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No. 21/RV Harvard is Left a Few Feet Away from Completing Comeback in Defensive Battle Against RV/RV Dartmouth

Junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly evades a Dartmouth defender and prepares for contact against another. Wimberly tallied three catches for 19 yards in Saturday's contest.
Junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly evades a Dartmouth defender and prepares for contact against another. Wimberly tallied three catches for 19 yards in Saturday's contest. By Angela Dela Cruz
By Griffin Wong, Crimson Staff Writer

The rain came down early at Harvard Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and with it, so did the offensive performances. As No. 21/RV Harvard (5-1, 2-1 Ivy) welcomed RV/RV Dartmouth (5-1, 2-1), the offenses got off to a slow start throughout the first quarter. In the early going, both teams remained mostly ground-bound, but when the rain stopped falling, the completed passes did. Both the Big Green and the Crimson orchestrated impressive touchdown drives and saw key contributions from many players in a game that came down to its final play. Ultimately, Dartmouth emerged with the 20-17 victory to improve to 6-1 and keep its Ivy League championship hopes alive. Meanwhile, Harvard fell to 5-2 and, after Princeton’s 34-16 victory over Cornell on Friday to stretch its record to 7-0, will need a lot of help to earn a share of the conference title.

The first fifteen minutes of the game saw neither team put points on the board as both offenses started out slowly. In the frame, both the Crimson and the Big Green relied primarily on their rushing games, which was the strength of both teams entering the game: each ranked in the top 30 in the Football Championship Series (FCS) in rushing yards per game. Harvard called eight run plays and four pass plays in the opening quarter, and Dartmouth complemented its four passes with 10 runs.

The Big Green made more of its runs than the Crimson did, racking up 35 yards in the first quarter. By contrast, Harvard turned its eight rushes into just four yards. Dartmouth quarterback Derek Kyler also made more of his passes in the early going than senior quarterback Jake Smith; each of the signal-callers completed three of their four passes, with Big Green receivers gaining 25 yards to the Crimson’s nine. Dartmouth also manufactured the only real scoring opportunity of the opening quarter, driving to Harvard’s 25-yard line behind a 22-yard run by running back Noah Roper. However, it was docked for a chop block penalty on 3rd and ten, setting the offense back 15 yards and pushing it out of field goal range.

It was the Crimson offense that struck first, on its second drive of the second quarter. Its opportunity was set up partially by junior defensive lineman Jacob Sykes and sophomore cornerback Alex Washington, who combined for a strip sack on Kyler on third and two from the Harvard 43. Although the Big Green was able to jump on the ball and maintain possession, it lost eight yards on the play, which gave the Crimson some breathing room and denied Dartmouth punter Davis Golick the opportunity to pin Harvard inside its ten-yard line. Instead, junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly called for a fair catch at the 19.

Offensive coordinator Mickey Fein called for a pass on Harvard’s first play of the possession, notable because Dartmouth had been so effective against the run the entire game. Sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco’s 14-yard reception set the tone for the rest of the drive. After a few carries by junior running back Aaron Shampklin barely eked out the ten yards required to move the chains, the Crimson managed its biggest offensive play of the first half. Facing a third and eight near midfield, Smith took a shot down the right sideline. The play was covered well by Big Green cornerback Isaiah Johnson, but the football dropped perfectly in the hands of senior wide receiver Adam West. The 32-yard reception brought Harvard inside the red zone for the first time in the game.

The Crimson offense, which had produced a score on 22 of its previous 28 drives inside the opponent’s 20, converted to take an early lead. Harvard took advantage of a pass interference penalty committed by Dartmouth middle linebacker Jalen Mackie to earn a first down on the Big Green’s 11-yard line. On third down, Smith checked the ball down to Shampklin in the flat. The running back turned around and ran untouched into the end zone. Junior kicker Jonah Lipel converted the extra point to give the Crimson a 7-0 advantage.

Just like in the Oct. 23 loss to Princeton, Harvard conceded a tying score on the ensuing drive. Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens, a childhood friend of Murphy, alternated his quarterbacks, Kyler and wildcat option Nick Howard, and mixed in passes and runs. The first play of the drive was key for the Big Green: Kyler found wide receiver Painter Richards-Baker over the middle for a 23-yard completion. Shortly thereafter, Howard re-entered the game, completing a 15-yard pass to running back Zack Bair and reversing field before finding a slot up the right sideline for an 11-yard gain.

Ultimately, it was Kyler who landed the drive’s final blow. Facing second down from the five-yard line, he rolled out to his right, drawing Crimson defenders with him. Meanwhile, tight end Robbie Mangas slipped completely undetected into the left half of the end zone. Kyler turned and fired before Scott Larkee ‘99’s unit had a chance to adjust, and his 6’4” target hauled the ball in with no red jerseys in the vicinity. The fifth-year quarterback was in control all game, completing 20 of his 27 passes for 230 yards and the touchdown pass to Mangas. Dartmouth kicker Connor Davis nailed the game-tying extra point for his 58th straight conversion.

After Harvard went three-and-out on the next possession, the Big Green had the opportunity to run a two-minute drill and drive 44 yards in one minute, 49 seconds to take a lead. Although it fell short of the end zone, Kyler’s offense did manage to put points on the board. The Crimson defense was unable to stop Bair on 4th and 3 from the edge of field goal range at its 33-yard line, as the running back gained 15 yards to reward Teevens’ aggressive decision to keep his offense on the field against Harvard’s third-ranked fourth down defense. Shortly after, Davis knocked his 34-yard attempt straight through the uprights as the clock expired.

“I felt confident, but ultimately, I have full faith in [Teevens] again, and he ended up making the right call,” said Davis when asked about Teevens’ play call. “So that’s why we buy in here. I think there’s an incredible culture, like Nico was speaking to, and I think that’s what translates to a win on the field.”

For the second time in three weeks, Harvard’s special teams unit produced some fireworks on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. On Oct. 16 against Lafayette, the Crimson forced a fumble and recovered, leading to a field goal. This time, with Cameron Baller booting his kickoff amidst swirling wind, the football got held up and fell into the waiting arms of junior wide receiver Demarkes Stradford at the Harvard 14-yard line. The Crimson’s special teams unit, aided by junior linebacker Solomon Egbe’s block, opened up a massive hole up the middle and Stradford raced through and down the left sideline for an 89-yard score. The touchdown was Harvard’s first kick return for a touchdown since Oct. 14, 2017, when senior wide receiver Adam Scott returned a kickoff 90 yards to the end zone against Lafayette.

“I was cursing myself for not just squib kicking it,” Teevens said. “We thought we had a decent-legged guy. The ball just kind of wavered to the middle. They do a great job between them. Great return guys, and they just split it. And I don’t think he was touched, period.”

The Crimson offense gets set for a first down as sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco runs across the formation in motion. The Big Green defense held a high-powered Harvard offense to just 223 total yards, including 68 on the ground.
The Crimson offense gets set for a first down as sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco runs across the formation in motion. The Big Green defense held a high-powered Harvard offense to just 223 total yards, including 68 on the ground. By Angela Dela Cruz

Suddenly, after facing a halftime deficit, the Crimson found itself playing from ahead. It was able to protect its lead on Dartmouth’s first possession of the half, which produced a 4th and 2 at Harvard’s 37-yard line. Faced with a similar situation to its last drive of the first half, with a fourth and short near the edge of field goal range, Teevens again decided to keep his offense on the field. This time, sophomore defensive lineman Nate Leskovec and senior linebacker Andrew Irwin stuffed Bair short of the line to gain.

However, the Crimson offense was unable to take advantage of the energy boost the stop brought and was forced to punt on each of its next three possessions. The Big Green defense was stout all game, limiting Harvard to just 223 total yards and 68 on the ground, well below its season averages. Shampklin, who entered the game as the Ivy League’s leading rusher, averaging 101.6 yards per game, produced just 76 yards on his 17 carries. On those three fruitless drives, the Crimson rushed for just three yards on three carries, forcing Smith to rely on his passing. After the game, Murphy praised Dartmouth’s coverage against the run.

“It’s been like that since [defensive coordinator] Don Dobes has been there. They’re going to stop the run first, just as we do at Harvard, and they’re always big, strong, and physical,” he said. “That’s what they do. They try to stop the run at almost all costs, although they’re able to do it unlike some teams in that they can play a relatively light box and get it done, because [of] the quality of their guys up front and their two inside linebackers.”

Kevin Daft’s offense eventually rewarded Dobes’ unit for its patience, as the Big Green found paydirt to reclaim the lead. Dartmouth marched down Soldiers Field with ruthless efficiency, traveling 80 yards in just seven plays and three minutes, 12 seconds. Kyler received the snap on each of the drive’s first six plays and looked mostly towards the edges of the field, completing passes to wide receiver Dale Chesson on the left sideline and wide receiver Jamal Cooney on the right. Chesson would go on to lead the team with 72 yards on five catches.

Before the seventh play of the possession, Howard checked back into the game. To that point in the game, he had completed only one of his three pass attempts, and the Crimson was watching out for a potential run play. However, Howard, who was all-conference first team as a high school quarterback in Green Bay, Wis., launched it downfield. Richards-Baker, who had run a deep post route from the right side, slid to haul in the pass and crossed the goal line in the process, giving the Big Green a 17-14 edge.

Faced with a deficit and a struggling run game, Smith decided to get aggressive, throwing deep on the first play of the ensuing possession. It proved to be a bad decision, for first-year tight end Tyler Neville was covered by two Dartmouth defenders, and safety Quinten Arello came down with the interception. It would also be Smith’s last play of the game; after giving the fifth-year senior the opportunity to start in the wake of sophomore quarterback Charlie Dean’s season-ending injury, Murphy turned to junior quarterback Luke Emge at the start of the fourth quarter. The coach said after the game that he would evaluate his signal-caller options before the game against Columbia on Nov. 6.

Emge made an immediate impact on the game, leading Harvard on a drive deep into Big Green territory on his first possession under center. All in all, he completed six of his eight passes for 73 yards, outperforming Smith, who was 11 for 21, gaining 82 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Shampklin provided the drive’s key play, taking a handoff down the left sideline for thirty yards, the Crimson’s longest rushing play of the game. However, after sophomore running back Aidan Borguet was stopped just short of the goal line, Dartmouth defensive back John Pupel made a huge tackle, wrapping Borguet up in the backfield on third and goal and limiting Harvard to a field goal attempt. Lipel pushed the 21-yarder wide right and the Big Green held on to its three-point edge.

“That was a big play. He called it, too, before he went out there,” explained Dartmouth safety Niko Mermigas, one of the team’s captains this season, when asked about Pupel’s tackle. “John usually predicts what he’s going to do pretty well, so he went and tracked it down. He’s a really good player. He gives really good effort, and he’s definitely somebody on the defense that cares the most.”

The Crimson earned another opportunity to tie the game after forcing the Big Green to punt. On the first play of the possession, Emge launched a deep ball that senior wide receiver B.J. Watson, who led the team with 52 yards receiving, dove to haul in. The 43-yard gain brought Harvard right back to the edge of the red zone, providing Lipel with an opportunity to redeem himself. After Shampklin went out of bounds just short of the line to gain on third down, he did just that, hammering his 31-yard attempt straight through the uprights and knotting the game at 17-17 with four minutes, 31 seconds to play in regulation.

Dartmouth stepped up to the line of scrimmage at its own 25-yard line, knowing that it needed to orchestrate a long drive to avoid overtime and travel back to Hanover, N.H. victorious. The Big Green looked to have made a big play on its third snap when Roper had an open field in front of him near midfield, but Kyler’s pass sailed just past his outstretched fingertips. The quarterback rebounded from the near miss by firing a strike to Mangas up the right hash marks that the tight end caught on a slide to advance the Dartmouth offense into Crimson territory.

Harvard then committed a critical penalty. Kyler’s completion to Chesson gained 15 yards to put the Big Green near the edge of field goal range at the Crimson 32-yard line. Then, the referee threw a flag away from the play, penalizing junior defensive lineman Anthony Nelson for putting his hand on a Dartmouth player’s facemask. The 15-yard penalty advanced the Big Green well into Davis’ range, and it slowed down its offense, inserting Howard and calling for three consecutive runs. Murphy did not call a timeout until after Leskovec combined with junior defensive lineman Chris Smith to stop Howard just short of a first down.

With 54 seconds left in the game, Davis trotted onto the field to attempt a 25-yard field goal. The snap was a little high, but Dartmouth’s holder brought the ball down before his kicker’s foot reached it. The kick looked to be veering wide, but it snuck just inside the right upright, giving the visitors a three-point edge and forcing Harvard to produce a game-tying field goal drive in just 49 seconds.

“I trusted these guys. I knew [Kyler] would get us down there, and I know I’ve mentioned in the past, I think I have the best snap-holder in the league,” Davis said. “So I had so much confidence in those guys. [I’ve] got the best group of guys on the sideline, getting me right. They have full faith in me, I have full faith in [Teevens], so when he called it, just go out there, try to treat it like any other. And thankfully, it went our way.”

The Crimson received the ball at its own 27-yard line after sophomore wide receiver Gavin Sharkey took the low kick 15 yards. On the drive’s first play, Dartmouth defensive lineman Shane Cokes committed a roughing the passer penalty, moving Harvard’s offense forward 15 yards. Emge then consistently targeted the right sideline, completing short passes to Neville, Shampklin, Neville again, then Wimberly to bring the offense to Dartmouth’s 37-yard line with eight seconds to play.

“I thought we executed fairly well,” Murphy said. “We made some plays and we gave ourselves a chance. And based on the time limitations and playing a prevent type of defense where you’re not going to get it over the top, I thought we did a very solid job executing, giving us a chance to get this thing into overtime.”

After Emge’s pass to Wimberly on third down sailed out of bounds, Lipel trotted out to attempt a 53-yard field goal into the wind. The kick left his foot from a similar spot to where, in 2019, Kyler had completed a 43-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to wide receiver Masaki Aerts to keep Dartmouth’s undefeated season alive in one of the Ivy League’s most dramatic endings ever. Instead of parallelling the 2019 game by instructing Emge to fire it towards the end zone, Murphy opted to trust his kicker. The 53-yarder would have marked the longest conversion of Lipel’s career.

“With a normal kicker, I would have absolutely chucked a Hail Mary,” Murphy said. “But with this kid … he hits it from 60 in practice, literally.”

While Lipel had the strength to reach the crossbar, he pulled the kick just a bit, and it fell a few feet left of the upright. As soon as it hit the ground, the well-traveled Dartmouth contingent erupted in celebration while Harvard fans sat silently. The 20-17 victory means that the Big Green’s matchup against Princeton on Nov. 5 in Hanover will be vital in determining an Ivy League champion. Meanwhile, the Crimson will need to regroup quickly and learn from its two consecutive single-possession losses.

“Right now, it’s not so much thinking about this last week in total, but just the fact that we went out there and dropped the ball today,” said senior linebacker Jordan Hill, who is serving as the 147th Captain of Harvard football this season. “Guys put in a lot of work, so for these to be the results is not anything that we seek to see, and it definitely is an opportunity for us to just look in the mirror and see what we need to do better to make sure that this doesn’t happen next time.”

Next week will be absolutely crucial if Murphy wants any chance of winning a tenth Ivy League championship this season. In order to secure a share of the conference championship, Harvard will need to win out and hope that Dartmouth loses one more time and the Tigers lose twice. Its path will not get any easier next week as it travels to New York City to face Columbia, who fell to 5-2 with a 37-30 loss to Yale on Saturday afternoon. If it loses to the Lions, its path to a title becomes virtually impossible.

— Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at griffin.wong@thecrimson.com.

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