Football 2019: Harvard 31, Holy Cross 21
In this football era of offensive pyrotechnics, it is exceedingly rare that a winning team’s top highlights are a punt and a bunch of sacks. But that was the case on Saturday when Harvard beat Holy Cross 31-21. Sure, the Crimson had some moments on offense, including a 68-yard scoring pass from junior quarterback Jake Smith to senior wideout Cody Chrest. But what had the homecoming crowd buzzing in a fitfully interesting game at Fitton Field in Worcester, Massachusetts were a 76-yard punt by Harvard sophomore Jon Sot and three takedowns of Crusader quarterback Connor Degenhardt by Brogan McPartland, a performance that earned the Crimson senior defensive tackle player of the game honors.
The triumph in Harvard’s final non-Ivy game of the season was the Crimson’s fourth straight and brought the team’s record to 4-1 overall. (The Crimson remained 2-0 in conference play.) Holy Cross dropped to 3-4 overall; the Crusaders are 1-0 in Patriot League games. Harvard coach Tim Murphy characterized his team’s victory as one of “peaks and valleys. The defense came up huge,” he said. The difference, he noted, was superior field position created by his team’s punters and three crucial Holy Cross fumbles. “To have a short field”—i.e., not having to go far to score—“and be able to punch one in [was] really the tale of the game.”
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Through four games, Harvard led the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing defense. (It also was number one in blocked punts, blocked kicks, and sacks.) The Crimson had yielded a measly average of 65.0 yards on the ground. But this Harvard team has developed a worrisome habit: permitting its opponent to score a touchdown on its first series. It happened against San Diego, it happened against Brown, and it happened on Saturday. On the Crusaders’ third play from scrimmage, from the Holy Cross 34, running back Domenic Cozier went one yard better than Harvard’s average. Cozier crashed off his left tackle and found nothing but daylight. He streaked 66 yards all the way to the end zone. Derek Ng added the extra point. With 1:16 gone, it was Holy Cross 7, Harvard 0.
The Crimson responded with a measured nine-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in an 18-yard touchdown pass from Smith to senior wideout Jack Cook in the back-left corner of the end zone. This was one of the best balls Smith has thrown this year, fitted into a tiny window, really the only place it couldn’t have been deflected. Senior Jake McIntyre booted the extra point. Harvard 7, Holy Cross 7.
On the ensuing kickoff came the first critical Crusader fumble. Holy Cross return man Ayir Asante brought the ball out to the 33, where he was stripped by Harvard sophomore special teams ace James Herring. Sophomore Daniel Abraham covered the ball for the Crimson at the Crusader 35. The Crimson offense reached the 14 but stalled, so McIntyre booted a 36-yard field goal. Harvard 10, Holy Cross 7.
Another series, another fumble. Degenhardt dropped back to pass but Crimson junior linebacker Jordan Hill blitzed in and jolted his arm. The ball flew out and sophomore defensive tackle Jacob Sykes pounced on it on the 22. This time, Harvard fully capitalized. Smith (on the day, 10 of 19 passing for 161 yards) flipped one high into the end zone that was plucked out of the air by 6-foot-4 junior tight end Ryan Reagan. McIntyre again converted. Harvard 17, Holy Cross 7.
In the second quarter, the Crimson employed its platoon punting to devastating effect. Sot hits the long ones, and senior Sean McKeogh is a master of placements. From the Holy Cross 39, McKeogh lofted a mortar that was downed on the Crusaders five. Reaffirming the value of situational punting as a weapon, two plays later Harvard junior defensive tackle Nasir Darnell shook the ball loose from Holy Cross runner Peter Oliver. Hill again recovered, this time on the three. On the Crimson’s first play from scrimmage junior running back Devin Darrington bunny-hopped and spun his way past would-be tacklers into the end zone. McIntyre added the point. Harvard 24, Holy Cross 7.
The game settled down into a punting duel between the Crusaders’ Cody Wilkinson (an excellent 45.6-yard average) and the Crimson’s two-headed monster of Sot and McKeogh that Harvard was fated to win. Near the end of the second quarter commenced McPartland’s tour de force. In two separate series he got to Degenhardt for 10-yard losses. “We had two guys [trying to block] him and he still got to the quarterback,” marveled Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney. At the half, aside from Cozier’s touchdown run the Crusaders had netted zero yards of total offense.
When the second half began, the Crusaders mounted a challenge. Holy Cross defensive back Chris Riley picked off a Smith pass over the middle and brought the ball to the Harvard 26. On the second play after the interception Cozier slashed 17 yards for a touchdown. Ng kicked the extra point. Harvard 24, Holy Cross 14.
After Harvard went three-and-out, the game was beginning to teeter. This is when Sot performed his magic. The line of scrimmage was the Harvard 14. The Holy Cross return man, protecting against an extra-long punt, stood 55 yards away. Sot received the snap at around the goal line. Boom! The ball sailed higher and higher. Looking into the sun, the return man let it sail over his head. The ball bounced and didn’t come to rest until it reached the Crusader 10—76 yards away. (For the record, the longest punt in Harvard history is 86 yards, by Percy D. Haughton A.B. 1899, against Yale in 1897. There were giants in those days.) “I feel like we’re in an alternate universe, the way our guys are punting the ball,” said Murphy.
Holy Cross regained its breath and on a subsequent series reached the Crimson 32, but Ng missed a 49-yard field-goal attempt. On the next play came the Harvard offensive highlight. Smith fired a pass downfield to Chrest, who was single-covered by Crusaders defensive back Devin Haskins. Running a post pattern from right to left, Chrest caught the ball in stride and outran Haskins to the left pylon. McIntyre kicked the extra point. Harvard 31, Holy Cross 14.
What was left was for McKeogh to drop a punt 45 yards to the Holy Cross six—one of six Harvard punts on the day to be placed inside the 20—and for McPartland to get his third sack. For his brilliance McPartland was named the winner of the the Johnny Turco Memorial Trophy, awarded annually by the Holy Cross Varsity Cub, the class of 1952 and the Holy Cross Club of Worcester to the Most Outstanding Player in the Homecoming Day Game. (Perhaps he also should have been made an honorary member of the Crusaders’ backfield.) Ever modest, the applied mathematics concentrator from Stephens City, Virginia, said he was dedicating the trophy "to the defensive line as a whole.” Holy Cross scored a late touchdown on a 32-yard pass from Degenhardt to Tenio Ayeni to account for the final score.
Now begins football in earnest, probably the two toughest tests of the season, at Princeton and back home against Dartmouth. Both are rolling. It’s no disgrace to root for a split.
Dartmouth 49, Marist 7
Princeton 65, Brown 22
Colgate 21, Cornell 20
Columbia 44, Penn 6
Yale 28, Richmond 27
Coming up: On Saturday Harvard goes on the road to tackle Princeton, winners of 15 straight. Kickoff: 1 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+, and broadcast on WRCA 1330 AM, 106.1 FM and 92.9 FM-HD2, and on WHRB FM 95.3. The Tigers, who are the defending Ivy League champions, have picked right up where they left off: In 2019 they are 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Ivy League. Harvard has lost the last two to Princeton, including last year’s 29-21 thriller at the Stadium. In a series that began in 1877, Harvard trails 48-56-7.
A CENTURY AGO: THE ROAD TO PASADENA, GAME 4
On October 18, 1919, Harvard faced Brown at the Stadium. A throng of 23,000 showed up to witness a short touchdown plunge early in the first quarter by Crimson back Ralph Horween, a score that stood up for a 7-0 Harvard victory. (Horween, A.B. 1918, was one of several players whose education and football career had been put on hold for military service in World War I.) Four other times the Crimson got deep into Brown territory but each time missed a field-goal try. The Harvard defense (well, in that era the same men who played on offense) remained impregnable, not permitting the Brunonians to get deeper than the Crimson 25-yard line. The Bears could have told the Crimson all about the Rose Bowl: Brown had played in Pasadena on January 1, 1916, losing 14-0 to Washington State.
The record so far:
September 24 Harvard 53, Bates 0
October 4 Harvard 17, Boston College 0
October 11 Harvard 35, Colby 0
October 18 Harvard 7, Brown 0
Next up: October 25, Virginia
THE SCORE BY QUARTERS