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No. 24 Harvard Football Upsets No. 6 Holy Cross 38-28

Sophomore wide receiver Dean Boyd reels in a touchdown pass on September 30 against Holy Cross.
Sophomore wide receiver Dean Boyd reels in a touchdown pass on September 30 against Holy Cross. By Nicholas T. Jacobsson
By Jack Canavan, Nadia A. Fairfax, and Praveen Kumar, Crimson Staff Writers

In what was expected to be its toughest game of the year, No. 24 Harvard football upset No. 6 Holy Cross on Crusader turf, 38-28. The team traveled westward to Polar Park, home of the Worcester Red Sox, to take on the well-known Massachusetts college and came out victorious. The Crimson improved its overall record to 3-0, defeating the Crusaders by 10 points. The team’s win marks the first time that Harvard has defeated a nationally ranked opponent since October 2, 2021, when they took down the Crusaders in the same stadium.

“Obviously a terrific win tonight against a very good team,” head coach Tim Murphy reflected. “When you play Holy Cross, you’re playing against one of the great coaches in the country, I believe, and Bob Chesney does a remarkable job, as have his assistants.”

“[Holy Cross] recruits tough class kids and they’re just so hard to beat, they really are. We were very fortunate tonight, our kids played extraordinarily hard, we got a few breaks, we made our own breaks,” he continued. “It all starts with defense in any good program — certainly in our program —and we played really good team defense tonight. I think that was the biggest part of the game.”

Harvard faced no easy task downing this Holy Cross team. Arguably the toughest opponent of the year for the Crimson, the No. 6 FCS-ranked Crusaders had put up impressive results entering their clash with the Crimson. In their three wins this season, the Crusaders annihilated Merrimack, Yale, and Colgate, posting more than 40 points in each game.

Even in its only loss of the season, Holy Cross nearly pulled off one of the bigger upsets in all of college football as a whole. The week prior, the Crusaders trekked to Boston College, an ACC squad that plays almost exclusively FBS teams. Holy Cross battled with the Eagles until deep into the fourth quarter, losing 31-28 in heartbreaking fashion on a final minute fumble deep in Eagles territory. Had they won, it would have marked one of the few games on the college football calendar where an FCS team beats an FBS opponent. This performance was even more impressive when considering BC’s game against FBS No. 5 Florida State, whom the Eagles lost to by two points earlier on in the season.

“We take it literally one day at a time,” said Murphy about the team’s success going forward. “We don’t ever assume anything. If you look at our schedule, every [team] is good. Everybody we’ve played has been a good football team. [Holy Cross] is as good a team as we’ll play all year.”

“Having said that, Cornell knocked off a Yale team that was predicted to win our league, so it’s one-day-at-a-time to win football games. Our kids, I hope, will enjoy this [win] tonight, and as coaches we’ll be back early tomorrow morning to get after it and start getting a beat on Cornell,” Murphy continued. “There’s no bad teams in our league and Brown’s a good example of that.”

In its best start to a season since 2021, Harvard’s defense continued its string of strong play led by exceptional secondary play. Led by interceptions from senior linebacker Matthew Hudson and sophomore safety Ty Bartrum, with an additional pick and forced fumble by sophomore defensive back A.J. Lopez, the Crimson defense forced the Holy Cross passing game, led by senior quarterback Matthew Sluka, into disarray.

A finalist for the 2022 Walter Payton Award, given to the best offensive player in the FCS, Sluka returned to Holy Cross as one of the division’s best players, having thrown for 2,489 yards with 26 touchdowns last season, while rushing 203 times for 1,234 yards with 11 touchdowns. Despite allowing 325 yards and four touchdowns, the Crimson forced four turnovers from Sluka’s offense, including a crucial second quarter Lopez pick-six that swung the game in Harvard’s favor.

“That kid doesn’t get rattled,” Murphy said regarding Sluka. “He is such a tough competitor. He’s been doing it for a while, it seems like he’s been there for ten years. We just played really good defense.”

“We put pressure on him, he made some good runs, we did a good job in coverage, they made some big plays, but we just played really sound team defense. I think any quarterback is going to get a little rattled, but he’s a kid who never loses his cool,” Murphy added.

The game started off with a strong drive from the Crimson. First-year running back Xaviah Bascon took the opening kickoff 62 yards and set up Harvard’s offense at Holy Cross’s 33-yard line. Seven plays later, junior quarterback Charles Deprima handed the ball off to sophomore wide receiver Cooper Barkate, who scrambled eight yards into the endzone to give the Crimson a 7-0 lead.

Despite fumbling on their first possession, Holy Cross evened the score with 6:28 left in the first quarter via a 74-yard touchdown pass from Sluka to senior wide receiver Jalen Coker. Harvard responded with a touchdown drive consisting of big plays from senior tight end Tyler Neville and junior running back Shane McLaughlin. To cap the drive off, Deprima found streaking sophomore wide receiver Dean Boyd for a 26-yard touchdown to put the Crimson up 14-7.

Sophomore wide receiver Cooper Barkate looks for a running lane against Holy Cross on September 30.
Sophomore wide receiver Cooper Barkate looks for a running lane against Holy Cross on September 30. By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

On the ensuing drive, Hudson intercepted a pass from Sluka, giving Harvard a great field position at Holy Cross’s 45 yard line. McLaughlin then punched in another Crimson touchdown with a three-yard run, giving Harvard a 21-7 lead. However, the Crusaders responded with a 71-yard drive of its own, ending with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Sluka to Coker, making the score 21-14.

“It was awesome,” said senior captain and defensive lineman Nate Leskovec, who was playing in his first game of the season. “We played pretty solid across the board. Definitely a lot of things to clean up. Watching your team play from the sidelines the first couple of weeks, you get more nervous watching the games you’re not playing in versus the ones you are playing in, so I’m just happy to come back in and be a part of our defense that’s on the field.”

“All I am is just a part in it, so just happy to rejoin the squad and make a little more of a tangible difference other than just what I’m saying from the sidelines,” Leskovec added.

With less than two minutes remaining in the half, the Crimson came up with a big defensive play to further extend its lead. A tipped pass from Sluka found its way into the arms of Lopez, who ran his first collegiate interception back 28 yards to give Harvard a 28-14 lead. Right before the half, Holy Cross struck back with a quick six play, 71-yard drive, leaving the visitors in front 28-21 entering halftime.

“There’s halftime adjustments we make,” Hudson said. “Our defensive staff put us in such a good position just to make plays and I think we showed up today.”

“Just in the second half, we played with more of a lead,” the senior continued. “Obviously we got beat a little in the passing game, so we played some more pass type of defense with the lead to switch it up a little bit, but really just believing in our base stuff, believing in our guys, and going out there and playing ball and being physical.”

The third quarter started off slow, with both teams putting no points on the board for the first 11:55. Barkate ended the streak for the Crimson, hauling in a 31-yard pass from DePrima on fourth down, putting the Crimson ahead 35-21. The Crusaders kept their ensuing drive alive with a fourth down conversion of their own, placing them on Harvard’s 30 yard line. However, on Sluka’s first down pass, sophomore safety Ty Bartrum recorded another interception, bringing the ball back to the Crimson’s possession to finish out the third quarter.

Junior running back Shane McLaughlin takes the handoff from junior quarterback Charles Deprima on September 30 at Holy Cross.
Junior running back Shane McLaughlin takes the handoff from junior quarterback Charles Deprima on September 30 at Holy Cross. By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

Harvard held the ball until 7:12 remained in the final quarter, when senior kicker Cali Canaval knocked in a field goal from 40 yards, bringing the Crimson lead to 38-21. The Crusaders were able to score one last time with 3:12 left in the final quarter on a three-yard pass from Sluka to senior wide receiver Byron Shipman, closing the deficit to 38-28 as the game concluded.

At the conclusion of the game, the Crimson remained undefeated and improved on both its team and individual statistics. Barkate had his first multiple-touchdown performance of the year, to go along with five receptions for 73 yards and 14 rushing yards. The team also stunted Sluka’s play, as Harvard intercepted him for a total of three times. The quarterback had come into the game with only one interception during the season, and only four interceptions in 2022.

“When you have to prepare for a guy like that, a guy that’s a dual threat guy, it puts a lot of stress on the defense,” said senior defensive lineman Thor Griffith. “You’re definitely a little more anxious going into games like that, but we had a plan and we executed it, and I’m glad that we did. Just being careful about the angle you take on a guy like that. I feel like a player like him kind of thrives on chaos, and we kept him in the pocket a little bit, we were able to get him to turn the ball over.”

Harvard will return to Ivy League play this Friday night in historic Harvard Stadium against the Cornell Big Red, with kickoff at 7:00 p.m. EST. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.

— Staff writer Jack Canavan can be reached at jack.canavan@thecrimson.com.

— Staff writer Nadia A. Fairfax can be reached at nadia.fairfax@thecrimson.com.

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