In three appearances this season, the Harvard football team has played three very different types of games. In its opening matchup against Merrimack two weeks ago, the Crimson scored 14 points in the last five minutes of the game to stun the Warriors, 28-21, in overtime. The next week, Harvard raced out to a 35-7 lead against Brown before allowing 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points in a nail-biting win. Saturday’s clash against Holy Cross was a tight, largely offensive game.
Throughout the contest, the Crimson (2-1, 1-0) appeared to have no answer for Crusaders’ junior wide receiver Jalen Coker, while senior wide receiver Kym Wimberly put up another strong game for Harvard. It was a bizarre game featuring multiple replay reviews, two deflected punts, and a botched handoff early in the fourth quarter that proved the difference. Ultimately, No. 11/10 Holy Cross (5-0, 1-0) extended the unblemished start to its season, coming away with a 30-21 victory.
“We knew going into the game that Holy Cross was an outstanding football team,” said head coach Tim Murphy, who, in his 28th season, is the winningest head coach in Ivy League history. “I thought our kids did a great job, we just made too many mistakes.”
The game appeared to start ideally for the Crimson, as senior kick returner Jack Bill took back Crusaders’ kicker Derek Ng’s kickoff 59 yards through a massive hole on the right side of the field. By the time senior cornerback Devin Haskins finally got to him with a touchdown-saving tackle, Bill was at the Crusaders’ 40-yard line, setting Harvard up with great field position for its opening drive.
However, after the Crimson moved the chains on a fourth-down completion over the middle to a double-covered Wimberly, Harvard ultimately came up empty. A questionable call negated what looked to be a Wimberly catch along the left sideline, as the wide receiver appeared to have both feet in bounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete and stood after a five-minute replay review. On the ensuing snap, senior kicker Jonah Lipel snapped the 37-yard kick wide left. With the wind blowing in on that side of the field, it wouldn’t be the last missed kick on the day.
After getting the ball for the first time, Holy Cross wasted no time getting work, as quarterback Matthew Sluka slung his first pass of the day deep over the middle to wide receiver Justin Shorter for 28 yards. Sluka, who was mostly used as a rushing threat in last year’s 38-13 Crimson victory, was in control all game, completing 17 of his 31 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns. But on the first drive, he came up short, as Harvard’s fourth-down defense — the second-best in the country last year and off to a strong start this season — forced Sluka to slightly overthrow Shorter.
However, it was still the Crusaders who found the end zone first, after some special teams magic. Blocking punts has been a staple of Harvard teams over the years, as senior safety James Herring recorded two last year – but it was Haskins who got to sophomore punter Sebastien Tasko’s kick after a three-and-out. The Crusaders returned the ball to the Crimson 27-yard line, and Sluka punched it in up the middle on the next play, juking three different Harvard defenders on his way to his fifth rushing touchdown of the season.
However, Holy Cross’ lead didn’t last long, as Harvard responded immediately with a score. This would become the theme of a game that was dominated by momentum coming in streaks. Dean got the drive started off with an explosive play, finding sophomore wide receiver Ledger Hatch down the right hash marks for a 55-yard completion. A few plays later, senior running back Aidan Borguet, who had been bottled up a bit on the opening two drives, found his groove, taking it in up the middle from seven yards out to tie the game.
Borguet was the focal point of the Crimson offensive success in the first half. After the two teams traded punts for the next three drives, Dean led another scoring drive that started on the Harvard 22. Borguet ran for a first down early in the drive, and a few plays later, junior tight end Tyler Neville kept the possession alive by skying over his defender for a 19-yard third-down snag on the right hash. Set up at the edge of the red zone, Borguet took the hand-off from Dean on first down, broke through the defense at the line of scrimmage and then shrugged off a tackle for his second score of the half. Overall, he took his 18 carries for 80 yards and the two touchdowns.
As with every touchdown that was scored in the game, the Harvard score was met with a prompt response from the opposing team. The Crusaders needed just three plays to strike back and utilized the big play with roaring success. First, running back Peter Oliver broke off a 31-yard run to start the drive. Then, two plays later, Sluka aired it out downfield to a streaking Ayir Asante, who took advantage of a match-up against Crimson sophomore linebacker Eric Little and reeled in the perfectly-placed ball from Sluka for a 59-yard catch that knotted the score.
At the end of the half, a bizarre series of close calls and Harvard missteps allowed the Crusaders to take the lead 17-14. After Harvard got the ball back with just over 4 minutes to go, Dean found Hatch out wide in the flat. The receiver was met with hard contact immediately after securing the catch and the ball popped out, allowing safety Terrell Prince to pounce on it. Initially, the play was deemed a catch and Hatch down on contact, but after a five-minute replay review, the officiating team reversed the call to a catch and fumble and gave the Crusaders possession deep in Harvard territory.
To open the possession, Sluka found Shorter along the sideline for an 18-yard gain. However, the ball appeared to come out after Shorter dove for the ball and did a somersault on the turf. Another replay review seemed imminent, but the officiating team announced that the replay system in the stadium was down and that the call of a catch at the Harvard five-yard line would stand. Murphy’s defensive unit wasn’t demoralized by the tough turn of events, though; defensive leader and team captain Jones came up with two huge tackles on second and third down to hold the Crusaders to a 25-yard field goal by Ng.
“The reality is, hopefully those things even out over the course of the [season],” said Murphy of the two controversial calls. “It’s not going to keep me awake at night, but it is frustrating at times, for sure. Those guys are trying to do the best job they can, and sometimes they make a mistake, and sometimes it’s to our benefit, and sometimes it’s to our opponent’s benefit.”
With the Crimson unable to move the ball in the two-minute drill, the two teams entered the half locked in a tight 17-14 contest. The Crusaders’ offense outgained Harvard, 221-181, in an uneven first half for the Crimson, an advantage that the visitors would continue to press in the second half. It was the second halftime deficit of the 2022 season, after Harvard trailed at the break just twice last year.
In its previous game, Holy Cross outscored Colgate 21-0 in the second half to win, and it was strong again after the intermission on Saturday, winning the final two frames, 13-7. The Crusaders came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders, with Coker dominating the Crimson defense. On first down from his own 48-yard line, Sluka reared back and fired downfield for Coker, who elevated over Khalil Dawsey and made a brilliant catch over the top of the senior defensive back’s helmet. Two plays later, the Sterling, Va. native was at it again, snagging a quick out in the right side of the end zone, just past the diving attempt of senior cornerback Alex Washington. All in all, Coker had a sterling day, making 10 catches for a career-high 166 yards and the score.
Harvard quickly bounced back with a touchdown of its own, starting off the drive immediately with a few quick passes to Wimberly. Then, Dean delivered a few beautiful touch passes on post fades towards the right sideline, the first of which was to junior tight end Tim Dowd in tight coverage and the second to an open Wimberly to bring the Crimson to within three. Although he was outshined by Coker, it was a brilliant day for Harvard’s top target as well, as Wimberly brought in 9 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Coker continued to burn the Crimson on the Crusaders’ ensuing possession, as he opened the drive by gashing Harvard over the middle for a massive 62-yard gain. The wideout caught the ball at the Harvard 25, with Washington hot in pursuit, and still muscled for another ten yards before being brought down. Coker’s heroics turned out to be fruitless for the visitors, though, as the drive stalled on two Crusader penalties and then Ng found the right post on a 37-yard field goal try.
The special teams for Harvard, typically a strong unit early in the season, had a challenging time against the Crusaders. In addition to the blocked Tasko punt in the first quarter and Lipel’s missed field goal, Holy Cross’ star cornerback John Smith got his hands on Tasko’s kick at the end of the third, deflecting the ball and forcing a short punt. On the same play, the Crimson gifted the Crusaders an extra 15 yards on a personal foul called against sophomore linebacker Mitchell Gonser, giving Holy Cross possession at the Harvard 46. Although Harvard escaped when Crusaders junior offensive lineman Erik Schon was flagged for a chop block, forcing Holy Cross to send out its punting unit, Murphy still flagged special teams as an area of improvement for the following week.
“You get a punt or two blocked, you have too many penalties, and you have a turnover, you’re not going to come out on the winning side,” he said.
It was the opening possession of the fourth quarter that ultimately swung the outcome of the game. After picking up one first down on a completion to Bill, offensive coordinator Mickey Fein called for a read-zone option. Dean opted to pull it back from senior running back Sone Ntoh, who was seemingly expecting the ball. Due to the miscommunication, the football fell to the turf, and Crusaders senior linebacker and co-captain Liam Anderson came up with the football, setting up a 27-yard field goal by Ng to extend Holy Cross’ lead to 27-21.
Then, in another recurring theme of the game, a critical penalty wiped away all momentum in what appeared to be a promising Harvard drive. Dean began the drive by rolling out to his right and finding Wimberly on the run for a first down. Then, after a few Ntoh runs, the Crimson crossed into Holy Cross territory. On third and five from the Crusaders’ 42-yard line, Fein opted to run the ball with Borguet instead of trying to pick up the first down through the air. On the ensuing fourth and one, senior right guard Mason Williams was flagged for a false start on the hard count, pushing Harvard back five yards and forcing Tasko to punt.
“It just felt like we were clicking pretty well with the zone run. Whether it was [Ntoh] or whether it was [Borguet], we were gaining yards,” explained Murphy of the decision to run the ball on third down. “As the game went on, we had a better feel for the running game. I think it was also a situation where we thought it was a two-down deal.”
By the time the Crimson got the ball back, the game was essentially over. After Tasko’s punt was downed at the Holy Cross 13, the visitors started off their drive by benefiting from a killer penalty, as even though Sluka overthrew a wide open Asante deep downfield, senior linebacker Jack McGowan clearly tugged on the wideout’s jersey and was flagged for a pass interference, giving the Crusaders 15 yards and an automatic first down.
Holy Cross then embarked on a 69-yard drive that ate up almost five minutes of game clock and ended in Ng nailing a 49-yard field goal to extend the margin to nine points with one minute, 24 seconds remaining. On the final drive, Harvard had one real opportunity to get the ball back, as junior linebacker Matt Hudson had both hands on an errant pass by Sluka and an open field in front of him, but he dropped it. On the next play, Sluka found Coker for a first down that effectively iced the game.
For the second straight game, Harvard’s offense started strong but fell quiet toward the end of the game, scoring only seven points in the second half and putting the onus on its defense to come up with timely stops. On Saturday, with two turnovers deep in its own territory, the Crimson forced its veteran defensive starters to defend a short field too many times. Yet, despite the team’s struggles, Jones looked at his defense’s performance and managed to come away with two key positives.
“We kept it close into the fourth quarter and made stops in key situations, keeping them to field goals that could have been touchdowns,” he said.
The tight loss does no damage to Harvard’s hopes for achieving its ultimate goal: its ninth conference championship of this century. Next week, though, it will not benefit from such a margin, as the Ivy League schedule picks up in earnest. Six of the remaining seven games are against Ancient Eight opponents, and Murphy and the Crimson won’t have too much time to clean their mistakes. The team will next travel to Ithaca, N.Y. on Oct. 7 for a Friday night clash at Cornell.