in the nation, if not the best, and it’s definitely a blessing to have that as a cornerback,” he said.
Holy Cross had one more chance to score before halftime. A long rush up the middle by running back Tyler Purdy brought the Crusaders into Harvard territory, and they quickly tacked on a 15-yard completion to Asante before being stalled out. On 3rd and 8, Sluka again attempted to connect with Asante, to no avail. This forced kicker Derek Ng to line up for a 48-yard attempt, which would have been three yards shy of his career long. However, he pushed it wide right.
Harvard, meanwhile, did tack on a field goal before the break. After a three-and-out, Sot pinned Holy Cross deep in its own territory again. Sluka and his offense started at their own six-yard line and were unable to make any progress, handing the Crimson excellent field position on the Crusaders’ 47. Odermann drew a pass interference penalty on 3rd and 7 to move the chains, and a Borguet reception in the flat brought Harvard into goal-to-go territory. Although a holding penalty pushed the offense back ten yards, Shampklin gained 15 yards on two rushes before Smith’s hurried pass to Wimberly on third down fell incomplete. Junior kicker Jonah Lipel lined up for a 22-yard field goal try, which ricocheted off the top of the left upright before falling through.
With Siderman back in at quarterback, Holy Cross failed to gain any momentum on its two remaining possessions in the half, and it entered the break in a 24-point hole.
Whatever adjustments Crusaders head coach Bob Chesney made during halftime worked, because his team came out in the third quarter firing, putting on a miniature run to cut the deficit to 11 points. After the teams traded three and outs, Asante took a pitch on a reverse and made his first carry of the season count. The two-time All-Patriot League Second Team selection beat every Crimson defender down the left sideline for a 59-yard touchdown.
Immediately following Asante’s score, Chesney made a bold decision, calling for an onside kick. It caught Harvard off-guard, and the Crusaders recovered to retain possession. Although the ensuing drive, which included a failed trick-play attempt involving both quarterbacks, did not result in a first down, sophomore wide receiver Gavin Sharkey bobbled the punt and allowed Holy Cross defensive back Jake Jarmolowich to pounce on it at the Harvard 10. Two plays later, Sluka kept it himself for a seven-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 24-13.
However, that was the closest Holy Cross got, as Harvard’s defense again stepped up down the closing stretch. Crusaders wide receiver Jalen Coker fumbled the ball as he looked to turn upfield after receiving a screen pass, stalling Holy Cross’ first drive following a Harvard punt. Sophomore defensive lineman Nate Leskovec recovered the ball to give his offense an opportunity to capitalize from nine yards out. Although Smith would toss Harvard’s first interception of the season when his receiver, first-year tight end Tyler Neville, slipped in the end zone, Leskovec’s hustle set the tone for the rest of the game.
The fourth quarter was marked by two crucial fourth-down stops by the Crimson defense. On Holy Cross’ ensuing drive after the interception, Siderman led his offense to the edge of field goal range at the Harvard 36. However, junior linebacker Daniel Abraham, who also had an interception against Georgetown, got a fingertip on Siderman’s fourth-down pass, deflecting it just enough for Coker to drop it.
Shampklin rushed for 16 yards down the left sideline on the next play, setting the wheels in motion for Harvard to add an insurance score. After the Crusaders’ front line was able to prevent Shampklin from gaining significant yardage on first and second downs, Murphy turned to his senior quarterback. Smith first completed a 15-yard strike to Odermann, then lofted a 29-yard pass down the right hash marks that fell into junior tight end Adam Shepherd’s arms for a touchdown.
On the next possession, Harvard’s defense stepped up again. After conceding an eight-yard run to Sluka on 2nd and 10, it again forced a high pass that Asante was not able to haul in. Facing a dwindling clock, Chesney sent his offense back out there for the 4th and 2. Oliver took the handoff and started to dive through the middle, but junior defensive linemen Chris Smith and Jacob Sykes were there to wrap him up, effectively icing the game. The play continued a season-long trend: the Crimson have not allowed a fourth-down conversion yet in 2021.
“On those crucial fourth downs, we were just trying to do what we did all day, and that’s just playing good, disciplined Harvard football. So although they were big moments in the game, we tried to approach it like every other drive we did the rest of the game,” Dawsey said.
Six Borguet runs produced another touchdown to break the game wide open at 38-13. For the rest of the game, neither team scored, with Thomas snuffing out the only remaining Holy Cross threat by leaping for his second interception of the game in the end zone on the following possession. After Thomas’s pick, both teams seemed content with the final result and ran the ball until the clock eventually ran out.
The win marked an all-around team effort in which no individual player stood out in the box score. Wimberly’s 79 yards were enough to lead the Crimson, but Odermann, Shepherd, and Shampklin each contributed more than 20. In the running game, Shampklin produced 72 yards, and Borguet added 59 more. Along with its four forced turnovers and the consistent contributions from Sot and Lipel, Harvard presented perhaps its most complete performance yet, against the most physical and athletic opponent it has faced so far.
“We knew that they were going to grab us all day [and] play hard. They’re a great defense, one of the best defenses we’re going to face this year, so we knew that we had to come out with the mentality to just play hard and play fast and play physical,” Wimberly said. “I think every single one who was on the field today did a great job of doing that. Our o-line, our quarterbacks, our receivers, even our defense played a great game.”
After the game, in a video posted to Harvard Football’s Instagram account, head coach Tim Murphy said, “I’m sure we’re going to have a couple of great opponents in the Ivy League. Certainly, [Holy Cross is] rugged. They’re tough. But our kids rose to the challenge. You know, we got some great breaks in the first half, but ultimately, had some adversity. That’s part of winning — you have to know what you do against a very good defensive team.”
Neville believes that Harvard, after defeating No. 24/RV Holy Cross, deserves some national recognition too. When asked via a text after the game whether he thought the team deserved to be nationally ranked entering the Cornell matchup, he gave a simple, three-word answer:
“[We] better be.”
— Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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