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Ivy League Title On the Line
Last year, with the Ivy League championship at stake, the Harvard football team held off a late Penn comeback to win, 37-20, to earn the Ancient Eight title outright.
In a déjà vu of sorts, the Crimson (7-1, 4-1 Ivy) will face off against the Quakers (4-4, 4-1) on Saturday, again with the title on the line, this time at Franklin Field.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” said senior offensive lineman Jack Holuba. “It’s why you start playing football as a little kid, big games like this.”
On Oct. 20, a stunning loss to Princeton seemed to deliver a huge blow to the Harvard football team’s chances of repeating as league champions.
Fast forward three weeks and it is a whole new picture. With a little help from league foes Cornell and Penn, who each beat the Tigers in the last two weeks, the Crimson is tied at the top of the league with the Quakers, once again in control of its own fate.
“What I told the team [after the loss to Princeton] was that if we were going to be in this predicament where Princeton was to lose a few games, we definitely wanted to be in a position to control our own destiny,” said senior defensive end John Lyon. “That included winning all of the games from that point on, and that’s what we’ve done so far.”
The winner of Saturday’s contest will lock up at least a share of the Ivy title, making it yet another installment of the two teams’ rivalry in which the game has had the highest of stakes.
“This [game] has had a huge impact on the title race for 12 straight years, a direct and huge impact for 12 straight years,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Once again, here we are. We have a saying in our program, by virtue of where [this game] is on our schedule and the quality of our programs, ‘The road to the Ivy League Championship leads through Penn.’”
Last week against Columbia, the Crimson made a case for why it should be the league champion with an overwhelmingly dominant performance on both sides of the ball.
Harvard held the Lions to -19 yards rushing and 149 yards of total offense while tallying 585 yards of its own in a 69-0 rout, showing off its defensive prowess and offensive depth as nine different players scored touchdowns.
But Murphy anticipates that the tenacity of the Quakers’ offensive line will pose more of a challenge for the Crimson defensive front.
“It was a very young, inexperienced offensive line for Columbia,” Murphy said. “In this case, this week, they’ve got a very veteran, tough, strong, physically mature offensive line for one thing.”
Entering the game against Princeton last week, Penn was tied for first in the conference along with the Tigers and Harvard, making the game a critical one for both teams. The Quakers’ performance against Princeton was hardly one-sided, but Penn returned home from Princeton Stadium with something Harvard couldn’t secure during its trip to New Jersey: a win.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Penn trailed the Tigers, 21-14. Taking a note from their fourth-quarter comeback the week before against Brown, the Quakers rallied down the stretch once again.
An interception return for a touchdown by defensive lineman C.J. Mooney tied up the game, and quarterback Billy Ragone drove his team down the field and rushed for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to lift Penn over Princeton, 28-21.
Turnovers played a key role in the Quakers’ victory over the Tigers—Penn forced four turnovers for the second week in a row. The Quakers scored 14 points off of Tigers quarterback Connor Michelsen’s three interceptions, and a forced fumble near Penn’s end zone with less than 30 seconds remaining sealed the victory for the Quakers.
“The first thing that we did was we were able to win the turnover battle,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “We decisively won that by a 4-1 count, so we had opportunities to get the ball back for our offense. If we turn the ball over too many times [against Harvard], it’s going to be a long afternoon for Penn, I can tell you that.”
The Crimson will counter the Quakers’ stiff defense with its high-octane offense, led by an offensive line that gives senior quarterback Colton Chapple time to throw and paved the way for over 300 yards of rushing against the Lions last week.
“[Harvard’s] terrific—if you look at their numbers, it’s scary how many points they put up—they have no apparent weakness,” Bagnoli said. “The challenge is going to be huge for us, and we’ll have to play arguably our best game of the year to give us a chance.”
Ragone, who passed for a score before his game-winning rushing touchdown, leads Penn’s offense and presents a double-headed attack with his passing and rushing game.
“They have one of the guys that can change the game in just a couple of plays with his feet or his arm in Billy Ragone,” Murphy said. “A guy that’s a winner, a guy that’s won an Ivy League Championship, a guy that’s won a lot of games as a starter. The combination of those makes this guy a much more dangerous quarterback, a much more dangerous opponent.”
Close games have been the story of Penn’s season—all eight of its contests have been decided by two scores or fewer. Harvard, on the other hand, has been taking advantage of an explosive offense to outscore its opponents by an average of 28 points.
Although the statistics favor Harvard, which is currently ranked atop the league in total offense and defense, the volatility of this season has served as a reminder to prepare for the unexpected.
“You’re never as good or as bad as you think you are,” Holuba said. “You have to take it with a grain of salt. That’s what we strive to do, we just have to worry about our game and not try to get too psyched about our opponent.”
By SAMANTHA LIN, Harvard Crimson