All it took was a double reverse from the 3-yard line with the receiver throwing the winning conversion pass to the quarterback to beat Penn, 25-23, in triple overtime at the Stadium.
That’s how Harvard’s football team (8-1, 5-1) earned a piece of its first Ivy League title in eight years last weekend.
“It’s definitely exciting to accomplish something that our team hadn’t in quite some time,” said captain Nate Leskovec.
Now comes the final challenge, a showdown with Yale’s defending champions in New Haven Saturday at noon. If the Crimson win, they’ll claim their first outright crown since the unbeaten 2014 varsity.
If Yale prevails, the Bulldogs (6-3, 4-2), who’ve won three of the last five titles, will share the honors with Harvard as well as Dartmouth if the Green beat Brown on the road.
That would be a remarkable achievement for a Blue group that dropped two of its first three Ivy encounters.
“We’re fortunate to be up off the canvas and standing,” said Yale coach Tony Reno, whose squad won in double overtime at Princeton last week.
The Bulldogs, loaded with returning talent, were the consensus choice to repeat this season. But early home losses to Holy Cross and Cornell knocked them off-course.
“At the beginning of the year when we struggled, we weren’t being ourselves,” said captain Wande Owens. “We let the noise get to us a little bit.
“A sense of entitlement can’t exist. Just because we did something last year doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed anything this year.”
That point was driven home when Yale lost to Penn in the Bowl after winning three in a row.
“Where we thought we were before Penn and where we actually were wasn’t the reality,” said Reno. “So we reinvented ourself and said, ‘OK, where do we need to go to have more success?’ ”
Where the Bulldogs went is back to being themselves and relying on a punishing and productive attack led by quarterback Nolan Grooms, receiver Mason Tipton, and running back Joshua Pitsenberger. In the last three victories, that unit has averaged three dozen points.
“For whatever reason, they didn’t come out of the gate particularly well,” observed Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “I don’t know what was going on, but unfortunately for us, over the past month they’ve gotten all those things fixed and they’re back to being a dynamic team in all phases.”
Harvard, picked fourth in the preseason media poll, was soaring until a defeat at Princeton sounded the alarm.
“The loss to Princeton was definitely difficult,” said Leskovec. “But we flipped the page because we had to. We have a mature group this year that understood that dwelling on that loss was not going to help us win the next one.”
After the Crimson labored to hold off Dartmouth the following week, Murphy and his staff changed quarterbacks, replacing junior Charles DePrima with sophomore Jaden Craig.
“We’d done a great job running the football and spreading the field,” said Murphy, who has the Ivy League’s top rusher in Shane McLaughlin. “But if we’re going to win the championship, we had to become a more balanced offense. Jaden has certainly helped us do that.”
In his two starts, Craig threw for more than 500 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three. But his most notable moment was grabbing the conversion pass from roommate Cooper Barkate on the “Philly Special” play that finished off Penn.
A loss in their home finale would have been disheartening for the Crimson, who’d led by 10 points at halftime and missed chances to end things earlier.
“It shouldn’t have gone to overtime, but it did make it a little bit more climactic,” Murphy mused. “We miss a field goal that was really an extra point, plus an extra point. Then we drop a punt. If we don’t do one of those really weird special teams things, we wouldn’t have had so much drama.”
Yale, whose title hopes would have vanished with a third loss, pulled off its own great escape at Princeton after giving up the lead with 18 seconds to play. After a missed field goal in the first extra session, Pitsenberger scored his third touchdown in the second and the Bulldogs won, 36-28.
“In the elation of victory, we’re all running on the field and Coach Reno is jumping up and down,” said Owens, who broke up both of the Tigers’ fourth-down passes in overtime. “After things died down, it was, ‘OK, we’ve got one more to handle now.’ ”
If their recent meetings are any guide, this one likely will come down to the last possession between the league’s two most prolific offenses.
Four years ago, Yale came from two touchdowns behind in the final 90 seconds to win, 50-43, in double overtime. Two years ago, Harvard won, 34-31, on a jump-ball pass with 22 seconds to play.
Last year in the Stadium, the Bulldogs rallied to take the lead in the final seven minutes, then snuffed out Harvard’s last-minute drive with an interception.
Trophy implications aside, both sides want to win The Game for its own sake.
“Even if we’re not playing for a championship, it’s our bowl game,” said Murphy, whose teams have won 11 of the last 14 games at the Bowl. “They’re going to be extraordinarily motivated to get this done.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.