Andrew Flesher approached his game-winning 23-yard field goal attempt from the left hash with 48 seconds remaining with the same calmness and confidence that he approached the matchup against Dartmouth.
He knew that it would probably be a close game. He was right.
“It came down to the end again,” said Flesher, a junior walk-on at Harvard who has been No. 1 on the depth chart the past three weeks with senior David Mothander, arguably the top kicker in the Ivy League, sidelined with a quadriceps strain.
Flesher’s 36-yard bid with 6:35 left in a 21-21 game had veered left. And a week ago, his 51-yarder in regulation would have provided the decisive points in what turned into a 51-48 triple overtime defeat to Princeton.
But not Saturday night.
“In my mind, there was no doubt, and once I lined up over the ball, I knew it was good,” said Flesher, who at 6 feet 3 inches, 190 pounds and wearing wired-rimmed glasses, was seated next to massive tackle Nnamdi Obekwelu (6-3, 275) in the postgame presser.
“I felt comfortable.”
And with his 23-yarder straight and true, his first winner since he was a junior at Episcopal Collegiate in Little Rock, Ark. — “our first win” he recalled — Flesher lifted the Crimson to a hard-earned 24-21 victory in front of 13,470 at the Stadium, their 10th straight over the Big Green in a series that now numbers 117 meetings.
Just another player stepping up for Harvard (6-1, 3-1 Ivy), which seemingly has lost a starter every week to injury.
“I love coaching this team,” said Tim Murphy, who, after watching senior center Dave Leopard go down with a fractured ankle against Princeton, was minus senior end tight end Cam Brate, a preseason All-American, with an injury.
“As tough, courageous, and resilient a team as any I have ever been around. We certainly are not flawless. We play extraordinarily hard. And if you do that, you have a chance to win every week. That’s a really good team we beat — we just made one more play than they did.”
With Dartmouth (3-4, 2-2) turning to junior Alex Park at quarterback instead of sophomore Dalyn Williams (11 of 24, 156 yards), the Crimson forced a three-and-out with 5:46 left.
“We needed to throw the ball a bit more productively,” said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, who acknowledged that he would not sleep well for a couple of days after “a loss like this,” one that hurts more than other recent defeats, mostly one-sided, to Harvard.
With stellar sophomore Paul Stanton (career-high 146 yards on 26 carries) supplying six hard rushes, the Crimson marched 56 yards to set up Flesher.
“It is a position that no wants to play,” said Murphy of the life of a kicker. “There is so much pressure, it is thankless. And he is a kid that was a walk-on. Your expectations are not particularly high. But he is a Division 1 kicker . . . and he has just done an amazing job the last two weeks.”
The Big Green had taken a 14-13 lead, their first in the series since 2007, with 8:25 left in the third quarter. On a backward pass from Hempel to freshman back Bo Ellis, Big Green senior safety Stephen Dazzo scooped up a loose ball and scampered 33 yards to the end zone.
But the resilient Crimson responded quickly, with a bit of trickery. Senior wideout Ricky Zorn, a two-time MVP quarterback for Lake Highlands in Dallas, took a reverse pitch from Conner Hempel (18 of 27, 135 yards) and unleashed a 32-yard laser down the middle of the field to the back of the end zone for a diving Andrew Berg, who kept his foot inbounds.
“I was really excited when Coach Murph called the play, we have been practicing it all week,” said Zorn. “Berg wasn’t really open at the time when I was getting ready to throw the ball, I honestly thought I overthrew him. Funny thing is, Berg came up to me before the game and said ‘If they call the reverse pass, you gotta throw it, I don’t care if I have double or triple coverage.’
“He just made a fantastic catch on it.”
When Hempel rolled right and threw back to the left corner of the end zone for Tyler Hamblin for the 2-point conversion, Harvard surged ahead, 21-14.
The Big Green showcased their resilience, and courage too.
Freshman Jon Marc Carrier (concussion) was knocked out of the game on a kick return with 3:44 remaining in the third quarter and was taken off the field on a stretcher (Teevens said he would return with the team to Hanover). And two plays later, Dominick Pierre (17 carries, 67 yards), the Ivy’s leading rusher, was on the turf clutching his right knee.
But Dartmouth drove 78 yards with Pierre’s replacement, sophomore Kyle Bramble, bursting in from the 7 for a 21-21 tie.
The Big Green trailed, 13-0, early on — Hempel dashed in from the 9 and Flesher had a pair of field goals, the first, a 34-yarder, set up by a pick from D.J. Monroe.
Dartmouth was determined to end their skid against the Crimson, but Flesher denied their bid with a cool, confident kick.
“The thrill ride is not over, and I think that I aged 10 years tonight,” said Murphy.