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Last-Minute Comeback Lifts Football to 34-31 Win Over Yale in 137th Playing of The Game

Junior receiver Kym Wimberly hauls in the game-winning touchdown catch and establishes possession in bounds.
Junior receiver Kym Wimberly hauls in the game-winning touchdown catch and establishes possession in bounds. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Griffin Wong, Crimson Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The 137th iteration of The Game emerged as an instant classic — even for one of the most storied rivalries in college athletics.

The Harvard football team staged a dramatic last-minute comeback to defeat Yale 34-31 on its home turf Saturday, delivering revenge to the Bulldogs, which came back to beat the Crimson in double-overtime during the last iteration of The Game two years ago.

Harvard junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly was the hero of the Crimson’s 60th ever win in The Game, catching the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter. In front of an anxious crowd of 49,500, Wimberly reeled in a 12-yard touchdown in the left corner of the end zone that put Harvard in the lead with seconds remaining. Nearly four hours after the 12:05 p.m. kickoff, busloads of Crimson fans spilled onto Yale’s home field in a collective sea of red, mobbing each other and the players in jubilation. The dramatic finish cemented this contest’s legacy as among the best ever as the visitors from Cambridge exacted revenge for the Bulldogs’ 50-43, double-overtime victory in 2019.

With the win, Harvard (8-2, 5-2 Ivy) secured its first win over the Bulldogs (5-5, 4-3) on the road at the Yale Bowl since 2015.

“This was a two-year process of getting back to this moment,” said senior linebacker Jordan Hill, who played his final game as the program’s 147th captain. “In 2019, the way that we finished out the season was less than ideal. We knew that we were better than that. We dropped our last five games, and lost a big one up here in double [overtime], so that was in everybody’s minds.”

The Crimson secured the victory with a dramatic final drive in the last minute that put Harvard ahead in a contest that was tight throughout, with neither team holding a lead of more than ten points. When Harvard received the ball back after forcing Yale sophomore quarterback Nolan Grooms to throw it away on a 4th and 6 throw on the Crimson 34-yard line, it had just 59 seconds and no timeouts to drive the length of the field and produce a go-ahead touchdown. Throughout the second half, it had been stymied by the Bulldogs defense, which had done an admirable job keeping junior running back Aaron Shampklin out of the end zone. Yale forced junior punter Jon Sot onto the field six times and pressured the Crimson’s junior quarterback, Luke Emge. All in all, Emge completed just 14 of his 32 pass attempts. Although he managed a few long completions, the Harvard offense had largely been bottled up for much of the second half. However, with some heroics from Emge and Wimberly, those 59 seconds proved to define the Crimson’s season.

Emge got the possession started off hot, setting the tone for the rest of the drive by finding first-year tight end Tyler Neville for a 12-yard completion to bring Harvard near midfield. After firing an incomplete pass out of bounds near the right sideline that was intended for senior wide receiver B.J. Watson, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback came up clutch with his back against the wall. After rolling out of the pocket to his left, he fired the ball deep down the left hash marks, where Wimberly had gained more than five yards of separation. The Slidell, La., native weaved his way down to the 12-yard line before finally being brought down. Yale defensive back Deonte Henson went down with an injury on the play, allowing the Crimson a breather. A few minutes before, the result had seemed secure for the Bulldogs, but after Wimberly’s catch-and-run, the momentum of the game had shifted decidedly in Harvard’s favor.

“He was the guy we were going to go to. All of a sudden, he went right up the seam, which we expected, but we didn’t expect it to be that wide open,” explained Harvard head coach Tim Murphy when asked about Wimberly’s play. “He just did what he was supposed to do. [Emge] hung in there in the pocket, the protection was great. [Emge] made a clutch throw, he made a big play, and we had to line up again.”

Then, the Crimson offense came to a halt and its roaring supporters began to grit their teeth in collective anxiety. A pair of corner routes targeted 6-foot-7 senior wide receiver/long snapper Adam West, but each fell incomplete in tight coverage. Then, Yale head coach Tony Reno called his final two timeouts, leaving Murphy and offensive coordinator Mickey Fein with plenty of time to discuss a play. Facing third down from the 12-yard line with 26 seconds left, the Ivy League’s all-time winningest head coach called for the same route, but instead of opting for his massive receiver, he designated the 6-foot Wimberly as the target.

After Emge took the snap in shotgun formation, he stood still for a few seconds in a clean pocket as the play developed, with the offensive line producing some of its best protection of the game. Although he had a pair of options on the right side of the field, the quarterback never took his eyes off Wimberly. As the Bulldogs front seven began to near him, Emge lofted a ball over the two defenders chasing Wimberly, who had to turn his body 180 degrees to make the catch. The ball was placed in a spot where only the receiver could get it, and when Wimberly’s feet came down in the back of the end zone, Harvard had opened up a two-point lead. Crimson fans, watching from the far side of the field, exploded in elation.

“The defensive back, quite frankly, couldn’t have played it any better. It was a highly contested play,” Murphy said. “We always talk about making strong catches, because there’s always going to be pushing, shoving, and close quarters, and that was the epitome of a strong catch. … He just made a great, strong catch and got his feet down.”

Wimberly’s heroics capped off yet another epic contest between the two northeastern powerhouses, in a rivalry chock-full of them. Harvard’s dramatic comeback bore some resemblance to the epic 1968 playing of The Game, in which the Crimson trailed, 29-13, with just 42 seconds to play before coming back with a pair of scores and two two-point conversions to secure a 29-29 tie. The head-spinning finish led to The Crimson’s famous headline the following Monday: “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.” Although not quite as improbable, Saturday’s rally was no less dramatic.

Adding to the contest’s aura were the Ivy League standings, with both Harvard and Yale entering the stadium still in the hunt for a share of the conference championship. With each team sitting at 4-2 in the conference and Princeton and Dartmouth each staked to a loss and no tie-breaking procedures in place, the winner of The Game had a chance of tying for the Ancient Eight title if Brown produced an upset over Dartmouth in Providence, R.I., and if Penn defeated Princeton at home. But the Crimson didn’t get either of the out-of-town results it needed, as the Big Green survived an early scare to prevail, 52-31, and the Tigers used a big second quarter to knock off the Quakers, 34-14. With identical conference records of 6-1, Princeton and Dartmouth shared the Ivy League title. The Big Green became the first Ivy program to capture 20 league titles and the Tigers secured its 13th.

Even so, with the victory, Harvard finished with its best record since 2015, when it went 9-1 to win the conference. Defensive coordinator Scott Larkee’s unit was one of the best in the country throughout the season, leading in rushing defense and compiling top-ten marks in sacks, interceptions, third down conversion percentage, fourth down conversion percentage, and red zone scoring. On offense, Harvard’s top running backs, Shampklin and sophomore Aidan Borguet, both turned in stellar seasons. Although Shampklin will graduate in the spring, Borguet is slated to return as the feature back in 2022. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Dean, who started four of the season’s first six games before suffering a season-ending injury at Princeton on Oct. 13, is also expected to return.

“I just couldn’t be prouder of our kids,” Murphy said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better storybook ending. [There have been] many wild Harvard-Yale games, and this might have been the wildest of them.”

The game also caps off remarkable seasons for both Hill and Wimberly. With a stop on Bulldogs running back Spencer Alston midway through the second quarter, Hill recorded his 244th career tackle, passing Larkee for the fourth-most in school history. Although the sixth-year senior failed to win a conference championship in his brilliant career, exacting revenge for Yale’s dramatic victory in 2019 proved a storybook ending.

“As a six-year senior and all the fifth-year seniors who … made the decision to come back, taking time off from school, essentially putting their lives on hold to have this opportunity … when you make that decision, you never know how it can go,” Hill said. “But guys decided to take that time off and made efforts to make sure that they put in all the work so that we could be in a position to win a game like this, and to win it in this fashion, right down to the last second, it’s incredible.”

For Wimberly, a junior who had seen limited playing time before this season, Harvard’s triumph exemplified the toughness that he has brought to the team. In the spring of 2019, while preparing for his sophomore season, he battled back from knee surgery to return for the season opener in San Diego. During Saturday’s game, he was battling a knee injury that had rendered him questionable prior to the contest.

“He’s a kid from the inner city of New Orleans, [with] parents [who] just walk on water,” Murphy said of Wimberly. “He’s just the nicest kid, the toughest kid, the most resilient kid. … We didn’t think he was even going to play today, but to be able to come down the stretch to make those really clutch plays was something [I] won’t forget.”

Throughout the game, the Bulldogs managed to find some success against the Crimson’s top-ranked rushing defense, amassing 155 yards — the most that Harvard has given up this year. Yale led its attack prominently through its quarterback, as Nolan Grooms managed to get out of the pocket repeatedly, only being sacked twice. The sophomore carried the ball 17 times and was effective when he did so, gaining 51 yards, including several long first-down gains. On the Bulldogs’ initial touchdown drive, he extended plays with his legs three times. Two of his runs came after the southpaw scrambled out of the pocket under pressure from the Crimson’s front seven and found an opening down the left sideline, going for 17 yards on Yale’s second play from scrimmage. Ultimately, it was Grooms’ arm that gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game with a dart across his body to the left sideline that was corralled by wide-open wide receiver Darrion Carrington. The senior walked into the end zone untouched, and then Jack Bosman converted the extra point to give Yale the 7-0 edge.

In Harvard’s triumph, few players were more impactful than kicker Jonah Lipel. Four weeks after pulling a kick wide left from 53 yards into the wind at Harvard Stadium as time expired against Dartmouth, he nailed a pair of 47-yard field goals in the first half to keep his team competitive early. After the loss to the Big Green, Murphy praised his kicker’s leg strength, which Lipel displayed on Saturday, clearing the crossbar with several feet to spare on each kick. The junior was also perfect on his four extra-point tries.

Despite the standout performances by Wimberly and Lipel, the Crimson was propelled by a full-team effort Saturday. In 2019, The Game put Borguet on the map, as he took his 11 carries for 269 yards and four touchdowns en route to winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year. In the early going, the sophomore continued to produce magic in the Yale Bowl, taking his first handoff 28 yards down the right sideline, breaking a few tackles along the way, and plunging for the pylon as he was being brought down. Although he was ultimately ruled down short of the goal line, he scored his fifth career touchdown in New Haven on the very next snap — his eighth of the season. The one-yard score gave Harvard its first lead of the game, 10-7, near the end of the first quarter.

Sophomore running back Aidan Borguet adds to his 43 yards and one touchdown performance. In 2019, Borguet stole the show with 269 yards and four touchdowns.
Sophomore running back Aidan Borguet adds to his 43 yards and one touchdown performance. In 2019, Borguet stole the show with 269 yards and four touchdowns. By Truong L. Nguyen

The Crimson’s special teams unit also stepped up, delivering a touchdown in unlikely moments. After sophomore defensive lineman Nate Leskovec dropped Grooms in the backfield deep in his own territory midway through the second quarter, Reno sent his punting unit onto the field. Junior safety James Herring got a hand on Bosman’s kick, popping it up in the air, where it plopped down into the waiting arms of sophomore linebacker Kobe Joseph. Joseph took off down the right sideline, managing to stay on his feet through heavy traffic and eventually finding the end zone for a surprising 35-yard touchdown. His first career score gave Harvard some breathing room as it expanded its lead to 10 points. The play marked Herring's second blocked punt of the year and the team’s first blocked punt returned for a touchdown since Oct. 5, 2019.

“[Joseph] used to be playing tight end for me. The irony is, we made him into a linebacker because we didn’t think his hands were good enough, and then he catches the punt out of the air and runs it back for a touchdown,” Murphy said with a laugh. “[It was] a big and unusual play. We’ve seen a lot of big and unusual plays in the Harvard-Yale series over the last 28 years.”

Yale fought back, though, behind the strength of its quarterback. Facing 4th and 4 at the Crimson’s 30-yard line, Grooms came under immediate pressure and was forced to scramble backward, almost losing his footing as he backpedaled to the 40-yard line. Harvard defenders chased him from all angles, cornering him as he neared the left sideline. Right as he was about to go out of bounds, he launched a deep ball towards the left side of the end zone, where Bulldogs senior tight end JJ Howland had earned some separation. Howland made the catch and scampered across the goal line to get Yale within three heading into halftime. In total, Grooms completed 17 of his 37 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions.

“Grooms played a hell of a game,” Hill said. “He was extending plays and he was making plays, and it really put us to the test [at] the end of the game when they started running the ball. They had that third and [18] when [Alston] broke it for [26] yards … honestly, they made plays.”

Then, after Emge found Hatch on a quick slant for an 11-yard touchdown in the third quarter to stretch Harvard’s lead to ten points again, Grooms immediately led the Bulldogs on a rally. He orchestrated a five-play, 75-yard drive to answer the Crimson’s score with one of Yale’s own. The critical play was his deep shot down the left sideline for sophomore wide receiver Mason Tipton, who hauled it in for a 48-yard gain. Two plays later, the Bulldogs’ junior running back, Spencer Alston, punched it across the goal line from ten yards away, spinning out of a would-be tackler’s arms in the process.

It was then that the Harvard offense began to slow, punting twice and throwing an interception on its next three possessions. Borguet’s magic began to wear off, with the Bulldogs defense holding him to a series of short gains. Meanwhile, Yale began to heat up, embarking on a methodical touchdown drive to regain the lead for the first time since the first quarter. The dagger play occurred on the third snap of the possession, when, staked to a 3rd and 18, Alston cut through the middle, finding some open space and evading Crimson defenders to earn an improbable first down. Alston continued to make steady progress, wearing out the Harvard defense. Then it was Grooms’ turn to shine, as the lefty rolled out towards the right sideline before turning and firing towards the pylon, where first-year wide receiver David Pantelis was waiting. The 27-yard touchdown gave the Bulldogs a 31-27 lead.

Harvard punted on its ensuing possession, with Emge unable to find a receiver along the right sideline on two consecutive plays. With just six minutes, 19 seconds left, Yale got the ball back with a four-point lead at its own 16-yard line, and it began to turn to its running game to burn time. Across six plays, it managed to earn one first down and chew more than 3:30 off the clock. When it faced 4th and 1 on its own 35, it faced the choice of punting it to a stagnant Crimson offense or attempting a conversion, which would have all but sealed the victory. Instead of challenging the nation’s second-best fourth down defense, Reno opted to punt.

The final result ultimately hinged on a later fourth-down decision. Opting to kick it away in Bulldogs territory allowed his defense to produce a stop, breaking up Emge’s 4th and 6 pass intended for Wimberly. But three plays later, Reno was forced to choose between attempting to pin Harvard inside the 10-yard line with a punt, going for a conversion, or kicking a 51-yard field goal. He opted to send Grooms back out, setting the stage for the legendary finish.

“We were out of field goal range, for us, going into the wind,” Reno said. “We’re aggressive, and we look at it as, if we pin them in, we might gain fifteen yards. If not, if [the punt results in a touchback], it’s about a nine-yard difference. So we went for it. We like our quarterback. We think he’s good with his feet. … At the end of the day, we felt that [Harvard] had a short amount of time with no timeouts.”

The Harvard defense stifles Yale 's series of laterals on the final play to seal the 34-31 victory.
The Harvard defense stifles Yale 's series of laterals on the final play to seal the 34-31 victory. By Truong L. Nguyen

As Yale’s last-ditch lateral play fell short, the referee’s whistle blew, and euphoria swept across the Crimson side of the stadium, thousands of fans began to pour onto the field, celebrating the capstone to a successful season. Overcoming setbacks, Harvard exceeded expectations in 2021 with eight wins. The Crimson will return next fall with a largely new squad after it graduates two senior classes this spring. After falling two plays short in his quest for a 10th Ivy League championship, Murphy will turn to next year, when he hopes Harvard fans will again spill onto the turf after the 138th playing of The Game — possibly finishing the championship mission that the 2021 Crimson fell short of in tantalizing fashion.

—Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at griffin.wong@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Wong_THC.

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