Just a few minutes before junior quarterback Luke Emge hit junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly for a 12-yard fade to the back left corner of the end zone at the Yale Bowl, Harvard football (8-2, 5-2) looked to be dead in the water, and the Bulldogs (5-5, 4-3) appeared to be well on their way to winning the 137th edition of The Game. The Crimson had taken a 27-17 lead in the third quarter, but after a few strong throws by Yale sophomore quarterback Nolan Grooms and a stalled Harvard offensive attack, the Bulldogs led by three, 34-31, with two minutes, 40 seconds remaining. The Crimson had the ball back, with what appeared to be one final chance to stun the raucous crowd that had turned up to New Haven, Connecticut, and secure head coach Tim Murphy his 20th victory over Yale.
On 1st and 10 from the Harvard 32, Emge completed a four-yard pass to senior wide receiver B.J. Watson on an out route towards the right sideline. Yale junior defensive back Dathan Hickey dragged him down for a four-yard gain. Then, on the next play, with two minutes, 14 seconds remaining in the game, first-year tight end Tyler Neville ran a deep button-hook and got open at the Crimson’s 46-yard line. Emge stepped up in the pocket and fired. Neville slipped, and the ball sailed over his head, incomplete.
NEVILLE: After I slipped and the ball sailed over my head, the captain of Yale, [senior linebacker John Dean], put his hand on my shoulder and he was like, “Yo, 88. You worked real hard all offseason, worked real hard all season, just to lose this right here for your team?” I was like, “Damn! That’s the best s**t-talking I’ve ever heard.” That got me pretty good.
The next play, Emge’s slant to senior wide receiver James Batch was broken up, with Bulldogs senior linebacker Rodney Thomas II applying a big hit to jar the ball free. That brought up fourth down, which appeared to be Harvard’s last chance. Emge threw a comebacker on the right sideline to Wimberly that was knocked out of bounds by junior defensive back Wande Owens.
EMGE: On that fourth down, after the play Tyler had, I remember throwing a deep comeback to Kym on the sideline, and they deflected it out of bounds. I remember just jogging off the field, that realization setting over me like, “Man, that might’ve been it! We might not get another shot!” Stepping off the field on the sideline, the first thing [quarterback coach Joel Lamb ’93] said to me was, basically, “Keep your helmet on. Stay right here. We’re going to get back out there. The defense is going to get a stop.”
MURPHY: With two minutes to go, tremendous pressure on our defense to get the ball back. Everybody remembers the last 59 seconds … but what people forget is with two minutes left, one first down ends the game, and our defense did an unbelievable job getting the ball back.
Yale got the ball back with two minutes and one second remaining. A pair of runs, one by Yale junior running back Spencer Alston and one by Grooms, forced Murphy to burn his last two timeouts and left the Bulldogs with 3rd and 7 on the Harvard 33 and one minute, 52 seconds left in the game. With the Crimson blitzing, junior defensive lineman Truman Jones forced Grooms to roll out to his left and slide down behind the line of scrimmage for a critical coverage sack.
EMGE: With each play of that next Yale drive – the first down stop, the second down stop. Third down comes, and you’re starting to think, “Maybe this is our chance. Maybe there is a chance.” And when they make that coverage sack, it starts to set in, like, “We’re going to have a shot at this, probably. We’re going to get another chance.”
Staked to a 4th and 8 with one minute, two seconds remaining, Yale head coach Tony Reno called his first timeout.
EMGE: Being on that sideline, some guys are teary-eyed, some guys just stand there in disbelief. The mindset shifts to, “Alright, get ready to get back out there and put the drive together.” So you start talking to the coaching staff, thinking about the mindset for the next drive, the game plan, what plays we like, that shift in your mindset from the uncertainty and sadness that the game might be out of reach to, “Alright, it’s time to get out there. It’s time to roll.”
WIMBERLY: I feel like a big, main point of those huddles [is to] make sure we stay composed, especially in a big game when there’s a lot of people there or a game that has a lot at stake. We’re making sure we’re staying composed on the sidelines and making sure that we have the right schemes to go down and score.
After the timeout, the teams trotted back out onto the field for a game-deciding fourth down play. Instead of trying to kick a 51-yard field goal, Reno decided to send his offense back onto the field. Grooms dropped back to pass, knowing a conversion would seal the game, and under heavy pressure from Jones, threw the ball away out of bounds.
EMGE: We got in the huddle, I’m the two-minute guy. And I was definitely nervous, but we’ve run the two-minute drill so many times in practice, we pretty much know the plays we’re going to run. It just so happened to be a one-minute drill. But I was pretty confident walking out on the field. I felt like it was destiny after that stop.
MURPHY: We realized that we were going to have to do a pretty much perfect one-minute drill without any timeouts.
On 1st and 10 from the Harvard 34, Emge lined up in shotgun. Yale rushed four men, with two deep safeties over the top.
EMGE: The most important objective, when you’re talking about a two-minute drill for us, as an offense … is a positive first play. For us to get on that field, you’re not thinking about going 60 yards in one play. You’re thinking about putting a drive together.
Emge tossed a quick pass to Neville, who made a sliding catch over the middle at the 45, which was enough for a first down. Only four seconds came off the clock.
EMGE: The way Yale was playing the coverage, just knowing the situation, knowing we needed a touchdown, had a lot of defenders deep, trying to guard us from the deep ball. Tyler had a twelve-yard, in-breaking route, and the way the coverage bailed out, I knew we had that opening. Like Tyler said, he’s a pretty good target to throw to, a pretty big body to get the ball to.
MURPHY: It just gave us a bit of confidence. It gave us a bit of momentum, and it bought us some time.
On the ensuing 1st and 10 on the Harvard 45, Emge stuck with his first read, firing a quick out to Watson near the right sideline. The pass fell incomplete.
EMGE: Lining up, I didn’t love what I saw out there. In that situation, [you know] that you need to move the ball downfield, need to get big chunks there. [I] had my mind set pre-snap that I was just going to take a quick drop, throw it outside, maybe put it in a spot that B.J. had a chance. But really on that play, I was thinking about getting rid of the ball and resetting for the next play. In a two-minute drill, you don’t need to be five for five passing on the drive there. It doesn’t need to be pretty. You just have to have a couple plays go your way.
On second down, Wimberly lined up on the left side. Hickey gave the junior wide receiver plenty of space. After the ball was snapped, junior defensive lineman Reid Nickerson got pressure on Emge from his blinside. Emge stepped up and spotted a wide-open Wimberly, who had gotten past his defenders on a post route.
WIMBERLY: Initially, I thought they were in Cover 4, probably going to stop it. And I ran and I think they saw Luke step up. And they thought he was going to run so they stopped their feet a little bit. And he just drilled it to me, and I was wide open.
EMGE: They brought the pressure from the left side. [Sophomore offensive lineman] Alec Bank did a great job of making him read the pressure high, so I had an opportunity to climb up in the pocket and escape left. And as I started moving to my left, I just saw their [defensive backs] start to step up … thinking I was going to run. And Kym just sat down in the hole they had wide open down the middle of the field.
The ball sailed downfield towards Wimberly. After getting so much space, he was able to track it all the way out of Luke’s hand.
WIMBERLY: When I saw them let me go, … I was like, “I’m probably about to score.” So I’m like, “Luke, throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball!” I’m just sitting there, like “Luke, toss it!” He darted it in there, and I turned up. But it was so funny because even though it was a pretty dart-y pass, I felt like the ball was in the air for so long, I was like, “Bruh. Bruh. Bruh. Just catch the ball, catch the ball, catch the ball.”
After catching the ball, Wimberly saw nothing but green in front of him. He juked to his right, but slipped as he made the cut between two Bulldogs defenders and tumbled to the turf at the Yale 12.
MURPHY: [Emge] hit him right over the top. … Quite honestly, had it been a perfect, in stride, momentum pass, that probably would have been a touchdown right there.
WIMBERLY: I caught it, and I turned around. I made a cut, and I made a guy miss. And I was like, “Oh, I’m about to score!” And then I just slipped.
On 1st and 10 from the Harvard 12, Emge looked to pass quickly, throwing a back shoulder fade to senior wide receiver/long snapper Adam West in the back left corner of the end zone. The ball was slightly underthrown, and Owens batted it away. Then, on the next play, offensive coordinator Mickey Fein opted for more or less the same call, throwing a fade to West in the right corner. Again, thanks to swarming coverage by Hickey, the ball fell incomplete. The Crimson now faced 3rd and 10, with only two more shots at the end zone remaining.
EMGE: Adam had a one-on-one look. On top of that, you know in this situation in your head, the biggest thing you can’t do is take a sack. We have no timeouts and a sack might end the game. … For those two plays, when I saw the matchup we had on them, I just decided to give them a shot.
WIMBERLY: I definitely was nervous because I felt like we had put together such a good drive up until that point. … But I knew we still had an opportunity to win it.
With Harvard having two more shots at the end zone, Reno opted to call his second timeout.
EMGE: We lined up on third down, we had a play called, and Yale took their timeout based on what we lined up in. So you go back to the huddle, you got thirty seconds. We talk. Coach Fein is on the headset, and we decided, “Alright, we’re going to go with a different play this time, since they just saw our look.”
Reno then opted to call his third timeout.
EMGE: We get out there, we line up, we got another play called. Yale sees what we’re doing. Yale takes another timeout. Time’s starting to pass. The adrenaline’s starting to slow down a little bit. You come back to the huddle, and it’s, “Do we stick with what we had called or what do we want to do?” I give our coaches a lot of credit in that time. They talked in the headset, and they decided what to do. They put a play for us together based on what we were seeing from them.
MURPHY: The route was what we call Ringo Leo Five Switch.
On the pivotal third down, Harvard lined up with a two-receiver set, with Wimberly in motion towards the inside pre-snap.
EMGE: I really wanted to get Kym the ball and give him a chance in the back of the end zone. They lined up in Quarters, so I was thinking, “Take my drop. If the corner bails on it, just bang the ball to [junior tight end Adam Shepherd], let him get some yards, and then get out of bounds.”
WIMBERLY: I kind of slowed down on my route a little bit, because I figured, “No way he’s throwing me the ball. I won’t be open at all. I just got grabbed by the linebacker trying to get off, and there’s a safety and a cornerback in the area that I’m working to.”
Owens’ eyes never left Emge on the play, and Wimberly was able to sneak past him. By the time he caught up with the receiver, the ball was already in the air.
EMGE: It felt like the ball was in the air for about ten minutes, to be honest. Ball was in the air, and you’re just hoping that it comes down on the right side, comes down in the right guy’s hands.
WIMBERLY: I see the ball in the air, and I’m like, “Oh, wait, he’s actually throwing this.” So then I just sped up and tried to make a play.
EMGE: I saw Kym go up, but it was tough to see who came down with it and where they came down. And when I saw the ref put his hands in the air, signaling touchdown, I immediately sprinted towards the end zone to go celebrate.
WIMBERLY: I didn’t see the ref throw up the touchdown sign. I remember, I was just fighting with [Hickey], fighting him for the ball. The ball ended up coming out, and I’m looking at the ref like, “Yo, I scored, I scored it.” And at that point the ref’s hands had already been down. I thought they didn’t call the touchdown until everyone else came over.
MURPHY: I’ve been coaching for 40 years, and I’ve been a head coach for 36 years for three programs … there’s more a sense of relief than joy.
Two flags came out on the play, and while Harvard was celebrating, the referees conferred to discuss the penalties. After they made their decisions, they began their announcement with, “There were two fouls on the play, both against the offense.”
MURPHY: It was deja vu all over again — Princeton. It’s like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
WIMBERLY: No way they’re about to call this back. We’re going to have another part two of Princeton, and this, this, and that. I was definitely nervous at that point.
The penalties were both enforced on the ensuing kickoff. One was a penalty against the Harvard sideline for encroaching onto the field. The other was an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Shepherd, who pulled Hickey off of Wimberly after the catch.
MURPHY: Fortunately, things worked out.
EMGE: It really kind of embodies what our team is like and why we were able to stick together throughout this game. If someone was going to be on Kym in the end zone like that, not getting off, someone was going to get that guy off of Kym, and we’re going to celebrate together.
Up by two, junior kicker Jonah Lipel trotted out there to kick the extra point. He calmly knocked it straight through.
LIPEL: My first instinct was [to] run onto the field. I remember Jon Sot, our punter and holder – we both just sprinted out, going to celebrate with Kym. But then he’s like, ‘Hold on, we’ve gotta kick this extra point.’ Honestly, I didn’t think of the significance of the kick at all, I was more just pumped that Kym came down with that.
After a series of last-second laterals failed to produce a touchdown for the Bulldogs, the whistle blew, and the game was over. A horde of Harvard fans started jumping over the low walls and spilling onto the field.
NEVILLE: I remember just running onto the field, just waving [my] helmet up and down. Then, when all the students stormed the field, I took like 15 pictures with a bunch of students I’d never met before in my life … Then my family came out. I had like 15 people there, and they came out on the field. They stormed it. I saw them jumping up and down with my football teammates, and then my roommates as well, and then my brother’s on the field. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.
LIPEL: It was really special, especially for Kym, Luke, and I, because we were there in 2019, on that field, when we lost in double overtime. I remember, we were not even close to contention that year, but if Yale had won, they got a share of the Ivy, and things were going so well for us that game until it came crashing down at the end. … To have that complete 180 two years later at their field, at the same field where we got our hearts broken, it was amazing.
WIMBERLY: After the sound goes off, we win, the first person I see is Coach Murphy. And I was actually standing on the bench, watching the game. Coach Murphy’s the first person I see, and he just turns to me, I look at him, and I just jump in his arms. And I get down and I kind of pick him up and raise him in the air, like, “We did it, Coach! We did it!”
MURPHY: I’ll never forget it, because it was Kym, on many levels. Obviously, he made the big play, but he’s a very special kid. He’s had his share of adversity with injuries … Kym’s one of those kids that you want to adopt, I’ll leave it at that. Our players love him, and he’s just such an amazing, humble, great American success story.
—Staff writer Jack Silvers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JackSilvers5.
—Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Wong_THC.