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Harvard 38, Penn 30

Harvard holds on for win over Penn

Crimson nearly give up big lead

Harvard’s Paul Stanton sailed over Penn’s Mike Laning for a second-quarter touchdown.
Harvard’s Paul Stanton sailed over Penn’s Mike Laning for a second-quarter touchdown.(John Blanding/Globe Staff)
Harvard38
Penn30

Harvard’s seemingly insurmountable 38-0 cushion, capped by Paul Stanton’s 2-yard plunge with 10:23 left in the third quarter, had nearly evaporated.

And Penn, spirited and determined after a rather flat first half, was knocking on the door again, trailing by 8 and sitting on the Harvard 21 with 57 seconds remaining after converting consecutive fourth downs.

“We knew that we had to get a stop on that last drive, you have to stick with it,” said Harvard linebacker Josh Boyd

A 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound captain from Hyde Park, Boyd is the leader of the largest senior class, one numbering 36, in the program’s storied 140-year history. And with their backs up against the closed end of Harvard Stadium with the sun fading Saturday afternoon, those upperclassmen made a riveting final stand in their home finale.

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Senior safety Jaron Wilson corralled Kyle Wilcox after a 1-yard gain on a swing pass. After Penn senior QB Ryan Becker overthrew 6-4 Conner Scott in the back of the end zone, senior end Danny Frate pressured Becker, forcing an incompletion. And on fourth-and-8, Boyd tipped away a Becker bid over the middle for 6-6 tight end Ryan O’Malley.

And only then, were the jubilant Crimson able to celebrate as one their nail-biting 38-30 victory in front of 10,235, earning a shot to possibly play for a share of the Ivy League title Saturday in New Haven in the 130th edition of The Game.

“I’d like to think that I got a tip on that ball,” said Boyd, who had a team-high eight tackles. “We had to make a play there. It was a little hairy when the ball was up in the air, but it was a great way to end the game.”

His coach, Tim Murphy, was more succinct. “We showed what we are made of, and that’s the bottom line,” he said proudly, before adding, “I prefer to think of this team as the team that executed and played as hard and as well as any team in the Ivy League has in the first 35 minutes.’’

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Now, thanks to that final stop, and the nearly flawless first 35 minutes, the Crimson (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) will head to Yale (5-4, 3-3), needing a little help up in Hanover, N.H., when Dartmouth (5-4) hosts Princeton (8-1, 6-0), which pounded the visiting Elis, 59-23, Saturday.

In constructing that 38-0 spread, the Crimson dominated at the point of attack, on both lines of scrimmage, punctuated by a 24-point blitz in the second quarter. On the defensive front, the healthy return of seniors Nnamdi Obekwelu, Jack Dittmer, and Austin Taylor was a huge emotional lift. “Everyone was playing two inches taller,” said Murphy.

Obekwelu, cleared by the doctor after sitting at Columbia, said “there was no way I was going to miss this game. And it was memorable.”

With a big push from right guard Austin Scheufele, quarterback Conner Hempel (12 carries, 65 yards) rolled left and plowed in from the 2 just 39 seconds into the second quarter for a 14-0 cushion

Senior David Mothander, out since early October with a quad strain, pushed the cushion to 17-0 with a 20-yard boot with 3:01 remaining, the 27th of his stellar career, three behind program leader Matt Schindel (’08).

When sophomore Paul Stanton burst in from the 8 with 40 seconds left in the half, his 12th TD of the season, the Crimson were cruising, 24-0.

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Eight seconds later, Boyd picked off fifth-year senior Billy Ragone near midfield and Hempel went back to work. The 6-3, 210-pound junior capped his 17-of-18, 200-yard first half with a 40-yard loft down the middle to Ricky Zorn before hooking up with freshman end Ryan Halvorson for the 3-yard score, and a rather stunning 31-0 bulge.

“We weren’t playing hard, we weren’t physical, we weren’t chasing the ball, we weren’t finishing blocks,” said Penn coach Al Bagnoli after his 4-5 squad suffered its third straight Ivy loss. “That’s very, very un-Penn-like.”

When the hosts marched 76 yards on 12 plays on the first series of the second half, with Stanton plunging in from the 2, it was 38-0.

Murphy thought his Crimson had put Penn away, so he pulled a number of his banged- up starters. “Obviously, it was too soon,” he said.

An inspired Penn defense forced five straight punts, and the Quakers clawed back to 38-30 on Becker’s 10-yard connection with Scott in the left corner of the end zone, and his ensuing conversion to O’Malley with 4:30 left.

“We were playing with more juice and confidence,” said Bagnoli. “But when you get that far behind against Harvard . . . ”

In years past, when Murphy has taken an 8-1 squad to Yale, “we’re rolling,” he said. “We’re not rolling, we’re just a really tough team.

“We are one play [against Princeton, in a 51-48 triple overtime loss] from being undefeated. I love this team.”

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Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com.