PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In last week’s season opener, the Harvard offense got off to a sluggish start, posting only seven points through the first three quarters before finding its stride in the closing period and coming back to win the game in overtime. So for Crimson fans who were watching the fourth quarter of yesterday’s Ivy League opener against Brown, there was an uneasy sense of déjà vu. After leading 35-7 with 15 minutes to go, the Crimson had to face down a potential game-tying drive from the Bears with under two minutes remaining and score standing at 35-28. Still, Harvard (2-0, 1-0 Ivy) hung tight and got the stop, coming away with a gritty win on the road over Brown (1-1, 0-1 Ivy).
“We’ll take the win, very proud of our kids,” said head coach Tim Murphy after the game. “But we certainly have plenty still to work on.”
Harvard relied on a sharp and impressive performance from senior quarterback Charlie Dean, who completed 20 of his 29 attempts for 289 total yards and four scores while adding another 22 yards with his feet. Dean’s efficiency, along with continued excellence from senior running back Aidan Borguet, made for a balanced offensive attack that proved overwhelming for the Bears defense in the first half. With the win, Dean moves to 5-0 as the Harvard starter across this season and last season.
However, the star of the first few drives for Harvard was indisputably Harvard’s top target, senior wide receiver Kym Wimberly. After the Crimson defense held firm against Brown on the opening drive of the game, Dean looked to Wimberly early and often on the ensuing Harvard drive. On second and short from just over midfield, Dean found the senior wideout and Slidell, La. native for his second catch of the game, penetrating the Bears secondary for a 21-yard gain. This would be one of three 2o-plus yard catches for Wimberly on the day, the next two of which would garner points for Harvard. On third down and nine later in the drive, Dean hit Wimberly over the middle and the senior evaded the tackle of Bears cornerback Shane Prevot, scampering another twenty yards after the catch for the first touchdown of the game.
Wimberly, asked about his clear connection with Dean, emphasized the time that the two have spent practicing and developing together: “We spent a whole summer together working out, so this is a product of the effort I put in before we got to campus and after.”
The scoring catch was Wimberly’s first of the season after posting a seven-catch game last week against Merrimack but being held out of the end zone. The Crimson and the Bears traded punts for the next four drives, with the longest offensive gain being a 26-yard run by Brown back Stockton Owen that was immediately followed up by a sack and an offensive holding penalty. On the last possession of the first quarter, Brown drove down the field into Harvard territory, with head coach James Perry making a gutsy call to go for it on fourth down with his team well inside its own territory. The decision to challenge the country’s second-best fourth down defense in 2021 paid off, with Owen ramming his way through the Crimson defense for the first down. The drive culminated with no pay-off for the Bears, though, as the Harvard secondary clamped down on third and six and Brown kicker Christopher Maron pushed a 45-yard field goal try wide left.
Still up 7-0 and with plenty of time to play in the first half, the Crimson seized on the momentum of the Brown missed field goal and went on to score on its next two drives. On the first, it was all Borguet and Wimberly, as they gained 62 out of the 73 yards on the drive. Wimberly capped off the scoring drive with his second 26-yard touchdown grab of the game. This second touchdown bore resemblance to his first score; Wimberly found space in the middle of the Brown secondary and used his speed and strength after the catch to secure the score for the Crimson.
The Brown offense was stifled on its next possession, handing the ball back to Harvard on its own thirty-two with four minutes left in the half. Dean proceeded to show his poise and patience, as he converted on two big third downs, first with his legs and then tossing a 12-yard dart to sophomore running back Tim Dowd as he stared down pressure from the Bears’ pass rush. Dean was hit hard on the play and the officiating team called a roughing the passer penalty, the first of a number of personal fouls for both teams. The Crimson capitalized two plays later, with Coach Murphy exploiting a favorable match-up: six-foot-four senior tight end Haven Montefalco lept high up in the air to beat coverage by Brown linebacker Caleb Moorhead, who never got his head around to locate the ball. Montefalco has mostly played the role of blocking halfback for most of his Harvard tenure but paced the Harvard tight ends’ room yesterday in yards and catches.
Suddenly down three scores, the Bears came out into the field and attempted to put some points on the board before the end of the half, but with only 1:09 left in the half, Brown sophomore signal-caller Jake Willcox had to try to force the ball down the field. On the last play of the half, Harvard senior cornerback Alex Washington came away with an interception of Willcox along the left sideline and ran the ball back 30 yards, which was the only turnover for either team on the day.
Harvard entered the locker room with a 21-0 lead, only halving the 42-0 advantage it held halfway through its rout of the Bears last season. The defense, led by senior defensive lineman Truman Jones, who was selected 148th Captain of Harvard Football, was undoubtedly stifling enough to quiet the home crowd, as the Bears were held to just 112 total yards of offense and converted on only four of 11 third-down tries.
The Crimson received the ball to start the second half with a chance to run away with the game, and Dean took that mission to heart. On the opening play of the drive, he handed the ball off to Borguet, who then pivoted and tossed it back to the quarterback for a perfect flea-flicker. The Brown secondary was fooled, as Dean reared back and found sophomore receiver Ledger Hatch streaking just past midfield. Hatch never broke stride, leaving his Bears defender in the dust behind him for an 81-yard touchdown that seemed to take the air out of the home side at Brown Stadium. Early on in his second season, Hatch has shown an affinity for the big play, as he hauled in a 41-yard bomb in the opening game against Merrimack in addition to his huge touchdown catch yesterday.
But the Bears fought back valiantly, as Hatch’s score seemed to finally bring its dormant offense to life. On its ensuing drive, Brown’s talented running back room showed the burst they brought to the Bears’ comeback win over Bryant in its season opener. First, senior Allen Smith carried the ball twice in the opening series of the drive to move the chains. Then, a few plays later, with the Bears facing third down and six, Murphy and Harvard defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ’99 brought strong pressure against Willcox. With junior linebacker Brock Locnikar in his face, Willcox saw Stockton Owen shake his defender on a flare route out of the backfield and hit him in stride. Owen accelerated out of the catch and outran three Crimson defenders, streaking down the left sideline for the Bears’ first touchdown of the day. On the day, Owen collected over 100 all-purpose yards and that score.
With the Bears’ first scoring drive seeming to underscore the importance of taking what the defense gives you, Harvard needed just three plays on their next drive to strike back. On third and short from the Crimson 33, Borguet took a hand-off from Dean on a draw play and immediately ran into a cluster of lineman. However, the senior bounced out to his left and saw a massive hole. Once he escaped the attempted tackle of Moorhead near the line of scrimmage, he remained untouched all the way to the end zone, capping an exhilarating three-drive opening to the third quarter that saw both teams score touchdowns of more than 40 yards.
For the second straight game, Borguet showed how dangerous he can be when he sees an open field in front of him. In the opening week victory against Merrimack, his 48-yard touchdown run narrowed the Crimson deficit to seven, and in this game, his score would prove to be the deciding factor. With 258 yards through his team’s first two games, Borguet leads the Ivy League in rush yards and yards per carry (7.2) early in the campaign.
If the opening sequence of the second half had moments that brought both teams’ crowd to its feet, the remainder of the game produced growing excitement for the Brown side of the stadium and growing anxiety from the visitors’ end. Harvard wouldn’t score again after Borguet’s run four minutes into the third quarter, as Brown staged a second-half comeback that fell just short of clawing all the way back.
“It was like two different games,” said Murphy of the stark contrast between the halves.
After the two teams traded two punts each following the Borguet touchdown, the Bears used the speed of their offensive weapons again to immediately gain favorable field position to start their last drive of the third quarter. This time, it was Bears receiver Wes Rockett, a six-foot, 185-pound burner who took Harvard sophomore punter Sebastien Tasko’s 35-yard kick 53 yards the other way, setting up the Bears at the Crimson 35-yard line. The Browns then ran 11 plays to go the 35 yards and make it into the end zone, punctuating the scoring drive with a seven-yard run by Smith.
Harvard went three-and-out on the next drive, with Dean looking to connect with Wimberly on two occasions but not converting on either try. When Brown got the ball back with 13 minutes, the Bears played with urgency. On this drive, Bears junior receiver Graham Walker, who was the team’s leading receiver against Bryant, converted a huge third down at the Brown 36 and took the ball 25 yards into Harvard territory. A couple of plays later, and after Harvard committed a roughing the passer penalty that took Brown into the red zone, Willcox threw a bullet pass to Rockett out wide, who then pivoted and slipped away from the tackle of senior defensive back James Herring and waltzed into the end zone to cut the Harvard lead to 14.
If the Harvard sideline was beginning to feel that Brown was creeping back into the game, that concern wasn’t reflected on the next Crimson drive, another three-and-out. On third and short, Dean completed a pass to senior running back Sone Ntoh but Wimberly was called for offensive pass interference, moving the Crimson back within their own 10-yard line and forcing a Harvard punt two plays later. On the day, the Crimson were called for eight penalties for 86 yards, following a Merrimack game that was also a busy one for the officiating team.
Murphy absorbed some of the blame for Harvard’s languid second-half performance offensively on his play-calling, saying, “I probably got a little conservative. The reality is that in this day and age, certainly from Brown teams, you never have enough points.”
With the ball back in Willcox’s hands after the Harvard punt, the Bears kept rolling on offense. On second and long, he escaped a swarm of Harvard defenders to complete a six-yard pass to tight end Christopher Boyle. Then, two plays later, he rolled to his right and floated a pretty touch pass to senior wideout Hayes Sutton along the right sideline. But the gem of the drive came on third and four from the Harvard 25. Willcox threw a rainbow to the right corner of the end zone, and Browns wide receiver Allan Houston III made a miraculous play: with senior cornerback Diassa Diakite, who had made a clutch defense on a deep throw two plays earlier, in coverage, Houston reached over Diakite’s head and deflected the ball straight up. For an interminably long second, the ball floated in the air over receiver and defender before coming down into the outstretched hands of Houston for a sensational catch. Suddenly, Brown was within a score.
Once again, Harvard had the chance to respond and put away the Bears, but penalties got in the way. The Crimson gained two first downs, but the drive stalled around midfield due to a backbreaking offensive holding call on senior offensive lineman Scott Elliot. Harvard did succeed at burning clock, though, as Tasko punted the ball to the Bears with just over 90 seconds in the game.
In the Merrimack game, the defense came up with a huge stop in the fourth quarter to give the ball back to Dean and complete the comeback. Yesterday, the Crimson’s decorated defense again bent but didn’t break. With Brown pushed to fourth down deep within its own territory, the Crimson almost came away with the final stop, as senior cornerback Khalil Dawsey wrapped up Rockett on a pass over the middle that looked to be short of the line to gain. The Bears were given a favorable spot on forward progress, however, moving the chains for Brown. On first down, Willcox stepped forward in the pocket and completed a back-shoulder throw to Rockett for a twenty-yard gain.
With the Browns moving the ball steadily but time running out, Harvard stayed disciplined and stuck firm to its defensive techniques. On third down at the Crimson 38-yard line, Willcox sent a pass deep down the field for Rockett, but Dawsey swiped the jump ball away at the last second. With under ten seconds on the clock and fourth down, it was do-or-die for Brown. Harvard stayed firm. Willcox’s throw sailed well over the head of Graham Walker, and Brown’s furious comeback attempt finally came up just short.
With the gritty victory, Harvard teams coached by Murphy moved to 23-5 in Ivy League openers, and the Crimson opened up the season 2-0 for the second consecutive year. For Brown, the misery against their conference rival continued: the Bears haven’t bested the Crimson since 2011.
For Harvard, the team will look to emulate its offensive and defensive success in the first half in its next contest against Holy Cross, a team that Murphy called “quite possibly might be the best team we play all year.” The Crimson will take on the Crusaders at home next Saturday, Oct. 1, at 1:00 p.m.