Sophomore quarterback Jaden Craig reels in the game-winning two-point conversion against Penn on Saturday, which secured a share of the Ivy League title for Harvard.

‘A Game of Inches’: Football’s Thrilling Triple-OT Victory Against Penn Wins Game of the Year

By Praveen Kumar and Jack Silvers, Crimson Staff Writers
Sophomore quarterback Jaden Craig reels in the game-winning two-point conversion against Penn on Saturday, which secured a share of the Ivy League title for Harvard. By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

In a year of sports brimming with standout performances and breakout stars, it’s not easy to coin a single contest as “Game of the Year.” However, the story of a retiring head coach clinching his tenth Ivy League championship in thrilling fashion deserves all the flowers. In his last win as Head Coach, Crimson legend Tim Murphy led Harvard’s football team, which hadn’t won an Ivy League title since 2015, to a nail-biting 25-23 triple-overtime victory over UPenn. In a game filled with ups and downs, set to be an instant classic, the Crimson stuck together as a team and battled valiantly for the league crown.

Entering the game, Harvard was 4-1 in Ivy play, with the team’s only loss on the road coming from a nail-biter against Princeton. In the first quarter, the Quakers pounced on the Crimson’s thinner run defense and jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead via a 29-yard rushing touchdown. Harvard’s offense quickly countered and sped down the field in only six plays, culminating in a three-yard rushing touchdown from sophomore starting quarterback Jaden Craig that evened the score at 7-7.

Entering the second quarter, both teams stagnated on the offensive side of the field, with four straight punts. Finally, with 11:43 left in the second quarter, UPenn connected on a 43-yard field goal to put the Quakers ahead 10-7. Like in the first quarter, Harvard’s offense responded immediately and effectively. The Crimson marched methodically down the field, covering 80 yards in 13 plays. Craig found fellow sophomore wide receiver Cooper Barkate on the back right side of the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown with 5:22 left in the quarter. Despite missing the extra point, the Crimson was still up 13-10.

Craig, who took over the helm of the offense from junior Charles DePrima midseason, turned heads with his play throughout the season and offseason. “Jaden has put on an absolute show,” senior linebacker Brock Locnikar said. The offense has been looking stacked. I'm really looking forward to what Jaden does the rest of his career, and I think there's some real all stars in the offense. Jaden has got a wicked arm, and it’s great to see him do some damage.”

After forcing a quick three-and-out, Harvard’s offense picked up right where it left off. With a nine-play, 70-yard drive consisting of several chunk plays, Craig capped it off with a two-yard scamper to the end zone with 1:06 left in the frame. After connecting on the extra point, the Crimson headed to the locker room up 20-10, two quarters away from the Ivy League title.

However, UPenn had no intentions of letting Harvard run away with the title easily. After a shaky punt with 7:00 left in the quarter, the Quakers started the drive at the Crimson’s 29-yard line. Despite being pinned on their own side of the field, the defense held strong and only allowed a 23-yard field goal, which cut the UPenn deficit to 20-13. After a few back and forth punts, the persistent Quakers put up a 10-play, 69-yard touchdown and tied the game up 20-20 with 11:12 left in the fourth quarter.

In such a close game with high stakes, pressure mounts. “You definitely think about it going on the field,” said sophomore wideout Cooper Barkate, describing how the team deals with these moments. “You’re really paying attention to what you need. Things slow down, you focus on the things you need to do to be successful in that moment.”

Harvard had a prime opportunity to put the game away late in the fourth quarter. A 19-play, 69-yard drive that ate nearly nine minutes of clock-time resulted in a 30-yard field goal attempt with 2:15 left in regulation. But senior kicker Cali Canaval missed the kick, giving the Quakers their first opportunity to take the lead and spoil the conference title chance for the Crimson. A nine-play, 55-yard drive from UPenn gave it a 59-yard field goal attempt as time expired in regulation. Fortunately for the Crimson, the kick was blocked and the two teams headed into overtime.

There’s few sporting situations quite like college football overtime, an emotional roller coaster that ESPN has aptly described as an “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” contest. Each team receives at least one chance to score — removing the oft-criticized arbitrariness of NFL-style sudden death — and has the chance to start its drive at the other team’s 25-yard line. The exchange could theoretically extend into perpetuity, but the tension rises in each new period: in the second overtime, teams that score a touchdown must attempt a two-point conversion. If the score is still knotted after that, each successive overtime period consists of the teams attempting two-point attempts until one side cracks.

In the first overtime period, each team delivered, but barely. Both offenses settled for field goals to put the score at 23-23. Neither team was able to convert in the second overtime period, though UPenn had a golden opportunity to end the game: after Craig threw an interception at the UPenn 10-yard line, all the Quakers needed to do was put points on the board, and the game would be theirs. But kicker Graham Gotlieb’s 36-yard field goal attempt hooked left. Gotlieb put his hands to his helmet, flummoxed at the football’s cruel path through the air.

With tensions mounting and the third overtime about to begin, both teams knew that the first team to score would likely win the crucial conference matchup. “You know, in situations like that football really becomes a game of inches,” Locnikar explained. “One mistake and you lose everything you worked for, for the whole year. I think we just prepared the best that we could, and luck was on our side. But I think that came with a lot of preparation.”

At this point, the format shifted to only two-point conversion attempts, changing the landscape of each possession. One poor attempt, and the story of the entire Harvard season could change. On Penn’s two-point conversion, junior defensive back Gavin Shipman came up with a clutch pass block in the end zone. On its own attempt, Murphy and the Crimson did something unexpected.

With a double-reverse pass from Cooper Barkate to Jaden Craig, the Crimson stunned the Quakers in the third extra period.
With a double-reverse pass from Cooper Barkate to Jaden Craig, the Crimson stunned the Quakers in the third extra period. By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

It was as gutsy as the “Statue of Liberty” play that won Boise State the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and as smooth as the “Philly Special.” Craig handed the ball off to junior wideout Scott Woods II, who then tossed the ball to Barkate on the reverse. The defense’s focus had completely shifted off of the dual-threat quarterback, but he was still in motion, stopping for just a moment and then streaking toward the right corner of the end zone. Throwing off his back foot and with a UPenn pass-rusher in his face, Barkate tossed a rainbow to Craig in the endzone to seal the 25-23 victory and the Ivy League championship for the Crimson.

The trick play was a surprise to many. Barkate, instrumental in its execution, said, “We have a couple two-point conversion plays designed. I was a little surprised when I heard the call on the sideline. We were ready, but I was honestly a little surprised. Grateful that we called it and grateful that I could make the play.”

After the play, players stormed the field to celebrate their first title in eight years. For athletes, fans, and coaches alike, the game became a core part of their Harvard experience. For the team members who had been on the roster in 2021 — when a controversial quintuple-overtime loss against Princeton denied the team a chance at the Ivy League title — the victory felt karmic.

“For me, it was probably the most surreal moment that I've had as a Harvard football team member,” Locnikar said. “With the 2021 season, the Princeton steal, that game unfortunately stripped us of our rightful Ivy League title. So going into 2022 and onwards, we worked hard, and it was just great to be with the team. But I think this past year, especially with that crazy ending to the Penn game, just nothing felt more surreal to that. So it was just awesome. I'll never forget the last moment with the trick play. It was just electric. We all rushed the field and with all the teammates together. I couldn't be happier.”

While Harvard closed out the Murphy era in spectacular fashion, the program is ready to turn a new leaf as newly-appointed Head Coach Andrew Aurich takes over. On the future of the program, Barkate said, “I think that the passing of the torch has been subtle, but definitely a good thing for the program. He’s the man for the job and he’ll do great things for the program. The game plans will probably be relatively similar to last year, but it could have some changes. We’re expecting similar things though, for the most part.”

The team isn’t satisfied with a share of the title either. Locnikar continued, “With any transition, things were tough at the beginning, but I can say that I'm just thrilled to be a part of this team. I think we have the best coaches in the whole country. And I'm just happy to represent them every day.”

Every victory builds confidence, but some build more than others. As the team begins a new era in September, its triumph over UPenn will surely be front-of-mind.

“It's really just a blessing to be part of this program and to keep working for what we need next year, which is an undisputed Ivy League Championship,” Locnikar said. “I think it's in our reach, and we're gonna get it.”

—Staff writer Praveen Kumar can be reached at

—Staff writer Jack Silvers can be reached at

Year in SportsCommencement 2024