Harvard football is hurting.
On Friday night, the Crimson had a chance to clinch a share of the Ivy League title by beating Penn. In doing so, the 2016 team would have become the first in program history to win four straight championships.
More was at stake than the Ancient Eight crown, however. In 2015 the Quakers beat Harvard, 35-25, to ruin an undefeated season. Last year’s seniors graduated with a three-way share of the title, but also with the irremediable pang of that November loss.
This season the Crimson wanted Penn. The players wanted the matchup, and the coaches did too. Privately it was a grudge match for last year’s result, the defeat that senior halfback Anthony Firkser called the emotional low point of his career.
Well, he has a new low point now. On Friday night, Harvard lost. With 20 seconds left, the score stood at 14-14, but the Quakers threw a goal-line touchdown and then returned a last-second Crimson fumble for a second score.
Penn players celebrated with fans and family; Harvard players drove six hours back home.
The Crimson should have won, but didn’t. Harvard outgained the Quakers, 352 yards to 284, and held the ball for nearly 12 minutes longer.
Before Penn’s final touchdown drive, the hosts had snapped the ball exactly once on the other side of midfield. That incredible fact reflected the dominance of the Harvard run defense, which conceded 21 yards rushing on 20 attempts. Overall the Quakers punted nine times and relied on their red-zone defense to keep them in the game.
At the end of the night, though, these laudatory statistics meant nothing. Only two numbers mattered, and those numbers shone in neon: Penn 27, Harvard 14.
Next week the Crimson has a serious shot at redemption and emotional uplift with the annual slugfest against Yale. Rivalry games always matter, and in 2016 a victory in the Game would assure Harvard a share of the Ivy championship.
But even so, even if the Crimson smacks the Bulldogs into oblivion on Saturday, the Penn defeat will still hurt. Some losses are just permanent.
You could see that feeling in the eyes of defensive linemen James Duberg and Langston Ward. The two seniors drew the unlucky task of facing the media after the Quakers matchup, and they stared like statues.
Physically they are strong men. But behind the press conference table, they looked broken.
Who could blame them? You spend months pushing your body, you play through injuries, you get up early to do sprints, you stay up late to finish problem sets, and you sleep on buses. You give up a normal life. And then you give some more.