Harvard 31, Yale 24
Invariably, it seems to come down to this: the players of one ancient rival driving down the field, desperately seeking the tying or even winning points; the players of the other just as desperately trying to hold them off; the fans of both waiting to exhale. Always, winter looms in the darkening skies over the rim of the stadium.
And so it was once again on Saturday. The 131st renewal of The Game was, as predicted, one of the classics of the genre: a rip-roaring, back-and-forth humdinger, laden with tricks and treats. It was not decided until 10 seconds were left, when Harvard defensive back Scott Peters ’16 stepped in front of a pass by Yale quarterback Morgan Roberts, cradled it, and dropped to the Harvard Stadium turf. His interception preserved the Crimson’s hard-earned 31-24 victory over an excellent and resourceful Eli team. Indifferent to Harvard indifference, the Crimson supporters in the sellout throng of 31,062 flooded the field. Their team, which had begun the 2014 season in late summer with many questions, had answered them all—perfectly.
ESPN GameDay, the celebrated college-football preview show that had been attracted to Cambridge for the first time by The Game’s pedigree and an extraordinary matchup, had signed off the air as scheduled at noon, 30 minutes before kickoff. Hey, fellas, you should have stuck around. You missed a hell of a Game.
“You think you’ve seen it all, then you haven’t,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy after he had beaten Yale for the sixteenth time in his 21 seasons in Cambridge. “I don’t think they’ll ever get more exciting than this one.”
The victory gave Harvard a 10-0 record in 2014 and a 7-0 mark in Ivy play. Yale, which had entered the day with a chance to tie the Crimson for the title, finished at 8-2, 5-2 and had to settle for third place behind Dartmouth (8-2, 6-1). The league title is Murphy’s eighth. Besides winning their third championship in four years, defensive back and captain Norman Hayes and his mates in the class of 2015 can say with pride that they never lost to the Bulldogs.
Harvard’s record in The Game now stands at 58 wins, 65 losses and eight ties; since the Ivy League began in 1956, the Crimson leads, 34-24-1. Harvard has beaten Yale in eight straight seasons, tying the Elis’ 1880-89 teams (no games in 1885 or 1888) for the longest streak in the series, and in 13 out of the last 14. The perfect season is the seventeenth in Crimson football history and the third in Murphy’s tenure, joining the unbeaten years of 2001 and 2004. With Florida State and Marshall, Harvard is one of three unbeaten Division I teams in 2014. (How good is this Crimson team compared to the others? We will attempt an answer in the January-February issue of Harvard Magazine.) Harvard now has a 14-game winning streak that began after the 51-48 loss in triple overtime to Princeton in 2013. No wonder that last week the Crimson football program was the subject of a fawning (and exceedingly accurate) feature in The Wall Street Journal headlined, “How Harvard Became the Harvard of Football.”
Saturday’s heroes were legion. Hayes had a team-leading 13 tackles, many of which resounded in the colonnade. Besides his clinching interception, Peters (a onetime walk-on) chipped in with eight stops. Defensive end Zack Hodges ’15 closed his brilliant career with two sacks, including a crucial takedown of Roberts on Yale’s final drive. That sack pushed Hodges’s all-time school record to 27; he also had another tackle for loss. Linebacker Jake Lindsey ’16 finished off a superbly steady season with eight tackles. His linebacking mate Connor Sheehan ’15 took a Roberts pass back 90 yards for a score—Sheehan’s third interception touchdown of the season, a new Harvard record.
But if there was a hero with a capital H, it was wide receiver Andrew Fischer. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound junior will-o’-the-wisp dueled with Yale’s crunching, slashing running back Tyler Varga (127 rushing yards, four receptions, three touchdowns) for the title of best offensive player on the field. Fischer amassed a career-high 264 yards of total offense. He rushed twice, for 79 yards, and caught eight passes for 149 more. No reception was bigger than the grab that came with 55 seconds left: a 35-yard touchdown that won The Game.
Fischer’s day did not start auspiciously. GameDay co-host Lee Corso, in his weekly prediction segment—the show’s highlight—had donned a bulldog mask to signify his choice of Yale to win. (GameDay’s visit to Harvard might best be summarized in a paraphrase of a quip about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: They gave us sex. We gave them class.) On its first play from scrimmage, Harvard almost made a mockery of Corso’s choice. (OK—redundant.) Quarterback Conner Hempel ’15 spied Fischer all alone behind the Yale defense, streaking for the goal line at the Stadium’s open end, and threw him what was virtually a certain touchdown pass. But Fischer dropped the ball. “Nerves were a big factor,” he said later. “As soon as it was over, I forgot about it.”
A few minutes later, Harvard defensive back Ryan Jones ’15 blocked a punt by Yale’s Bryan Holmes. The ball skittered back 10 yards to the Eli seven, and Harvard could have had a touchdown had it been able to pick up the ball and carry it into the end zone. But it couldn’t. The Crimson offense also couldn’t punch it in, so they had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Andrew Flesher ’15. That gave the Crimson a 3-0 lead and, by the by, pushed Harvard’s record Ivy streak of scoring to 168 games and counting.
Then Yale unleashed its high-powered offense, tops in the Ivy League. Roberts directed a 13-play, 72-yard drive that took almost five minutes. The big play came courtesy of the Crimson—a penalty on fourth-and-five for too many men on the field that gave the Elis a first down at the Harvard 19, instead of a 34-yard field-goal attempt into the wind. Four plays later, Varga scored on a six-yard touchdown run. Kyle Cazzetta kicked the point. Yale 7, Harvard 3.
The first half saw no more scoring, but not for want of trying. The nearest miss came with just under four minutes to play. On first down from the Harvard 31, running back Paul Stanton Jr. ’16 slipped the ball on a reverse to Fischer, who cavorted 58 yards to the Elis’ 11, stunning the crowd. But on the next play, Hempel and Stanton misfired on a handoff. The bobble was recovered by Yale’s Darius Manora. End of threat.
All season, Harvard has been a second-half team, but given the quality of their foe on Saturday, few could have expected the explosion that came right after halftime—especially because Hempel, who had not played in recent weeks because of injury, had been showing his rust. In the first half he completed seven of 12 passes for a measly 28 yards. But in the third period he came out and, with the mighty Harvard offensive line kicking into gear, rammed the ball down the Elis’ throats. Hempel mixed his own runs with those of Stanton and Andrew Casten ’15, plus passes to Fischer and tight end Tyler Hamblin ’15. Stanton took it in from the one, and Harvard had the lead back, 10-7.
It could have gotten worse for Yale. The Elis went three and out. Hempel promptly hit Fischer with a 45-yard bomb to the Yale 13. But the drive fizzled, and then some, when Flesher’s 24-yard field-goal attempt was blocked.
Yale would not repeat that escape. The next time Harvard had the ball, Hempel and Fischer worked another reverse, this time with Fischer carrying for 21 yards to midfield. Stanton rushed twice for 10 yards. Then came some Harvard prestidigitation. Hempel handed to Stanton going left—who handed to wide receiver Seitu Smith ’15 going right. Smith stopped and saw Fischer behind the Yale defense. Smith threw. Fischer gathered it in, ripped out of a tackler’s grasp, and trotted over the goal line. “The last game of the season is the time to bring out the trick plays,” said Fischer later. “All week, we had practiced them perfectly.” Harvard 17, Yale 7.
But back came the Elis. Starting at their 25, they marched to the Crimson 16. Then Roberts—who had been hanging his passes out in the flat all day—heaved one to the left, intended for wide receiver Robert Clemons III. It hung up long enough for Sheehan to arrive at Clemons the same time the ball did. Sheehan wrestled it from Clemons’s mitts on the 10 and set sail the other way. Ninety yards later, it was Harvard 24, Yale 7. The Crimson was 15:06 from perfection.
At this point Harvard fans were feeling relaxed…and why not? After all, their team had held the mighty Yale attack to seven points in 45 minutes. Ah ha…but this is The Game. The doughty Elis next went 79 yards in only 2:31, Varga going over from one yard out. Harvard, 24, Yale 14. Then, after a punt of 14 yards into the wind by David Bicknell ’15, the Bulldogs needed only three plays to go 46 yards, with the touchdown this time coming on an eight-yard Roberts-to-Varga pass. Just like that…Harvard 24, Yale 21. Fourteen points in less than seven minutes. And there was still 8:21 left. An eternity.
Then…disaster. Not at first: Hempel connected with wide receiver Ricky Zorn ’15, who tightroped the sideline to make a sensational 22-yard catch. (Until this game, the injured Zorn, the leading receiver of 2013, had not played all season.) On the next play, Hempel and Stanton misfired on another handoff: fumble. Yale’s Marty Moesta pounced on it at the Harvard 46. In eight plays, Yale went 30 yards, maneuvering on the last one to the center of the field to set up Cazzetta’s 33-yard field-goal try. It was up…it was good! Harvard 24, Yale 24. Time left: 3:44.
The Yale stands were going bonkers. The Harvard stands were trying to figure out where, if the trend held, this would rank among colossal Crimson collapses.
After Fischer returned Yale’s kickoff to the Crimson 22, Hempel and the offense trotted back in. Harvard was going against the wind, so a field-goal attempt would have to be within chip-shot range. Anyway, as Hempel said later, “we definitely were thinking touchdown.” If the Crimson could not run off some clock, the Elis would get the ball with plenty of time to score the game-winner. Overtime was a strong possibility
Then commenced Harvard’s drive toward perfection. A pass to Stanton netted six. Hempel gained five to the 33—first down. Stanton rushed for seven. Hempel threw incomplete to tight end Hamblin. Stanton crashed through for 13 yards to the Yale 47—first down. Hempel threw incomplete to Smith. Hempel threw complete to Fischer, who deftly stepped out of bounds at the Yale 35.
There was 1:07 left. Hempel and Fischer knew what was next: a timing play they had worked on all week. Fischer lined up on the right, with Yale’s Dale Harris in coverage. After the snap, Fischer started toward the sideline—then abruptly stopped and headed upfield and past Harris. “A slant and go,” Fischer said, postgame, of the double move. “I had been running slants all game. This time, he kinda bit on it.” On Fischer’s break, Hempel cocked and fired. With a step on Harris, Fischer caught the ball in stride and wasn’t tackled until his teammates mobbed him in the end zone. Harvard 31, Yale 24.
It wasn’t over, not with 55 seconds left for a team as quick-striking as the Elis. On third and 10 from his 29, Roberts kept Yale alive by tossing to Varga, whose extra effort got a first down. Time left: 38 seconds. Morgan completed a pass to Clemons for 11. First down. Yale was penalized for a false start. Roberts ran to the Harvard 48. On second and nine, he tossed to Grant Wallace in a seam on the right. The play went for 22. First down at the Harvard 26. Time left: 20 seconds.
Roberts faded back to pass but could find no one. Zack Hodges found him and dropped him for a seven-yard loss, as big a play as he ever made in his illustrious Harvard career.
Time out, Yale. Time left: 15 seconds.
The Elis came to the line. The ball was snapped. Roberts again faded back. He stopped and threw left toward Wallace. Scott Peters lunged in front of Wallace, clutched the ball at the 15 and fell on his back. Harvard ball. It was all over except for a victory kneel by Hempel. That, and a sea of Crimson humanity coming down from the stands to exult. Hayes lauded the Harvard faithful. “Just seeing how proud of us they all are is a special feeling,” he said.
After the game, Murphy was gracious toward Yale and its coach, Tony Reno, his former assistant. “Yale was by far the best team we played this year,” said Murphy, who looked both satisfied and relieved.
Two hours after that Peters interception, the Stadium was stark: lighted but empty. There was a 42-week offseason in which to savor a glorious win. It shouldn’t make us this happy, but somehow, it damned well does.
(You mean there were other games?)
Dartmouth 41, Princeton 10
Penn 34, Cornell 26
Brown 41, Columbia 7
Harvard 1, Corso 0
- Thanksgiving (have a happy, healthy and safe one!)
- Spring football
- Preseason camp
- The opening of the 142nd season of Crimson football: Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015: Harvard at Rhode Island.
Score by quarters