Ben Braunecker watched from the sideline at Harvard Stadium last November when his Crimson teammates pulled out a last-minute thriller over archrival Yale, Conner Hempel connecting with Andrew Fischer on a 35-yard sideline route for a touchdown with 55 seconds left to cap a 31-24 victory, and a perfect 10-0 season.
A bad ankle injury limited Braunecker to three snaps on the turf.
But the entire week, and all that Harvard-Yale entails, is still very much clear.
“The student body, [ESPN’s] “College GameDay” here, the energy of the game was unbelievable, and the way that we won it,” recalled the senior tight end Wednesday night, after the Crimson wrapped up a spirited practice session on the grass at Cumnock Field in preparation for the 132d edition of The Game, Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m., NBCSN) in New Haven.
Penn punctured Harvard’s hopes for a 10-0 repeat last Saturday, 35-25, but the Crimson (8-1, 5-1) can still claim at least a share of their third straight league crown, a first in program history, with a win against the resurgent Bulldogs (6-3, 3-3).
Penn (6-3, 5-1) and Dartmouth (8-1, 5-1) can secure their piece, too — and create the league’s first three-way tie since 1982 — with victories against Cornell (1-8, 1-5) and Princeton (5-4, 2-4), respectively.
The Penn loss was a punch to the gut for Harvard, particularly for 30 proud seniors who played an integral role in 22 straight wins. “When you haven’t lost a game in over two years, it’s a predictable sort of shock for the team,” said coach Tim Murphy.
“It’s not a shock to us as coaches, but kids, they don’t understand that statistically, it was unsustainable.”
There was concern. How would the players respond? The leadership council, with team captain Matt Koran the point person, called the seniors together before Tuesday’s practice.
“Obviously, the guys were down, we were shooting for perfection, anything short was a huge letdown,” said Koran, who has 55 tackles, the second most on the squad behind fellow linebacker Jake Lindsey (61).
“We had to keep that in perspective. We had won 22 straight games . . . losing one game wasn’t going to ruin our lives. The message? Get over that loss, and channel all that anger and frustration towards Yale. We have a huge opportunity in front of us.”
The proof, acknowledges Murphy, will be determined by the Yale game, “but the resilience has been great.”
The Bulldogs, decimated by injuries after a promising 3-0 start, were in a similar state after their stunning 17-7 setback to Columbia in Week 7 at the Bowl, prompting fourth-year coach Tony Reno to make a passionate plea to his players.
I said, ‘All right guys, this is the deal,’ ” he recalled at his weekly luncheon on Tuesday.
“Do we have an incredible amount of injuries? Yes. Do we have more than coach [Carm] Cozza’s seen in 40 years of Yale football? Yes. But we can either do one of two things: We can sit here and talk about them and complain about them or we can say we’re going to strive in the face of it. We’re going to either cry in our soup or embrace it and move on. From that moment on, this team has changed.
“We have this slogan we say: Not dead, can’t quit.”
They have not, blitzing Brown, 41-14, followed by last week’s impressive 35-28 fourth-quarter comeback at Princeton, with three-year corner turned tailback Dale Harris producing 177 yards on 30 carries.
But is Yale’s best good enough to halt what has been a Harvard-dominated series the past 14 years, with 13 wins, including eight straight.
“They turned into a little bit of a different team after Columbia,” said Murphy, noting the transition of calling more plays from the press box after letting the defense set up, almost mimicking the tendencies of Penn.
“It will be a brutually tough game. We have had more than our share of good luck against Yale in the last decade. They are highly motivated, and they seem to be playing their best football right now.”
In the sturdy 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound Braunecker, the Crimson have a legitimate NFL prospect.
“He is a tremendous college football player,” said Murphy.
Added senior quarterback Scott Hosch, “He is a tough guy, he plays hard, and when I am in trouble, I know that he will go and get the ball for me.”
This season, that has resulted in a career-best 42 receptions, for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Murphy says Braunecker is a hybrid of two former Crimson tight ends now suiting up in the NFL, Kyle Juszczyk (Ravens) and Cam Brate (Buccaneers). “He’s a longer version of [Juszczyk], and a more physical and versatile player than Cam,” said Murphy.
“Scouts love what they see. No question in my mind, he will get an NFL contract next year.”
If that does materialize, delaying Braunecker’s plans for grad or med school, he can thank his mentors.
“They truly made me a better player, they are a reason that I am as successful as I am,” said Braunecker, who soaked up as much as he could from Juszczyk and Brate during a freshman season that ended with a separated shoulder.
His sole focus this week, however, was on Saturday’s finale against Yale.
“You have a chance to make history against your bitter rival, where 50,000 fans will be watching, you can’t do much better than that,” said Braunecker.Craig Larson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars. Julian Benbow of the Globe staff also contributed to this report.