Harvard football (6-3, 4-2) needed everything to go right on Saturday to stay in contention for an Ivy League title. Defeating Penn (6-2, 4-2) was a must. It also had to root for its biggest rival, Yale (6-2, 5-1), to come up with an upset against Princeton (7-1, 5-1). In Philadelphia, the Crimson took care of business, thrashing the Quakers through the air and on the ground en route to a 37-14 victory. And thanks to the Bulldogs’ 24-20 victory over the Tigers in New Haven, Conn., an improbable scenario in which four teams could share the conference championship inched closer to reality. The win also clinched the team's first undefeated road record since 2015.
“I think it’s indicative of the league, that everybody is good,” said head coach Tim Murphy of the way in which his team bounced back after last week’s loss to Columbia. “On any given day, anybody can beat anybody.”
In previous weeks, Harvard could have perhaps been best described as dominant on the ground and mediocre through the air, on both offense and defense. However, on Saturday, Penn had trouble stopping senior quarterback Charlie Dean, who came out firing and produced the best game of his college career. He completed more than 85 percent of his passes in the first half (23 for 27), racking up 222 yards and three touchdowns before the break. Then, in the second half, he picked up right where he left off, leading the Crimson on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, which he finished off with a six-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Haven Montefalco. By the time head coach Tim Murphy finally shifted to a combination of senior Luke Emge and sophomore Charles Deprima to man the position early in the fourth quarter, the result had long been secure. All in all, Dean finished the game 29 for 38, with a career-high 316 yards – his first time hitting the 300-yard plateau.
“We had a good game plan going into the week, and it was just a matter of executing it,” Dean explained. “Last week, I didn’t execute the game plan to the best of my ability, and [we] came out firing today.”
Penn might have actually had more success stopping Harvard on the ground – although not much. Senior running back Aidan Borguet had one of his worst games of the season…but only because the rest of the season has been so incredible, as his 20 carries still produced 117 yards, including a 21-yard run on the Crimson’s second play from scrimmage and a 36-yarder on the third-quarter touchdown drive. In the process, he increased his season total to 1,120 yards – a mark only reached by two players in program history. Chris Menick ’00 ran for 1,267 yards in 1997, while Clifton Dawson ’07, remarkably, surpassed the mark in all four of his seasons in Cambridge. Dawson’s sophomore campaign, in which he racked up 1,302 yards and 17 scores, remains the gold standard for Harvard running backs. Borguet would surpass him with 183 yards against Yale, which would be the second-highest single-game total of his career, after torching the Bulldogs for 269 yards and four scores as a first-year in 2019.
The game got started off auspiciously for Harvard’s offense. After defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ’99’s unit forced the Quakers to go three-and-out on their opening possession, Dean opted for a short pass to senior wide receiver Kym Wimberly on the Crimson’s first play from scrimmage. Wimberly made the catch for five yards, but as he was tackled, he came down on top of his arm. He lay on the field for a few minutes before being helped off the field and did not return to the contest. Harvard had been without the Slidell, La. native during the Columbia contest after he had suffered a left ankle injury against Dartmouth on Oct. 29. As Wimberly is still the team’s leading receiver, with 51 catches for 603 yards and four scores in five games and parts of two more, his potential absence against Yale next Saturday would be bad news for a Harvard offense that has relied on him for more than 30 percent of its completions.
However, it was smooth sailing after Wimberly’s injury. Borguet took off up the middle for 21 yards on the very next snap, and just over two minutes later, the Crimson had reached Penn’s red zone. On this particular possession, the nation’s fifth-best red zone defense held strong, as Murphy opted to send the offense back out to attempt a fourth and six conversion instead of turning to senior kicker Jonah Lipel, who had three kicks blocked in last week’s loss and sophomore wide receiver Scott Woods II was stopped short of the line to gain. Although Harvard came up empty on its first possession, it was an early look at the aggression that would allow it to score on each of its next five drives.
After another three-and-out, a poor boot by Penn punter Ben Krimm allowed the Crimson to start on its own 44-yard line. Dean wasted no time getting the offense moving, completing an 11-yard pass to senior wide receiver Jack Bill along the left sideline to open the drive. Then, just under six minutes later, he capped off the eight-play, 56-yard march by throwing a beautiful fade to the right corner of the end zone that junior wide receiver Kaedyn Odermann hauled in for his first touchdown of the season. After breaking out as a rookie last year, Odermann has seen relatively little action this season but took advantage of Wimberly’s absence to put up a solid game, with three catches for 34 yards and the score.
The Quakers finally earned a fresh set of downs on their third drive, as sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin exhibited the patience that has allowed him to make a big step in his second year as a full-time starter. As a true freshman last year, the Carlsbad, Calif. native threw five touchdowns and seven interceptions, including three against Harvard. But on the drive, Sayin delivered a few beautiful passes, including a 35-yarder to senior running back Jonathan Mulatu that brought Penn inside the red zone for the first time. Then, a few plays later, sophomore wide receiver Julien Stokes made the most out of his only carry of the day, punching in a two-yard touchdown. However, it would be the last time that the Quakers would present a serious challenge.
The Crimson took back the momentum, marching down the field in a 12-play, 75-yard drive that took six minutes, eight seconds off the clock. Harvard recorded zero offensive plays of more than 10 yards until the final play of the possession, when senior wide receiver Joe Young came back towards the right sideline to corral a slightly underthrown pass from Dean and broke a tackle before tip-toeing down the sideline for a 29-yard score. It was the first touchdown of his career, as he had seen sparing playing time in his first three collegiate seasons. The native of Bethlehem, Pa. – about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia – brought in three catches for 64 yards in total, adding to a three-catch, 42-yard performance last week. Young’s score gave Harvard a 14-7 lead that it would never relinquish, running up 24 unanswered points until the Quakers finally got back in the end zone shortly after halftime with a five-yard pass to wide receiver Rory Starkey Jr.
Overall, Young was just one of nine receivers to record a catch during the contest, continuing a recent trend of spreading around the ball and demonstrating the Crimson’s depth of talent. Bill was the most productive, bringing in six catches for 79 yards, but Young, junior tight end Tyler Neville (five catches for 60 yards and a touchdown) and Woods (six catches for 37 yards) put up strong performances as well. Saturday’s game marked the most unique receivers who have caught a pass since a 24-20 loss to Penn on Nov. 16, 2019, when quarterback Jake Smith ’21 completed passes to 10 different targets, including Borguet and Young.
“They stepped up,” Dean said. “They answered the call. They answered the challenge. And it was fun to see some guys out there that hadn’t gotten a lot of opportunities before in their careers finally be able to capitalize.”
Just as the offense was firing on all cylinders, so was the defense. The Quakers failed to pick up a first down on six of their first nine possessions, with the exceptions being the two touchdowns and a fumble. On the sole turnover of the game, Penn running back Trey Flowers believed he had gotten into the end zone for a score that would have cut the Harvard lead to 31-21, but junior defensive tackle Thor Griffith punched the ball out right before Flowers crossed the goal line. It tumbled out of the back of the end zone, giving the Crimson possession on the Quakers’ 20-yard line and eventually setting up a 25-yard field goal by Lipel, his second of three throughout the contest. Flowers’ fumble was indicative of his struggles on the day; on 15 attempts, Penn rushed for nine yards.
“We switched it up a little bit,” explained senior linebacker Jack McGowan on the defense’s suffocating performance. “So we actually ran a 3-4 [three defensive linemen and four linebackers], which is not our base. Our base has traditionally been a 4-3. So I think we kind of surprised them the first couple of series. I don’t think they were expecting that. And then guys just executed.”
Harvard also stepped its play up in several areas where it had struggled before the season. It succeeded in converting seven of its 14 third-down opportunities, a marked improvement from the previous week, when it went just two of 13 against the Lions. It sacked Sayin three times, while allowing Dean to be brought down behind the line just twice by the fearsome Quakers front four, which had previously recorded the third-most sacks per contest of any team in the nation. The referees flagged it for just five penalties, including a pass interference that was called well after the result was decided. It also did a decent job stopping Penn’s passing attack, as 65 of its passing yards came on the final drive with the Crimson in prevent defense. Overall, Saturday was the most complete performance of the season, on both sides of the ball.
“We have the best [offensive line] in the league,” said Dean of the Quakers’ defensive line. “And they played like it today. It was fun to go out there and play some football with them.”
It will have to carry its momentum into the second week of what has effectively become the Ivy League playoffs. The Tigers blew a chance to wrap up the conference title on Saturday by losing to Yale. If Harvard beats the Bulldogs on Nov. 19 at Harvard Stadium and the Quakers rebound with a victory over Princeton on the Tigers’ home turf, each team will finish with a 5-2 conference record and share the Ivy League championship.
“I want these kids to enjoy this,” Murphy said. “We only play ten games. We don’t get to go to the playoffs. So, I hope these guys really enjoy this. And they’re mature enough to handle it in the right way.”
The four-way scenario would be the only way for the Crimson to earn a piece of the title; if it loses to Yale, the Bulldogs would either claim the conference alone or share it with the Tigers, depending on the result in New Jersey. Similarly, if Harvard and Princeton both win on Nov. 19, the Tigers would have sole possession of the Ivy League’s best record as its lone one-loss team. If the four-way scenario comes into play, it would be the first time ever that the Ancient Eight has been won by four different teams. Three schools have split glory four times, most recently in 2015, when Penn, Dartmouth, and the Crimson all earned rings.