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Harvard 42, San Diego 20

Harvard rolls in its opener

Hempel’s first start impressive

Harvard’s new starting quarterback, Conner Hempel, threw four touchdown passes against the University of San Diego.

Gil Talbot/file

Harvard’s new starting quarterback, Conner Hempel, threw four touchdown passes against the University of San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — With Harvard playing its first football game in California since 1949, the same year the University of San Diego was founded, coach Tim Murphy needed answers.

He was still up in the air on a number of issues at halftime, including his new starting quarterback, Conner Hempel.

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Most of Murphy’s preseason impressions proved to be true, especially about Hempel.

Behind Hempel’s four touchdown passes, all in the second half, Harvard roared past USD, 42-20, on Saturday afternoon in its season opener, played in front of 4,256 at Torero Stadium. Harvard’s win snapped the Toreros’ 13-game home winning streak.

Two of Hempel’s TD tosses went to Andrew Fischer. Ben Braunecker and Rick Zorn each caught one TD pass.

“You never know what you have until you start playing,’’ Murphy said. “Being 3,000 miles from home, we knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“This was a good way to learn a lot about ourselves. There are things we wanted to find out, although it wasn’t a very pretty first half.’’

Despite going without a first down in the first quarter, the Crimson led, 7-0, courtesy of junior defensive end Zach Hodges’s 53-yard return of a fumble by USD quarterback Mason Mills with 5:22 left in the opening quarter.

“Coach Murphy always preaches to play through adversity,’’ said Hodges, who recovered two fumbles and recorded a half-sack as well as five tackles. “I caught a cramp a few plays before the fumble. When I saw the ball on the ground, I thought please don’t get locked down now.’’

Hodges later pounced on a fumble at the Harvard 1-yard line to prevent the Toreros (1-2) from cutting into a 21-13 deficit late in the third quarter.

“A huge play because it kept us in the game,’’ Murphy said. “It let us keep the upper hand.

“We couldn’t get the defense off the field in the first half and we couldn’t keep the offense on the field.’’

Harvard’s first-half offensive woes included running just 17 plays for 94 yards and not recording its initial first down until 12:29 remained before halftime.

Yet, the Crimson, who were 8-2 last season, still led, 14-13, at intermission.

“You have impressions from practice, but until you see the team in a game you really don’t know,’’ Murphy said. “Hopefully, we’re the team that finished the game and not the team that started the game.’’

Murphy does know more about his quarterback after just one game.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound junior from Union, Ky., eclipsed his career statistics at Harvard with a 25-for-34 passing performance for 345 yards and the four TDs in his first start.

Hempel was 15 of 24 for 165 yards and no touchdowns as a sophomore backup last season.

“I don’t get nervous in situations like this,’’ Hempel said. “I remember starting as a sophomore in high school and was never nervous.

“When you have confidence you’re ready to play the game, and I was ready to play the game, although I don’t think I’ve ever had a half like the first half where we ran just [17] plays.’’

USD coach Dale Lindsey singled out Hempel for praise.

“That quarterback impressed me,’’ Lindsey said. “Even his coach said after the game he didn’t think he was that good.’’

With virtually no pass rush challenging him, Hempel went about directing an offense that sputtered a bit in the first half but rolled after halftime.

Harvard finished with 472 total yards to the Toreros’ 390 after USD held a 197-94 edge at halftime.

Hempel, who replaced Colton Chapple (school-record 24 touchdown passes in 2012), started to put the game away with his 10-yard TD toss to Fischer in the third quarter and scoring passes to Braunecker and Zorn to push the lead to 35-13 in the fourth quarter.

“It felt great to come back home and perform like this,’’ said Fischer, who is from nearby Diamond Bar. “Once you get past coming home and having your family in the stands, though, it’s just another football game.’’

Fischer added his second touchdown catch, a 30-yarder with 2:43 to play, with the outcome no longer in question.

“The importance of winning a nonconference game is to develop an identity,’’ Murphy said. “So much of that depends on intangibles.

“We wanted to find out if we could fight through adversity. I think we did.’’

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