Harvard’s status as Ivy League co-favorite was cemented before it kicked off for a Friday night matchup against Cornell (2-2, 0-2) in Ithaca, N.Y., as the Crimson (3-1, 2-0) played its second game under the lights and its first on national television, with the contest being aired live on ESPNU. On the field, Harvard looked the part, relying on a strong offensive performance in the second half. Despite getting off to a slow start on both offense and defense in the first quarter, it was the special teams that broke through midway through the second period, giving Harvard a 10-7 lead that it would never relinquish in a 35-28 win.
"I saw grit and toughness from our team," senior linebacker Jack McGowan said. "We’ve had an ability to win tough games down the stretch. That’s our third one now. They’ve all been tight games."
Even in victory, penalties and turnovers still plagued the Crimson. A costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on senior wideout Jack Bill cost the Crimson a chance at a touchdown in the first quarter, and Harvard wasted exceptionally strong field position on a drive at the end of the first half when junior tight end Tyler Neville fumbled along the right sideline. Then, at the start of the third quarter, sophomore receiver Scott Woods II muffed a punt and gave Cornell an instant red zone possession, which the Big Red capitalized on three plays later on a designed run by sophomore quarterback Jameson Wang. Last year, the Crimson was one of the most disciplined teams in the Ivy League, but on Friday night, it was flagged 12 times for 125 yards and had those two turnovers.
Senior quarterback Charlie Dean overcame inconsistent play in the first half to lead his team to victory, moving his record as Harvard’s starter to 6-1, with his only loss coming last week against Holy Cross. All told, Dean completed 15 of his 29 passes for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns. He outdueled Wang through the air for much of the game; the sophomore from El Segundo, Calif. completed 18 of his 31 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, adding three scores on the ground.
The first half marked the continuation of a worrying trend for the Crimson offense, which was largely bottled up before halftime after scoring just seven points after the break against the Crusaders last Saturday. Poor special teams play by the Big Red consistently handed Dean a short field, but on its two first-half red zone possessions, Harvard walked away with just six points on a pair of short field goals by senior kicker Jonah Lipel. Lipel, after missing the first two field goal attempts of his season, including a 37-yarder last week in the loss to Holy Cross, was a key performer for the Crimson on Friday, nailing three extra points in addition to the field goals.
In the victory, the visitors received contributions from unlikely sources. Harvard’s only first-half touchdown was scored off a blocked punt by senior linebacker Kobe Joseph, who also returned senior defensive back James Herring’s blocked punt for a touchdown against Yale on Nov. 20, 2021. Joseph got both of his hands on Cornell sophomore punter Ayden McCarter’s punt immediately after it left his foot. The loose ball was quickly snagged by junior defensive back Jelani Machen, who returned it 17 yards to the house.
Friday’s game also marked a breakout game for sophomore wide receiver Ledger Hatch, who reeled in five catches for 71 yards. The Orlando, Fla. native had been primarily used as a deep-ball threat in the first three games of the season, hauling in an 81-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the win over Brown and then a 55-yard bomb in the loss to Holy Cross. Prior to Friday night, Hatch had made just six receptions, but they totaled 152 yards (25.3 yards per reception). On Friday night, he came up big when Dean called his number, including a pivotal first down conversion with six minutes left in the game and Harvard looking to eat clock.
Hatch stepped up in the first half while senior wide receiver Kym Wimberly had a quiet start to the game, catching just two passes for ten yards in the opening half hour. Wimberly entered the game as the Ivy League’s leading pass-catcher, with 24 catches and 294 yards entering the contest. On Friday, the Slidell, La. native waited until the third quarter to heat up, finishing with five catches for 82 yards, including a jaw-dropping 37-yard catch from Dean six minutes into the third quarter as he took a huge hit from defensive back Paul Lewis III. A few plays later, Neville scored Harvard’s first offensive touchdown of the day and the first score of his career, a year after he caught his first college pass against the Big Red in the Crimson’s 24-10 home win.
Senior running back Aidan Borguet had been the star of the Crimson’s first three games, breaking free for 20-plus yard touchdown runs in each contest. On Friday, it was business as usual again, as he used his patient, shifty play style to quietly rack up a season high in yardage. The Ivy League’s second-leading rusher finished the game with a career-high 28 carries, 163 yards and a score, completely taking over the game at its tail end to help the Crimson ice the game. His two-yard touchdown plunge up the middle of the field all but secured the victory, giving Harvard a two-score lead with two minutes, 50 seconds left in the game.
Woods, like Neville, also took advantage of his chance for redemption at the start of the fourth quarter, getting free across the middle for a 10-yard touchdown to cap off a nine-play, 67-yard drive for the Crimson. The sophomore receiver and returner looked to also have a successful two-point conversion run, but senior tight end Haven Montefalco was dinged for a holding penalty and Harvard settled for an extra point. Still, Woods’ score gave Harvard a two-touchdown lead just five seconds into the fourth quarter.
"The kids really responded to all the little bits of adversity that kept coming our way in the game," said head coach Tim Murphy after the game. "I think we really became a team today."
The Big Red refused to fade into the Ithaca night, though, as Wang came out firing on the ensuing drive despite appearing to sprain his ankle on the previous possession after being tackled by senior defensive lineman Nate Leskovec. The mobile passer converted a tough third down throw to junior wide receiver Will Kenner while rolling to his left, and four plays later he found his favorite target Thomas Glover for a high, twisting catch that was just enough for a touchdown. Glover’s chemistry with Wang was evident throughout the night, as the pair played together at Harvard-Westlake in Studio City, Calif. in 2016 and 2017. The Ivy League’s leading receiver in 2021, Glover hauled in eight passes for 66 yards and the score.
After Borguet’s score, the game appeared to be over, as Cornell faced a two-touchdown deficit with under three minutes remaining. But Wang, despite limping noticeably in between plays, dragged his team back into it. Faced with a fourth and four from the Harvard 38, the quarterback kept it himself and burst up the middle for a 36-yard run, setting himself up for his third rushing touchdown of the game a few plays later to cut the deficit to one score. However, Neville came up big again on the ensuing onside kick, coming away from a pile with the football to secure the Crimson’s victory.
With the win, Harvard continued a longstanding trend of protecting first-half leads; since 2003, the Crimson is 117-3 when taking a lead into the locker room at halftime. With a perfect Ivy League record two games into the conference slate, the Crimson’s hopes for an Ivy League title will take a backseat next week when the team travels to Washington, D.C. to play Howard, but will resume in full force after with back-to-back matchups against 2021 conference co-champions Princeton and Dartmouth.
The showdown with Howard, another nationally televised bout (ESPN3) and the Truth and Service Classic, will kick off next Saturday, October 15th at 4 p.m at Audi Field. In the teams’ only other matchup, the Crimson defeated the Bison, 62-17, in 2019. Harvard will surely hope to repeat that success next weekend in the nation’s capital.