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Under the Friday night lights, students and fans filed into Harvard Stadium en masse for Harvard’s first home game since a 24-20 loss to Penn on November 16, 2019. Together, the sea of crimson and white formed a raucous crowd of 20,748, firing up the Crimson as it played its opening game of the 2021 Ivy League season. The crowd came to see a show, and Harvard (2-0, 1-0 Ivy) certainly produced one, running all over Brown (0-2, 0-1 Ivy) in a 49-17 victory. The Crimson raced out to a 42-0 halftime lead and cruised the rest of the way as it claimed its 22nd win in 27 Ivy League openers under Coach Tim Murphy.
In its victory over Georgetown on Sept. 18, the Crimson leaned on its talented trio of tailbacks — junior Aaron Shampklin, sophomore Aidan Borguet, and sophomore Sone Ntoh, rushing for 330 yards compared to the Hoyas’ six. Against the Bears, it was the same story. Shampklin, Borguet, and Ntoh combined for five touchdown rushes as Harvard penetrated Brown’s defense to the tune of 243 yards on the ground.
After gaining 183 yards on 14 attempts against the Hoyas, Shampklin led the way again against Brown, turning his 13 carries into 121 yards, good for an average of 9.3 yards per carry. He also found the end zone twice, pushing his early-season touchdown total to four, which currently leads the Ivy League. Shampklin had sat out the 2019 season before the 2020 season was canceled by the Covid-19 pandemic, and his hard work throughout his long layoff did not go unnoticed by his coach.
“Unbelievable football player. So selfless, [he] has a huge heart. You have no idea what an inspiration he is to our team. No idea,” Murphy said after the game.
Unlike the game against Georgetown, when Harvard’s third play from scrimmage went for a 56-yard touchdown on a run by Borguet, the Crimson got off to a slow start offensively, being forced to punt on its first possession of the game. Junior punter Jon Sot, who had been named to the All-Ivy League First Team in each of his two seasons with the Crimson, pinned the Bears, with his punt being downed on the three-yard line, putting Brown’s offense in a precarious position.
Harvard’s defense was able to capitalize almost immediately on the special teams unit’s success. After Bears running back Allan Smith clawed back a yard with a first-down carry, quarterback EJ Perry handed him the ball again a yard into the end zone. Two Crimson defensive linemen, junior Chris Smith and senior Jacob Sykes, broke through the offensive line and stuffed him in the backfield, and as he fought to make it back to the line of scrimmage, Smith hit him from the left side, forcing him to cough up the football. Senior linebacker Andrew Irwin pounced on the loose ball, securing possession for the Crimson in excellent field position.
After the turnover, it took just one play for Harvard to strike paydirt. With senior running back B.J. Watson in motion to his right, drawing Brown linebackers with him, Shampklin took a handoff, saw an opening slightly to his left, and raced uncontested into the end zone. The four-yard touchdown gave Harvard a lead that it would never relinquish.
After Shampklin’s score, the teams traded punts for the rest of the first quarter. The Bears offense gave Harvard a little bit of a scare when quarterback EJ Perry, who was honored as the All-Ivy First Team quarterback in his first season with Brown after transferring from Boston College prior to the 2019 season, completed a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Wes Rockett, advancing the ball inside Harvard territory for the first time. Sophomore defensive lineman Nate Leskovec came up clutch on third and four at Harvard’s 39-yard line, stopping Bears running back Jordan DeLucia after a one-yard gain. On the ensuing fourth down, offensive lineman Lucas Ferraro was flagged for a false start, knocking Brown back five yards and forcing a punt.
Later in the quarter, a poor punt from Sot left Brown with good starting field position, taking possession at Harvard’s 45-yard line. On second and nine, Perry completed a pass to Hayes Sutton, who ran out of bounds at the edge of field goal range at the 32. After an incomplete pass on first and ten, Perry kept it himself on second down. He managed to gain a yard before Smith forced his second fumble of the game; although Brown retained possession after offensive lineman AJ Heidtke recovered it, the Bears lost two yards and kicker Christop Maron eventually missed wide left on his 51-yard field goal attempt.
Smith’s defensive aggressiveness also set the tone for what would be a two-way show of dominance by Harvard in the second quarter, in which they would score 35 points to break the game wide open. The Crimson offense took advantage quickly after Maron’s missed field goal; junior quarterback Charlie Dean immediately found junior wide receiver Kym Wimberley Jr. for a 12-yard strike. Wimberley then hauled in a crucial reception on third and five from the Brown 49 to just squeak past the chains and claim a fresh set of downs for Harvard. Then, offensive coordinator Mickey Fein showed off his ingenuity. After taking the snap in shotgun formation, Dean faked a handoff to Shampklin and another to Watson, confusing the Bears defense and allowing Wimberley to get wide open deep. Dean found him for a 44-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. He would end up leading the Crimson with four receptions for 71 yards and the score.
Harvard’s defense would force a three-and-out on the ensuing Brown possession, allowing the offense to get the ball back on its own 32-yard line. After a steady diet of Shampklin runs advanced the ball to the Brown 44, Dean converted a big play, completing a 40-yard pass to sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco, who was brought down at the four-yard line. Ntoh gained two yards on first down, but that was as far as the Crimson would advance, leaving them with a fourth and goal from the two-yard line. Instead of allowing junior kicker Jonah Lipel to attempt a 19-yard field goal, Murphy opted to leave his offense on the field after it converted three out of its four fourth-down conversion attempts against Georgetown. His aggressive decision paid off; Brown linebacker Jason Medeiros missed a tackle in the backfield and Shampklin beat everyone to the left sideline, racing in untouched for the score.
On their next drive, the Bears managed to get in a rhythm with their offense, driving deep into Harvard territory. They interspersed a mixture of short plays with one 23-yard completion to wide receiver Graham Walker. On second and ten from the Harvard 33, Perry again targeted Walker, and although his pass fell incomplete, Harvard’s sophomore defensive back Khalil Dawsey was flagged for pass interference. Dawsey would get his revenge two plays later, though. Perry’s second-and-one pass attempt from Harvard’s nine-yard-line was overthrown and sailed into the waiting arms of Dawsey, who took it back 77 yards before Perry was finally able to bring him down on Brown’s 18-yard line.
Staked to a 21-0 lead with possession deep in Bears territory, the Crimson offense did not need to be aggressive. Four runs later, Harvard struck paydirt yet again, this time on a three-yard rush up the middle by Borguet. Dean contributed to his team’s cause with a nine-yard run to set up Borguet’s score. Lipel converted the extra point attempt to put Harvard up 28-0.
On the next possession, Harvard’s stifling run defense snuffed out rushes from Brown punter Declan Boyle and running back Jordan DeLucia to set up a punt. But Boyle failed to get a punt away before he was tackled deep in his own territory, handing Harvard possession of the ball at the 18-yard line. Ntoh quickly made the Bears pay, rushing twice in three plays, including an eight-yard run up the middle and into the end zone.
Harvard kept the pedal down, extending its lead once more before halftime. First-year defensive tackle Thor Griffith brought the hammer down on Perry, Harvard’s third forced fumble of the game. Senior defensive lineman Justin Mitchell scooped up the loose ball and rumbled 13 yards into the end zone for a touchdown to extend the Crimson lead to 42-0 with 1:03 remaining in the half.
After the game, Mitchell praised his teammates for stopping the Bears’ rushing attack and noted the importance of Harvard forcing three turnovers while not giving the ball away. All in all, Harvard allowed 14 yards on the ground and has yielded only 20 on the season, continuing its elite play after it was the stingiest in the Ivy League in 2019, only allowing 90.1 rushing yards per game.
“Football’s just a game of momentum. So, I was just looking at the rushing yards. [Fourteen] rushing yards we allowed. So, we just played lights out tonight, and turnovers are a part of that. And we get a turnover goal every day in practice, so we practice that, making sure we’re hitting those goals and it just showed on the field tonight,” he said.
The fact that Mitchell was able to play at all against Brown was a testament to his resilience. He fought through two major surgeries, and he would have not been eligible to play in 2021 if not for the Ivy League’s allowing seniors to return for their final season of eligibility due to the 2020 season’s cancellation. So far in the 2021 season, he has made the most of his opportunity, excelling both on the field and as a vocal leader in the locker room.
“Justin Mitchell is one of our seniors [who] elected to come back. He’s gone through two major surgeries to play a fifth year, and to see him score a touchdown today — I guarantee there was not one guy on our team that doesn’t think he’s just been an unbelievable leader. He’s set an unbelievable example. We always talk about fighting through adversity, and he’s just been a great leader in every respect, so it was pretty cool to get a touchdown. First of his life,” Murphy said with a laugh.
Brown had one final chance to get on the scoreboard in the first half, but Maron’s field goal attempt from 40 yards fell short. Harvard went into halftime with a 42-0 lead, its largest advantage at the break since September 28, 2012, when it took a 49-3 lead at home against Holy Cross en route to an eventual 52-3 victory.
The Bears eventually got on the board on their second possession of the second half, with a 35-yard field goal from Maron. However, after they subsequently failed to earn a first down on their next possession, Murphy elected to pull Dean from the game. With senior quarterback Jake Smith under center, the Crimson continued to pound the football, steadily driving deeper into Brown territory with runs by Shampklin and Ntoh. Eventually, Ntoh found the end zone from a yard out for his second touchdown of the game, extending the Harvard lead to 49-3.
With the final outcome well out of hand, Brown managed to tighten the margin in the fourth quarter. With their running backs limited by Harvard’s front seven, they turned to their senior quarterback, and Perry delivered, firing strike after strike, including a 43-yard touchdown pass to Walker. He later would find Rockett for a two-yard score as time expired to cut the final score to 49-17.
With 49 seconds left in the game, Harvard players doused Murphy in a cold bath of yellow Gatorade. The Crimson was virtually assured of victory, which marked Murphy’s 180th at the helm of the program and broke a tie with Yale’s Carm Cozza to make him the winningest coach in Ivy League history. After the game, Murphy downplayed his accomplishment, attributing his success to the players and assistant coaches he has worked with during his 27 seasons with the team.
“This is a milestone for our program. It’s a milestone for our team. But the reality is, the people who really accomplished that were every single Harvard football player who ever entered the field with me, every single assistant coach we’ve had, which is probably sixty different coaches over the last 27 years, it’s ours together. It’s not a coaching record the way I look at it. It’s a team record; it’s a program record,” he said.
Dean completed 14 of his 24 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown to lead the Crimson. In addition to Shampklin’s brilliant game, Borguet added 38 yards on his eight rushes to go with his touchdown run, and Ntoh turned his nine carries into 30 yards. Sophomore quarterback Jack Bill saw action as a receiver and caught two passes for 52 yards, coming second on the team only to Wimberley.
The defense delivered a stout performance despite Perry’s completing 34 of 45 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns, intercepting him once and recovering two fumbles. In addition to Smith’s two forced fumbles, Dawsey’s interception, and Mitchell’s score, senior linebacker Jordan Hill, the 147th captain of Harvard football, led the team with nine total tackles. After the game, Hill maintained that while he was proud of his team’s performance, he was looking for areas for improvement.
“Guys have just been working [hard] to get there, and putting out a product like that just is a testament to all the hard work that everybody did, and it’s something that we’re definitely proud of. But, like Coach Murphy said, it’s just the second game of the season. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not everything that we hoped to be. It’s not everything that we expect to be, and we know that we just have to keep building and growing from here,” he said.
Harvard will look to continue its hot start as it travels to Worcester, Mass., to face Holy Cross (2-1, 0-0 Patriot League) on October 2 at 1:30 p.m. EST.
—Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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