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WASHINGTON — A few days before Harvard’s game against Howard (1-5, 0-0), junior tight end Tyler Neville’s message was simple: “We want to come out and dominate.”
On Saturday, after playing to a tie in the first half, that’s exactly what the Crimson (4-1, 2-0) did after the break. Before the season, it was announced that Harvard would have the honor of competing in the second annual Truth and Service Classic, a cooperative effort between Audi Field and Howard that aimed to celebrate community service and sports at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s).
The 20,000-seat stadium near the confluence of the Washington Channel and the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers is also the home of Major League Soccer (MLS)’s DC United and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)’s Washington Spirit. And when the game kicked off, the Crimson was seemingly united in spirit, receiving significant contributions from established stars like senior running back Aidan Borguet and breakout underclassmen like sophomore defensive lineman Dominic Young-Smith and sophomore running back Shane McLaughlin to come away victorious, 41-25.
“The first few games, it felt like we were playing good for a couple quarters,” McLaughlin said. “This game, it feels like we kind of put everything together in the second half, and it feels good to know what we can do.”
Late in the first quarter, Harvard scored its opening touchdown thanks to an unlikely hero. On a third and three from the Bison’s 38-yard line, Young-Smith pressured Howard quarterback Jaylon Tolbert, who scrambled out to the right and attempted a short pass. However, this pass was batted straight back towards the line of scrimmage and into the waiting hands of Young-Smith. After seeing minimal game action in his first collegiate season, the Williamsburg, Va. native recorded his first career interception before his first tackle, which didn’t come until late in the fourth quarter, when he brought down Bison backup quarterback Ja’Shawn Scroggins for a six-yard sack.
“It is interesting to see a defensive lineman [record an interception],” said head coach Tim Murphy, a nine-time Ivy League champion who is in his 28th season with the team. “It’s once in a lifetime that that happens to kids playing college football, so just happy for our defense, happy for our team, and [Young-Smith] is a kid [who] has really added a lot to our defensive line.”
Equally as important to the victory was McLaughlin, who has seen action in just three games in his two-year college career. A few plays after Young-Smith’s interception, Borguet’s cleat came off on a seven-yard gain that brought the Crimson to the one-yard line on the third play of the second quarter. In came McLaughlin, who had carried the ball a few times on the previous drive, for the second and goal opportunity. The sophomore bounced around the right side, almost getting dragged down at the four-yard line before diving for the pylon in the front right corner of the end zone. The score gave Harvard a 10-0 advantage.
“It feels great to have [Murphy’s] trust,” McLaughlin said. “We have a great running back room. It’s just a good feeling to be a part of it.”
On Saturday, Harvard again relied heavily on its run game, opting to rush 43 times among its 70 plays. Borguet had no trouble against a Bison defensive front that allowed Yale to put up 366 yards two weeks ago on just 40 carries – the most efficient rushing performance in Bulldogs history. On the Crimson’s second possession from scrimmage, Borguet was responsible for 53 yards by himself, accounting for all the positive yards on a six-play drive that resulted in a field goal. Throughout the contest, he took his 19 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown, and McLaughlin added another 26 yards on 12 rushes in addition to the two scores.
Howard also achieved some success on the ground, rushing for 95 yards against a team that entered the contest with the sixth-best rushing defense in college football. Harvard also struggled to stop Bison running back Jarett Hunter in open space, as although his 11 carries only resulted in 36 yards, he hauled in four passes for 58 yards, catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage and breaking through the Crimson secondary on more than one occasion. His 41-yard catch-and-run early in the second quarter set up a Howard touchdown, as senior running back Ian Wheeler took a short pass around the right side of the Harvard defense to cut the deficit to 17-7.
The next possession, Tolbert led the Bison on a stampede down the field, putting together a six-play, 75-yard drive that included a 21-yard scamper after a screen pass by Hunter and a beautiful deep ball to junior wide receiver Kasey Hawthorne, who managed to keep a foot in bounds along the left sideline. He then finished the drive off by lobbing a throw off his back foot that senior tight end Brennan Brown caught in the end zone after bobbling the ball twice. Then, when Howard finally got the ball back at its own eight-yard line with 54 seconds remaining in the first half, Tolbert executed a perfect two-minute drill, which resulted in a 45-yard field goal by first-year kicker/punter Aaron Bickerton.
“They have improved dramatically,” commented Murphy on the improvement that the Bison have demonstrated since the last meeting between the two teams in 2019, which Harvard won, 62-17. “I can’t believe it’s even the same program. Their kids played extremely hard. They played extremely well. They were extremely well-coached. And nothing came easy today.”
Last year, the Crimson offense could best be categorized as conservative, as Dean, senior quarterback Luke Emge, and Jake Smith ’21 rarely aired the ball out downfield, averaging a paltry 6.52 yards per attempt. This season, offensive coordinator Mickey Fein has been more aggressive, and Saturday’s win was the embodiment of that. Sophomore wide receiver Ledger Hatch, Harvard’s premier deep threat, took two perfectly placed balls along the left hash marks into the end zone.
On his first catch, a 36-yarder in the second quarter, he had more than five yards of separation from his nearest defender. Then, early in the third quarter, Dean heaved it long despite Hatch being marked closely, but the football dropped out of the setting sky and landed in the sophomore’s bread basket for a 44-yard score. Overall, Hatch produced the best game of his career, snagging four catches for 91 yards and the two touchdowns. It was the first time this season that Wimberly has not paced the team in receiving yards, although he put up a stellar game of his own, bringing in five passes for 84 yards.
For the second consecutive contest, the Crimson benefited from a blocked punt that led directly to a touchdown. In last week’s 35-28 victory over Cornell, senior linebacker Kobe Joseph blocked a punt that junior defensive back Jelani Machen returned for a touchdown. On Saturday night, it was senior defensive back James Herring, who got his hand on Phillip Richards’ punt early in the third quarter, on fourth and four from the Howard 43. The ball ricocheted out of bounds at the Bison 12, allowing Borguet to punch it in a few plays later to give Harvard a 31-17 lead. It was Herring’s fifth of his career. Additionally, senior defensive lineman and captain Truman Jones blocked Bickerton’s field goal on the next possession.
“You’ve got to give credit to John Poppe, our special teams coach,” Murphy said. “They work on that at least twice a week, and if you consider the number of kicks that we’ve blocked over the last couple of years, I think [Poppe] deserves a lot of credit.”
Three weeks ago, the Crimson raced out to a 35-7 lead through three quarters against Brown and nearly blew it, allowing the Bears to score 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter before holding on for a one-score victory. Tonight, after entering the break in a 17-17 tie, Harvard slammed on the accelerator, scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half to pull away for a comfortable victory. After McLaughlin’s second touchdown of the game with six minutes, 21 seconds remaining, throngs of disgruntled Howard fans retreated to the exits. The Bison eventually added a late score on a two-yard run by Scroggins, but by that point, it was far too little, far too late.
“We took our foot off the gas a little bit in the Brown game,” Murphy said. “In modern football, it’s not a question if you need to score more, it’s how much more. And we did a good job of that today.”
After the win, the Crimson appears to be peaking at the right time. On Saturday night, Dean played his second-best game of the season, completing 16 of his 26 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. After tossing two interceptions in the season-opening win over Merrimack, Dean has not thrown a pick since, and the second deep ball to Hatch was his 10th touchdown of the campaign.
“I think the combination of all of our receivers, two-deep … [is] definitely a strength of our football team, and [Dean] is getting better every week,” Murphy said. “That combination has made us more effective now than we did coming out of the box in our opener.”
Despite the 3-1 start, Harvard had played undisciplined football through the first four games of the season, averaging 9.5 penalties per game, which was the third-worst rate in college football. Against Howard, that, too, changed; the Crimson was flagged just five times for 50 yards. It had also lost the turnover battle three times in four games, and was tied for the seventh-worst turnover margin in the country. However, thanks to Young-Smith and sophomore defensive back Gavin Shipman, who had an interception in the fourth quarter, Harvard had two takeaways on Saturday and did not turn the ball over.
“We’ve gotta put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We’ve gotta play these guys tight, and we’ve just gotta play a little better in the secondary,” Murphy said. “Those are things we did today.”
The Crimson’s hard work will come to fruition on Friday night, when Princeton (5-0, 2-0) visits Harvard Stadium in the first of a five-game stretch that will determine the conference title. The Tigers, as well as Harvard, Penn, and Yale, are all 2-0 within the Ivy League. Last year, it was Princeton’s controversial, 18-16 quintuple overtime victory on Oct. 23 that ultimately won it the Ivy League title, as the Tigers edged out the Crimson by a game to share the conference honors with Dartmouth.
It’s a rematch that has been on the minds of Harvard fans and players for nearly a full year. Wimberly cited the prospect of beating Princeton and winning a conference championship as a key reason why he decided to return for his senior season. And in the leadup to the Howard game, it was clear that senior defensive back Khalil Dawsey had the matchup circled on his calendar as well.
“We owe them one,” he said.
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