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Inside the officiating error that cost Harvard a key Ivy League win and an undefeated season

The Harvard football team was dealt its first loss of the season Saturday, but under dubious circumstances.Lisa Poole/Associated Press

Princeton stands as the only undefeated football team in the Ivy League after surviving a five-overtime battle against Harvard last Saturday, but the Crimson can make a legitimate case that it should be the other way around.

An officiating mistake wiped out what would’ve been the deciding score for Harvard and gave Princeton an opportunity to walk away with an 18-16 win.

With the game knotted at 13 after regulation, each team made field goals on their initial overtime possessions, which moved the periods into a game of alternating 2-point conversion attempts.

When Harvard’s Jake Smith completed a pass to Kym Wimberly in the end zone in the third OT, the Crimson believed they had sealed the win, but officials reviewed the play and determined that Princeton coach Bob Surace had called a timeout prior to the snap. The review took the points off the board and allowed Princeton a chance to score the winning points in the fifth overtime on a catch by Jacob Birmelin for 2 points.

The outcome left Princeton at 6-0 overall, 3-0 in the Ivy League. Harvard fell to 5-1, 2-1.


Amid controversy and backlash following the game, the Ivy League issued a statement via Twitter addressing the officiating error while adding that the result would stand.

“In the third overtime, Harvard threw a pass for a successful two-point conversion,” the statement read. “After the play, the replay booth stopped the game for an official review. While the review did determine that the Princeton head coach called for timeout before the ball was snapped, the officiating crew made a procedural error as a timeout can only be recognized and granted prior to the snap by an on-field official and is not reviewable.

“Therefore, the timeout should not have been granted and the play should have resulted in a successful two-point conversion. The outcome of the game will stand as a win for Princeton. The league office will address the error with the officials.”


Harvard athletic director Erin McDermott issued a statement Monday as the Crimson looked to move on from the controversy and look ahead to this week’s matchup against Dartmouth.

“We are extremely disappointed with the outcome of the football game due to a major officiating error,” McDermott said. “Our student athletes deserve the right calls, especially after waiting so long to play.

“However, we stand with the Ivy League and understand there is no recourse to determine a different result. NCAA football playing rules state that no rule decision may change after the ball is next snapped even if the rule is incorrect, and the result of the game cannot be changed after the game has ended. We appreciate that the officiating crew will face appropriate repercussions.

“Therefore, as we beginning a new week of preparation, we must move forward. We host Dartmouth in Harvard Stadium this Saturday and we are looking forward to another hard-fought Ivy contest.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.