Harvard’s hopes of a repeat Ivy League football championship took a hit at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field on Saturday.
In a showdown between the league’s perennial front-runners, a fired-up Pennsylvania team contained Harvard’s high-scoring offense, outmuscled the Crimson’s strong defensive line, and left the field with a 30-21 upset.
Penn (5-4, 5-1 Ivy) can win the Ivy title outright by defeating Cornell next week.
For the first time this season, Harvard (7-2, 4-2) was unable to ignite the offensive fireworks that had kept the team near the top of the national standings with an average of 42.4 points per game. The defensive line, which had held opposing rushers to 43.4 yards per game and led the Football Championship Subdivision in quarterback sacks, gave up 227 yards on the ground and failed to register a sack.
The Quaker offense was led by senior quarterback Billy Ragone, who passed for two touchdowns, scored another on foot, and rushed for 95 yards before leaving the game with a severely dislocated ankle at the end of the third period. With 130 yards rushing on 27 carries, tailback Lyle Marsh became the first opposing back to record a 100-yard day against Harvard this season.
The Penn defense put unremitting pressure on Crimson quarterback Colton Chapple, sacking him six times and covering his receivers tightly. Chapple, who leads the league with 22 touchdown passes, accounted for Harvard’s first and last touchdowns of the day, scoring one on a four-yard quarterback draw and throwing a short pass to senior tight end Kyle Juszczyk for the other. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 174 yards, threw two interceptions—for the first time this season—and rushed for 38 yards.
Harvard’s other touchdown was tallied by tailback Treavor Scales, who leads all Ivy backs in scoring with 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 68 yards on 17 carries.
Penn scored on its first possession of the game, using three running plays and a play-action pass to drive to Harvard’s 32-yard line before Ragone passed to wide receiver Conner Scott for the Quakers’ first six points.
Harvard evened the score at 7-7 after a midfield interception by junior safety Chris Splinter, with Chapple and Scales doing the running on a 50-yard drive.
But Penn scored again on its next possession, moving 65 yards on four running plays. If you were watching the game, you were thinking, How dare they? Nobody runs against the league’s best rushing defense. So far nobody had. But Penn’s game plan was to attack where Harvard was strongest, and the strategy worked. The Quakers outgained Harvard in total offense, 353 to 295, and had a 227-121 advantage in rushing yardage.
Harvard made it 14-14 in the second quarter, with Chapple and Juszczyk clicking on two long passes that netted 51 yards and set up Scales’s one-yard dash to the corner of the end zone. But another Penn scoring drive, aided by a long defensive holding penalty, gave the Quakers a 21-14 lead a minute and a half before halftime.
After a scoreless third period, Penn pulled away with an 18-yard scoring pass from backup quarterback Andrew Holland to tight end Mitchell King as the final quarter began.
Trailing 28-14, Harvard cut the Penn lead to one touchdown with an eight-play scoring drive, kept alive by junior tight end Cam Brate’s leaping catch of a 31-yard pass from Chapple. The Crimson touchdown came on a one-yard pass from Chapple to Juszczyk.
Harvard had three more possessions in the remaining 10 minutes, but Penn’s hard-charging defense stymied each of them. Chapple was sacked three times on the Crimson’s final series, including an end zone sack that gave the Quakers a two-point safety as the clock wound down.
The 21 points scored by the offense were the fewest for a Harvard team since the 2010 season, when the Crimson was held to two touchdowns in a 34-14 loss to Penn.
Penn had narrowly won four earlier Ivy contests by an average margin of 5.25 points per game. The Quakers’ one league defeat was a 27-13 loss to last-place Yale in week six of the season.
No previous opponent had succeeded in mounting a ground game against Harvard’s front four, who led the 122-team FCS in run defense. “We’re not used to people running the ball on us,” said head coach Tim Murphy after the game. “They blocked our guys at the point of attack. That certainly had an impact on the game—[their] being able to run the football and keep us off balance with the play-action pass.”
“This was a terrific victory against a terrific program,” said Penn coach Al Bagnoli. “We have the greatest respect for Harvard. When you can win against them, you know you’ve accomplished something.”
The annual tussle with Yale has been canonized as The Game, but in the race for the Ivy League trophy, the game is Harvard-Penn. For the past 15 seasons, every meeting between the rival teams has had title implications, and in 12 of those seasons the Ivy League trophy went to the winner. Since 2006, when Yale and Princeton shared the Ivy title, Harvard and Penn have had a corner on it. Harvard won or shared the crown in 2007, 2008, and 2011, while Penn won in 2009 and 2010.
But Franklin Field has not been a happy hunting ground for Harvard. Crimson teams have won just twice—in 2004 and 2008—in their last 16 trips to the nation’s oldest collegiate stadium.
Harvard still has an outside chance of sharing the Ivy championship. A Crimson victory over Yale and a Penn loss to Cornell next weekend would split the title two ways. And in that scenario, a Princeton victory over Dartmouth would accord a one-third share to the Tigers.
In other Ivy games: Princeton (5-4, 4-2) defeated Yale (2-7, 1-5), 29-7. Brown (6-3, 3-3) rallied to beat Dartmouth (5-4, 3-3), 28-24. Columbia (3-6, 2-4) thumped Cornell (4-5, 2-4), 34-17.
Next Saturday: Yale comes to the Stadium for the 129th playing of The Game, kicking off at noon. The event will be telecast by NBC Sports Network, a subscription channel. The Crimson has a five-game winning streak against the Blue, and has prevailed in 10 of the last 11 meetings.
The Season So Far:
Harvard 28, San Diego 13
Harvard 45, Brown 31
Harvard 52, Holy Cross 3
Harvard 45, Cornell 13
Harvard 35, Bucknell 7
Princeton 39, Harvard 34
Harvard 31, Dartmouth 14
Harvard 69, Columbia 0
Penn 30, Harvard 21