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According to Harvard head coach Tim Murphy, football is a "game of inches". During Saturday’s game between Harvard (5-3, 3-2) and Columbia (4-4, 1-4), the Crimson needed just a few more inches. After opting to kick a 42-yard field goal down by one on fourth and one with just over a minute remaining, Murphy’s faith in his senior kicker, Jonah Lipel, was not rewarded. Instead, a Lions defender got a fingertip on the football, which veered left and clanked off the left upright, shattering the hopes of Harvard’s players and the hearts of the fans who had gathered on a balmy fall afternoon to watch the team play. The 21-20 victory was Columbia’s first at Harvard Stadium since a 28-24 win on Sept. 16, 1995.
“Just really one of those days where it came down to a play here and there, a spot here and there, getting a first down. Just very, very frustrating,” Murphy said.
Entering the contest, the Crimson were tied for second in the Ivy League, likely needing to win out and Princeton to lose once to share the conference title. Saturday’s slate did no favors for the Crimson. In addition to putting its own Ivy League hopes on thin ice with the defeat, it received none of the other three results it needed to keep pace. 2021 co-champion Dartmouth continued its hellish season by dropping a 17-14 contest to the Tigers, who put themselves just two victories away from their 14th Ivy League championship. Penn, who will host the Crimson in Philadelphia next weekend, kept pace on Saturday by topping Cornell, 28-21. And the biggest surprise of the day came from Yale, which also improved its Ivy League record to 4-1 by thrashing Brown, 69-17. Harvard has not yet been mathematically eliminated, but it will need victories over both the Quakers and Bulldogs, while Princeton must lose to Yale and then Penn.
Nothing came easy for Harvard in the early going. The first play from scrimmage was perhaps a harbinger of things to come, as Dean’s pass was tipped at the line. Although the quarterback caught his own pass for a short gain, it would be indicative of his struggles to get much moving through the air. His second passing attempt was also tipped at the line and intercepted by Lions middle linebacker Scott Valentas. Except for a few long catch-and-runs by first-year wide receiver Cooper Barkate, a former top recruit out of Mater Dei (Calif.), the Crimson passing offense struggled until the final drive, as the hosts were without senior wide receiver Kym Wimberly and sophomore wide receiver Ledger Hatch, each of whom missed the contest with an injury. Without them, Barkate was a lone bright spot, hauling in five passes for 102 yards.
“I thought [Barkate] was one example,” said Murphy of players who helped fill the void left by Wimberly and Hatch. “[He] did an outstanding job for a true freshman, because his knowledge and reps haven’t been that great until the last couple of weeks.”
Despite punting on two of its open three possessions, Harvard struck paydirt on its second drive, embarking on a eight-play, 60-yard march into the wind and down the field. The Crimson’s first explosive play of the game came on this possession, a 49-yard catch and run by Barkate. He high-pointed a slightly overthrown pass by Dean before racing down the left sideline as his defender fell. A few plays later, Dean hit senior tight end Haven Montefalco for a back-shoulder fade in the left side of the end zone. The Indianapolis native has been used primarily as a blocking tight end this season, allowing junior tight end Tyler Neville to establish himself as a threat in the passing game. On Saturday, Montefalco caught his eighth pass, and second touchdown of the season.
Harvard’s only other offensive touchdown of the game came in the second quarter, mostly on the strength of senior running back Aidan Borguet. After Columbia wide receiver Bryson Canty’s six-yard back shoulder fade gave the Lions a 10-7 lead, the Crimson answered with a nine-play, 72-yard scoring drive that included a 22-yard completion to senior wide receiver Joe Young, which was his first reception since 2019. Borguet ultimately finished off the drive by plunging into the end zone from one yard out for his tenth rushing score of the season. Harvard leaned on him heavily all game, as his 23 carries went for 108 yards and the touchdown. After hitting the century mark sixth time this season, the Ivy League’s leading back sits at 1,003 rushing yards, becoming the eighth unique Harvard player to hit the 1,000-yard plateau. He needs 299 yards in the final two contests to supplant Clifton Dawson ’07 as the program’s all-time single season rushing leader, a record Dawson set during his sophomore campaign in 2004.
The third quarter was like a distorted pinball game, with both teams looking disjointed on offense and committing myriad turnovers and penalties. The Lions opened the second half by converting a fourth and inches on Ty’son Edwards’ power run and then using a personal foul by junior defensive tackle Thor Griffith to drive deep into Harvard territory. But then, the Crimson defense struck: Bell’s pass was tipped at the line by sophomore defensive lineman Dominic Young-Smith, allowing senior defensive back Max Jones to come down with it. The pick was just Harvard’s fifth of the season and the first for Jones, who saw his first action of the season in the Princeton contest. It also continued a turnover trend that has plagued the Columbia offense all year, as the Lions entered the game with the worst turnover margin in the Ivy League.
If that wasn’t enough, Bell’s next pass attempt was intercepted as well. After the Crimson went three-and-out, continuing to lose momentum from offensive penalties, the Lions quarterback reared back at midfield and unleashed an arcing bomb on first down. It appeared as if Canty wanted to run a post route, but Bell threw a deep go route into double coverage. The ball was slightly overthrown and senior defensive back Alex Washington came up with his second interception of the season.
But yet again, the Crimson failed to capitalize. Lining up on his own goal line, Borguet narrowly missed being tackled in the end zone for a safety on second down. On third, Dean bounced a pass about five feet in front of Odermann, and Harvard promptly punted the ball right back to the Lions. For the second time in the last three weeks, the Crimson failed to score a touchdown in the second half.
“If you get three takeaways on interceptions, you’ve got to win the game,” Murphy said. “End of story.”
The two teams traded field goals on the next two drives, with each quarterback failing to take advantage of strong field position. The Lions were unable to capitalize on McFadden’s brilliant return, as sophomore running back Malcolm Terry II dropped a third-down screen pass with nothing but green grass in between him and a first down. Then, on Harvard’s possession, senior running back Sone Ntoh took the offense inside the red zone, but Dean missed senior wide receiver Joe Young, who had a step on his defender on a deep post route. After good third-down coverage forced Dean to slide down short of the line to gain, Lipel banged home a 34-yard attempt to extend the Crimson lead back to seven.
The Lions had one more chance to make some noise in the third period, but continued to hand the ball over. On third and long, Green fired a hook route just past the line to gain. It appeared to be caught by tight end Luke Painton, but senior linebacker Kobe Joseph, who had a blocked punt in the win over Cornell on Oct. 7, stripped it out of Painton’s hands to give the Crimson possession. After Dean was brought down just short of the line to gain on a third-down run deep in the red zone, Murphy brought out Lipel to try and extend the Harvard lead to 10.
Then, the Lions’ special teams brilliance commenced, as a defensive lineman reached up and blocked the kick, holding the Crimson off the scoreboard after a promising drive led by Borguet, who notched two explosive plays. The Columbia special teams unit continued to shine and keep the Lions within one score, as the Lions garnered another block on the next Harvard drive. Murphy opted to send Lipel out for a 49-yard field goal attempt into the wind, and with the kicker forced to keep the ball low, a Columbia defender got to it again. Lions junior cornerback Seth Parker then returned the loose ball 20 yards, giving the struggling Bell possession on the Crimson’s 40-yard line.
Thanks to the exploits of Canty and Painton, Bell’s second-half nightmare eased up in the fourth quarter. Playing four-down football, the Lions converted one fourth down on a bullet pass to Canty and then, on a third and six from inside the Crimson 20-yard line, Bell rolled to his right and lofted a ball to Painton, who had slipped past a Harvard defender along the right sideline. Then, sophomore defensive back Riley Jenne jumped offside on the ensuing point-after try. With the ball spotted at the one-yard line, Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli opted to send his offense back out there for a two-point try. Bell made good on his coach’s faith, dumping a short pass to running back Ryan Young, who dove across the line to give the Lions a one-point edge. The call stood on review.
“You’ve got to show some confidence in your kids,” said Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli on his decision to go for two. “It was really just not wanting to be afraid to try to win a game.”
Trailing for the first time all game, Harvard turned to the only constant it has had on offense this season: Borguet. The senior broke off a 15-yard gain down the middle to bring the Crimson over midfield. But when Borguet couldn’t get four yards on third down to move the chains, Columbia had regained momentum. After a timeout, Dean couldn’t find an open target on fourth down and scrambled close to the line to gain – but not past it. The Lions took over possession with just over six minutes to play, clinging to a one-point lead.
“There were many opportunities to change the game, to win the game for us,” said senior defensive lineman and captain Truman Jones about Harvard’s miscues throughout the contest. “We failed on all levels.”
Although the Columbia offense failed to pick up the first down after Young-Smith dragged Edwards down short of the line to gain, its special teams unit came up clutch yet again. Forced to drive 80 yards with just over four minutes to play, offensive coordinator Mickey Fein opted to pass on each of the first three plays. Two of them went to Barkate, whose two receptions on the possession totaled 37 yards. Then, staked to a fourth down and inches on the Lions’ 25, Murphy opted not to go for it, instead sending out Lipel. Columbia’s third blocked kick of the game sealed the deal, sending the visiting sideline into a celebratory frenzy while the Harvard side fell silent.
“When you have an opportunity like that, it’s hard to turn it down if you believe in your guys. Could I have gone for it? Sure,” explained Murphy about his mindset on the fourth-down call. “It would have been just awful not to have an opportunity to actually win the game with the field goal.”
Harvard faces an uphill battle if it wants to finish its season strong, facing two strong opponents in Penn and Yale. The Crimson will hope to lean on its veteran leaders next Saturday as it travels to Philadelphia for the first time since the 2018 season to square off against Penn. In that game, the Crimson prevailed, 29-7, behind a 237-yard rushing performance from a trio of backs, a performance that Borguet and Ntoh will try to replicate. However, if neither Wimberly nor Hatch is unable to rejoin the offense before the end of the season, Murphy will be forced to rely on younger and less experienced targets like Barkate and junior wide receiver Kaedyn Odermann.
–Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Wong_THC.
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