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The sun came out on Saturday at Harvard Stadium, setting a beautiful backdrop for the Harvard’s Senior Day festivities. Just before the 12:05 p.m. kickoff, the school recognized its supersized class of seniors, composed of social seniors playing their third season of football eligibility and members of the Class of 2021 who were granted an extra year after losing their senior seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After kickoff, the celebration continued, as the Crimson (7-2, 4-2 Ivy) pushed through an early challenge from Penn (3-6, 1-5) to emerge with a 23-7 victory. The score line belied how competitive the game was, as the Quakers earned more first downs, had more passing yards, and possessed the ball for nearly as long as Harvard. The Crimson defense stepped up in clutch situations, winning the turnover battle 4-0 to help earn the win.
Hoping to catch Harvard off guard, Penn head coach Ray Priore opted for a trick play on its first snap of the game. After the Crimson managed to pull off two flea flickers for 87 yards in its 49-21 victory over Columbia on Nov. 6, the Quakers hoped to recreate Harvard’s success. Wide receiver Joshua Casilli got open on the left side near midfield, but quarterback Aidan Sayin’s pass bounced off his hands and straight into the waiting arms of junior safety James Herring. Herring’s first career interception left the Crimson with good field position at its own 47-yard line just fourteen seconds into the game. The play also set the tone for the aggression that both teams would show throughout the contest.
Harvard stuck to its standard offense in the victory, pairing handoffs to junior running back Aaron Shampklin and sophomore running back Aidan Borguet with screen passes to senior wide receiver B.J. Watson and the occasional deep shot. Meanwhile, Penn introduced a triple-option look that the Crimson has not faced yet this season, pairing their wildcat quarterback, defensive back Maurcus McDaniel, with three running backs in the backfield. This look allowed the Quakers to score its first touchdown of the game in the second quarter, as Isaiah Malcome took a run down the right sideline and beat every Harvard defender to the pylon for a 20-yard score, cutting the Harvard lead at the time to 10-7.
“They come out and run triple options,” head coach Tim Murphy said. “I don’t know how many hours they practice, but to be able to have a pro-style spread attack and then come out and run the triple option … it was impressive, but [defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ‘99] and our staff made the adjustments to get that under control and didn’t give them very much incentive to run it very much in the second half.”
The game was gritty and hard-fought, and competitive throughout. Sayin was able to move the ball for much of the game, thanks to wide receiver Rory Starkey Jr., who had missed the previous two games with a high-ankle sprain. Starkey finished with seven catches for 62 yards to lead the team, and overall, Sayin completed 20 of his 36 passes for 207 yards, showing the flashes of talent that caused Priore to make the switch from senior John Quinnelly earlier in the season.
On the other side of the ball, the Crimson had opportunities to jump out to leads, but failed to convert inside the red zone. Prior to the game, Harvard had come away with a touchdown on 21 of its previous 37 drives inside the opponent’s 20, but the 15th-ranked Quakers red zone defense held it to just one on five tries. Instead, junior kicker Jonah Lipel was forced to attempt four field goals, and Penn’s special teams unit managed to block one, a 31-yard try near the end of the third quarter that would have extended the Crimson lead to 19-7.
In addition, Harvard, which entered the game as the 18th-most disciplined team in the country, being flagged just five times per contest, committed nine penalties for 90 yards. Some of these came in critical situations and kept Quaker drives alive. One early pass interference called against senior linebacker Jordan Hill negated an interception by sophomore safety Victor Tademy in the first quarter. Then, on the Penn touchdown drive, Herring was flagged for a late hit, which moved the offense forward. Finally, an offsides call overturned what would have been an interception returned back to the five-yard line by sophomore cornerback Khalil Dawsey at the end of the third quarter. After the game, Murphy vowed that the Crimson would do better next weekend against Yale.
“It’s concerning, for sure, especially because, quite frankly, we talked about that. We talked about how critical it is to be smart and be disciplined,” he said. “It’s a very fine line for our kids to play really, really hard, as you have to play on defense, as one example, and at the same time, not be able to do something that’s going to cost your team. So, we have room for improvement, starting with me … That certainly will be a focal point preparing for Yale. We can’t give them anything, and that certainly means don’t let them extend plays because of penalties.
Throughout the game, the Quakers defense mostly bottled up Harvard’s high-powered run game. Entering the game as the Ivy League’s leading rusher with 94.1 yards per game, Shampklin had multiple runs that went for losses, including one in which he was bottled up 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. However, he broke three long ones when it counted, the most important of which being a 72-yard gain straight up the middle of Soldiers Field for his tenth rushing touchdown of the season. The play, which occurred on 3rd and 16 immediately after Adam Coyner and Jake Heimlicher got through for a sack, gave the Crimson some much-needed momentum where it looked like the drive had stalled.
“It wasn’t all me. The juice really came because the [offensive line] blocked it up perfectly,” Shampklin explained. “So they were more excited, as well, just to see that. We did what we were supposed to on the play, and the result that happened was [me] having the ball. So it didn’t really matter whether [it was] first down, second down, third down. As an offense, we collectively scored on that play. It wasn’t just me, so we were all just juiced because of that.”
He did it again on the last drive of the game, with the outcome still hanging in the balance more than halfway through the fourth quarter, as Harvard hung on to a nine-point lead. Facing 3rd and 10 on Penn’s 41-yard line, he took a handoff down the left sideline for a 16-yard game to keep the clock moving and effectively ice the game. Three plays later, on the last home handoff of his illustrious Crimson career, he found a hole through the middle of the field for a 16-yard score, his fifth two-touchdown game of the season. With just two minutes, 32 seconds remaining, the Quakers’ prospects of a comeback were all but dashed, and Herring’s second interception a few minutes later was a mere formality.
Shampklin’s run put the finishing touches on a solid second half on both ends of the ball for Harvard, which had been much better before the break than after it entering the game. In its first eight games, the Crimson outscored its opponents 187-35 (+152) in the first two quarters but only 100-76 (+24) after halftime. After losing the second half in the Columbia matchup, Hill, the 147th captain of Harvard football, insisted that the team needed to finish games better. The Crimson won the first half 13-7 before tacking on another ten unanswered points in the second half.
“As a defense, we have a lot of pride in our program, and I would say that it’s expected of us to finish the game strong and to win out,” junior defensive lineman Jacob Sykes said. “By us winning the second half, it really just showed our true character. … We’re happy for this, but it’s not anything that’s out of the ordinary for the defense.”
It was the third second-half shutout that defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ‘99’s unit has pitched this season, but it might not have been possible without the contributions of junior linebacker Daniel Abraham, who played running back the last time these two teams matched up on Nov. 16, 2019 before making the switch to the other side of the ball. He showed why he made that move on Penn’s third drive of the second half. With the Quakers driving into Harvard territory after wide receiver Julien Stokes hauled in a 27-yard reception, Abraham jumped the curl route and snatched the ball away from the receiver for his second interception of the season. Penn looked as if they were building some momentum, but after Abraham’s pick quelled its most promising possession of the half, it never seriously threatened the end zone again. In fact, it would not reach Harvard territory again until Casilli came down with a 36-yard catch with the game already decided.
Senior linebacker Andrew Irwin, who turned 23 on Wednesday, delivered his team a belated birthday gift by forcing a strip sack on Sayin near the start of the third quarter. Although the freshman appeared to be in his passing motion when Irwin knocked the ball loose, officials decided not to review the play. Junior defensive lineman Truman Jones pounced on the ball, giving his team possession at the Quakers’ 20-yard line. Although Penn’s defense was able to produce a stop, Lipel hammered a 41-yard field goal home to extend the Crimson’s lead to 16-7.
The win, which was the first for the home team at Harvard Stadium since 2013, marked a positive send-off for two classes of Harvard players. The next time the team takes the field at Harvard Stadium, its roster will look much different. In addition to the eighteen seniors who were playing out their final year of football eligibility despite graduating in 2021, the Class of 2022 includes several junior playmakers who will not be able to play next fall. Chief among them is Shampklin, who, earlier this season, became the eighth player to reach 2,000 rushing yards in a Crimson uniform despite playing just three seasons. Emge, who completed 13 of his 28 passes for 167 yards in the victory, was also honored before the game, as was Wimberly, who caught seven passes for 111 yards to become Harvard’s first 100-yard receiver of the season on Nov. 6 at Columbia.
“It was kind of surreal. Time really flies. I didn’t realize how quick time moves sometimes,” Shampklin said. “For it to be my last game at Harvard Stadium is kind of bittersweet, but at the same time, it made me enjoy it a little more. I was able to sit back and watch and appreciate playing at Harvard Stadium. It’s really a blessing for me to be able to play here. For me, it was just a very surreal moment and I just wanted to take it all in, and I feel like I did that today.”
Although the Crimson stand to lose many of its most impactful playmakers, it should still be able to content for a conference championship in 2022, with sophomore quarterback Charlie Dean, who started four of the first five games of the season, set to return from his season-ending injury, and Borguet, who was the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year in 2019 after capping off the season with a 269-yard, four touchdown performance at the Yale Bowl. Their efforts will be buoyed by the resilient players that Harvard seeks to recruit every year.
“The biggest thing we always talk about is the character piece, and the character piece involves facing adversity,” Murphy said. “That’s the focal point. We get unbelievably high-character kids, not just in terms of being great kids who are going to make Harvard proud, but kids who are tough and resilient. A lot of them come from very challenging backgrounds where they’ve had to be that, to fight their way up in the world to get into Harvard. But we have the best kids in the Ivy League. You can’t quantify that, but that’s what we have.”
With the win, the Crimson are still in the race for a share of the Ivy League title, but after only one of three results went its way on Saturday, it will require a lot of help. It needs to win its final game, and for Princeton and Dartmouth to each lose its season finale. The Tigers defeated Yale, 35-20, on Saturday afternoon in Princeton, N.J., and the Big Green blew out Cornell, 41-7, in Hanover, N.H., setting up the stakes for the final week of the season. However, despite the championship implications riding on the 137th Playing of The Game, Harvard players are focused solely on beating the Bulldogs on their home turf.
“The next game is our best game,” junior defensive lineman Chris Smith said. “That’s just going to be our mentality this week. We’ve still got to practice hard. We’ve still got to finish. As a defense, as a team, just not being complacent. We’re on a two-game winning streak, but we really want to close the season out strong and show how hard we’ve worked this season and the adversity we’ve overcome.”
— Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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