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No. 19 Harvard football traveled to New Haven, Conn. yesterday to face Yale for this year’s rendition of The Game, a rivalry over a century old. The Crimson entered Saturday on the heels of a fantastic 150th season to date, with a 8-1 record, recently surpassing 900 wins in program history, as well as most recently winning at least a share of the Ivy League title last week. The Crimson hoped to continue its winning streak and secure an outright Ivy League title but fell short against the Bulldogs in a strenuous 23-18 affair.
In losing to Yale, Harvard lost the chance to hold sole ownership of the Ivy League title. It instead split the crown with the Bulldogs and Dartmouth in a three way tie for first place. Harvard entered the game with the lone possession of first place in the Ivy League before its loss to the Bulldogs. Dartmouth’s win against Brown pushed the Big Green into a tie with the Crimson and Bulldogs for the title after Harvard’s loss to Yale. While claiming its first Ivy League title since 2020, this crushing defeat to end the season leaves a bittersweet taste.
“It’s unfortunate the way things ended,” said senior captain and defensive lineman Nate Leskovec. “But to have a piece of the Ivy League title and bring that back to Cambridge is something we’ll be thinking about forever.”
The first quarter started out slow, with both Harvard and Yale failing to score a single touchdown. The Bulldogs were the first to receive the ball, with Yale’s sophomore running back Joshua Pitsenberger rushing for six yards up the middle for a gain that brought them to the 31 yard line. On the next three plays, the Bulldogs were able to get first downs, but were stopped short by the Crimson defense, eventually forcing their rivals to punt 29 yards to Harvard’s 18 yard line.
The first Crimson possession proved to be difficult for Harvard as well in terms of scoring. The first play, a 27-yard pass completion from sophomore quarterback Jaden Craig to senior tight end Tim Dowd, set the Crimson up at the 46-yard line for a first down. Its next few plays were stopped by Yale’s defensive line before Craig completed a nine-yard pass to junior wide receiver Scott Woods to drive the Crimson into Bulldog territory. Harvard completed another short pass before being stuffed on three consecutive runs and turning the ball over on downs at the Yale 37.
Starting at midfield, the Bulldogs responded by taking up the rest of the quarter on an 18-play, 48-yard drive that resulted in a field goal with a minute left in the quarter. Led by an array of runs from quarterback Nolan Grooms and Pitsenberger, Yale ate up clock time and broke the scoreless tie to put the Crimson in a 3-0 deficit.
Starting at its own 31-yard line after a kickoff return from running back Xaviah Bascon, Harvard continued to struggle to find an offensive spark, going three-and-out and giving Yale strong field position after Craig took a 16-yard sack on third-and-long. This forced the Crimson to punt from its own 18-yard line and allowed Yale to begin in Harvard territory at the 41. However, Harvard forced a three-and-out from the Bulldogs’ offense, giving the Crimson the ball back once again deep in its own territory.
Harvard continued to struggle offensively, posting another three-and-out after a sack on third down deep in Crimson territory pushed it back to its own 19.
However, a combination of Yale linebackers blocked the punt, giving the Bulldogs possession of the ball on the Harvard seven-yard line. Grooms then capitalized on their red zone opportunity, finding receiver Ryan Lindley for a touchdown, pushing the score to 10-0.
Down 10-0 with 9:12 left in the second quarter, Harvard saw some signs of life on offense after completions to senior wide receiver Kaedyn Odermann and sophomore wide receiver Cooper Barkate that led the Crimson into Yale territory. Starting with first down at the Yale 44, Harvard lost yardage on first down and after an incompletion on second down, Craig threw an interception to Yale's Joseph Vaughn. After a penalty negated some of his return yardage, Yale was set up at its own 44.
Yale then posted another three-and-out to give the Crimson the ball back on its own 25 after a touchback. Mirroring past drives, Harvard quickly used their first three downs to make little progress towards another series and lined up to punt. For the second time in the game and third time all season, Harvard's punt was blocked and recovered deep in Harvard territory at the nine-yard line, giving the Bulldogs a chance to blow the game wide open.
With 4:29 left in the second, Yale spent the first two downs of their red zone possession on short runs by Grooms and Pitsenberger to set up a third-and-goal from the Harvard six-yard line. On a crucial down, the Crimson came up with a massive stop on a sack and forced fumble recovery by senior defensive lineman Thor Griffith, giving Harvard the ball back at its own 41 in a huge momentum swing.
Riding the energy shift, the Crimson surged into Yale territory off of two runs by junior running back Shane McLaughlin, which pushed Harvard to the Bulldogs 44-yard line. After missing Odermann on first down, Craig threw a 35-yard strike to Odermann to march the Crimson into red zone territory for the first time in the game. Craig capitalized on his chance with a dart to senior tight end Tyler Neville from 11 yards out to put Harvard on the board, closing the gap to 10-6 with a 1:03 left in the second quarter. Taking back the offensive reins, Yale gained minimal yardage before ending the half.
Receiving the ball to start the third quarter and hoping to further swing the tides in its favor, Harvard began its drive on the 29-yard line after a kickoff return by Bascon. However, another quick three-and-out occurred, followed by a deep punt that gave Yale the ball back on their own 33. On a string of runs by Grooms and Pitsenberger, Yale entered Harvard territory before being stopped on third and short at the Harvard 39. Opting to punt, the Bulldogs gave the Crimson the ball back at their own 16-yard line with 9:43 left in the third quarter.
Junior punter Sebastian Tasko continued the Crimson’s proclivity for punts on his eventful day with his fifth of six punts on the day after another three-and-out series. On a short punt from deep in their own territory, the Crimson gave Yale the ball back on the Harvard 47.
With ideal field position, Yale began their drive with a short incomplete pass from Grooms to the Bulldogs’ senior wide receiver Mason Tipton. Yale soon gained momentum with their running game, with the Bulldogs’ junior running back Nathan Denney carrying four out of the six plays in the drive for gains. On first-and-goal from inside the five-yard line, Denney ran for four yards up the middle for a touchdown, but the call was reversed as Yale got penalized for five years for a false start from junior offensive lineman, Sean Sullivan. The Bulldogs then retreated to the eight yard line, and chose to kick a field goal to bring the score to 6-17.
With Yale in the lead, Harvard started their drive with 4:34 left to go in the third quarter at their own 29-yard line. The offense again struggled to make much headway, and the Crimson was forced to punt on fourth-and-eight, with Tasko kicking 44 yards to Yale’s 25-yard line.
The rest of the third quarter followed suit, with neither of the teams being able to put any more points on the board. At 3:08, Yale received the ball and ran for a first down after senior running back Spencer Alton ran up the middle for a 13-yard gain to get to the Yale 40. The Bulldogs couldn't convert another first down, and Harvard’s defense hurried the quarterback on two consecutive plays. After several failed attempts at scoring, the Bulldogs were forced to punt at fourth-and-eight at the Yale 42 yard line, with junior punter Shamus Florio sending it 16 yards to Harvard’s 42-yard line.
The Crimson picked back up with 1:07 left to go in the third quarter. Craig handed it off to McLaughlin for a 20-yard gain to Yale’s 38-yard line before he was pushed out of bounds by Yale’s sophomore defensive back Joshua Tarver. The next play was all Barkate, with Craig handing off to the wide receiver for a 28-yard gain that brought them to Yale’s 10-yard line for a first down. On the next snap, Craig rushed down the middle for a three-yard gain to the Yale seven-yard line to end the third quarter.
The start of the fourth quarter, Harvard picked up where they left off, with Craig rushing seven yards at second-and-seven on Yale’s seven-yard line and scoring the second touchdown of the day for the Crimson, bringing the score to 17-12. Harvard attempted a two-point conversion, but the pass was no good. Canaval kicked off 59 yards to Yale’s six-yard line, with Yale returning to the 32 to begin their first drive of the fourth.
Harvard’s defense delivered, forcing Yale to punt from their 33-yard line after a quick combination of runs from Pitsenberger and incompletions by Grooms.
Beginning at his own 42, Craig kept the wheels rolling with a 30-yard pass to Barkate to begin the drive. After a penalty on the next play, he had yet another red zone opportunity at the Yale 14. After two quick rushes from McLaughlin and Craig, the Crimson quarterback found junior wide receiver Ledger Hatch for a diving seven-yard touchdown catch on a scramble to give Harvard their first lead of the game at 18-17. Attempting to go up by a field goal, the Crimson was unsuccessful on its two-point conversion once again.
Yale retaliated in a heartbeat, with runs from Pitsenberger and a 31-yard missile to Mason Tipton marching the Bulldogs into Yale territory. Grooms had a chance to do damage at the Harvard 16 before throwing an interception to first-year defensive back Damien Henderson, protecting the Crimson lead.
Momentum continued to swing like a pendulum two plays later, when Craig fumbled and lost the ball on a short run at the Harvard 14, giving Yale a virtually identical red zone opportunity as before. Grooms delivered, finding a wide receiver on an out route in the left corner of the end zone in tight coverage for six, putting the Bulldogs up 23-18. Attempting to go up seven, Yale failed on its two-point try and left the Crimson with 5:47 and three timeouts to save its chances at a victory.
Craig came out locked in, beginning the drive with an explosive 44-yard pass to Dowd that left the Crimson on the Yale 14-yard line with a first down. Throwing short passes to Barkate and McLaughlin and an additional incompletion to Barkate left the Crimson down five on fourth down from the Yale six. Going for it, Craig was blitzed and could not find his man, throwing an incompletion and turning the ball over on downs on Harvard's best opportunity to retake the lead.
With 3:36 left in the fourth, Yale quickly ran for a first down on a 13-yarder by Pitsenberger. Eating up the clock, Yale rushed twice more before forcing Harvard to use its first timeout on third and seven from the Yale 22 with 2:02 left. Grooms managed to find Pitsenberger for a one-yard gain to force Harvard to use another timeout. The Yalies couldn’t get a first down, however, giving the Crimson the ball back with 1:47 and one timeout left at the Yale 45 off a short punt.
In their biggest two-minute drill of the season, Craig completed three straight passes to Neville, Woods, and Odermann to bring the Crimson to Yale's 29 with just over 1:20 left. On the following play, the Bulldogs sent extra men on a blitz, causing Craig to retreat and sprint backwards, eventually taking an 11-yard sack and setting up second and 21 from the Yale 40, while also forcing Harvard to use its final timeout.
Throwing an incompletion on second down and leaving the Crimson with virtually two plays left to win the game, Craig found McLaughlin on third and long for a short gain of seven yards, giving Harvard one last chance on fourth and 14. Taking a snap in the shotgun, Craig looked for Barkate in the end zone, and after throwing a prayer up, his pass fell incomplete. Yale took the ball, taking knees to run out the clock with the final score 23-18 Yale.
In a game driven by mistakes and missed opportunities, the Crimson ended its season in almost identical fashion to the year before in a failed red zone attempt down five points in its final play of the game. In a season where at times it looked unbeatable, this ending puts a damp note on an otherwise positive year.
“What I told the kids was that in any endeavor, if you give it absolutely everything you possibly can, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have heartache,” head coach Tim Murphy said. “We have no regrets. Our kids played as hard as they possibly could. It came down to one or two plays at the end”.
Highlighting Harvard's season, the team finished with an 8-2 record, improving from its 6-4 record in 2022 and matching its 2021 effort. Harvard did so with a number of new starters.
Returners for the Crimson included incumbent starters McLaughlin and Neville, who both excelled and powered the Crimson offense through the season. McLaughlin rushed for 50 yards against Yale, finishing his season with 780 yards and six. Likewise, Neville's touchdown against Yale was his first since October, concluding his season with four touchdowns.
Captain Leskovec achieved a season-high of two sacks in the game, ending his career for a total of fifteen. Griffith etched another sack in The Game, bringing his seasonal total to 3.5 and career to 13.5. Senior linebacker Matt Hudson matched his career-high with 12 tackles, including nine solo tackles, showcasing the defensive prowess that kept Harvard competitive throughout the game.
Other outgoing seniors include defensive back Kaleb Moody, who broke out in a starring role by contributing 45 tackles and forcing turnovers over the course of the season. Hudson and Griffith created a defensive line that heavily contributed to a strong run block that carried Harvard throughout the season.
Highlighting the bunch, Craig ended with six rushing touchdowns in the last four games, including one in The Game, alongside two passing touchdowns. Craig’s performance stood out as a highlight of the season as he replaced incumbent junior quarterback Charles DePrima in Harvard’s loss to Princeton, playing meaningful minutes for the first time in his career and performing in big moments in weeks leading up to The Game. DePrima, likewise, was a new starter this season and played excellent up until mid season, earning FCS Midseason All-American status before being benched after struggling in two games against Princeton and Dartmouth. One thing to look out for in the 2024 season will be who holds the mantle as quarterback for the Crimson.
Additionally, breakout players from the 2023 season on offense include Barktate, first-year return specialist Xaviah Bascon, and sophomore safety Ty Bartrum. Barkate led the Crimson in receiving yards with 441 on 36 receptions and four total touchdowns. The sophomore will be a key player for Harvard’s receiving corps in the coming seasons. Leading the FCS in kickoff returns at a true freshman, the flex breakout totalled 342 yards on 12 kickoff returns, while additionally adding 77 yards from scrimmage to total for over 400 yards overall on the season. Bartum became a force in the Harvard secondary, leading the team in tackles at 72 in his first year as a starter.
As the Crimson closes this chapter of Harvard football history, it will not be without some longing to change the result of this last game, but with a strong young roster that holds hope for the future seasons. Having a large number of young and impactful returners will set the stage for another battle for the Ivy League title next year. These players, equipped with experience of losing a championship game — and the heartbreak that comes with that — will attempt to avenge this loss and bring the crown home to Cambridge for good.
— Staff writer Jack Canavan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff writer Nadia A. Fairfax can be reached at email@example.com.
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