ITHACA, N.Y. — Throughout the week, Cameron Brate jokingly told his roommate to “force it to Brate.”
Brate’s roommate happens to be senior backup quarterback Michael Pruneau, who filled in for the injured Conner Hempel on Saturday.
So when Harvard — holding a 3-point lead over Cornell — needed a big play in the waning moments, Pruneau looked to his senior tight end. With just under three minutes left Pruneau put the ball where only Brate could get it, and the result was a 22-yard touchdown pass that put the Big Red out of reach.
“It was probably going through his head in the fourth quarter, at least I hope so,” Brate said. “He threw a nice ball, back shoulder fade, and all I had to do was get my feet in and make the catch.”
The touchdown was the final touch on Harvard’s 34-24 win over Cornell at Schoellkopf Field. Big Red quarterback Jeff Mathews threw for 472 yards, the most Harvard has ever yielded to an opposing quarterback. But strong efforts from the Crimson’s defensive line and Pruneau helped Harvard overcome Mathews’s historic day.
The Crimson improved to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the Ivy League. Harvard has won eight straight over Cornell (1-3, 0-2) and leads the all-time series, 41-32-2.
“They gave us everything we could handle right down to the wire,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “In crunch time we’ve really responded, and I think that was the case again today.
“We found a way to win.”
Murphy said Harvard knew early last week that Hempel’s hyperextended knee would keep him out of Saturday’s contest. That left Pruneau, who threw 10 passes in relief against Holy Cross last week, to make his first career start.
And Pruneau showed his lack of in-game experience early on.
On Harvard’s first possession, Pruneau was intercepted by cornerback Michael Turner. On the Crimson’s next possession, Pruneau scrambled on third down but had to fall on his own fumble behind the line of scrimmage.
But sophomore linebacker Eric Medes intercepted Mathews on the next play, setting up the Crimson offense at the Cornell 17. On first and goal at the 3, Pruneau scampered into the end zone untouched to give the Crimson a 7-0 lead.
Once the senior settled in, Harvard’s offense turned from disjointed to crisp.
“The biggest thing was that I knew the guys around me trusted me,” Pruneau said. “I knew once I settled in I’d be fine. I owe a lot to the offensive line, they were great today, there were only two or three plays where I faced real pressure.”
Pruneau finished 23 of 29 for 340 yards and two touchdowns.
Utilizing senior receiver Grant Gellatly (12 catches, 181 yards) as his primary target, Mathews was clinical. But the Crimson secondary’s shortcomings were remedied by Harvard’s stingy defensive line.
Cornell drove into the red zone on its final three possessions of the first half yet collected only 3 points. On its final two possessions of the half, third-down pressure from defensive tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu forced the Big Red to attempt field goals. The first was blocked and the second was missed.
Harvard’s front four kept Cornell in check in a handful of pivotal moments.
“He’s one heck of a player, one of the best the league has ever seen,” Harvard senior linebacker Joshua Boyd said of Mathews, who had two TD passes and a scoring run. “But we were confident in our game plan. It was great to see our defensive line getting pressure on him.”
When Harvard gained possession with 6:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, Murphy had a decision to make: slow down his offense or stay with his uptempo passing attack.
Murphy opted to “keep the pedal on the metal.”
A drive that covered 81 yards and lasted 3:39 ended with Pruneau finding his roommate for the clinching score.
Later, an emotional Pruneau addressed the media with swelled eyes.
Said Pruneau: “I’ve played a lot of football for this team, with injuries and in practice. To see that come to fruition means a lot to me.”