From the very beginning of the game to the very end, Harvard wide receiver Andrew Fischer placed his fingerprints all over the 131st edition of “The Game.” His first opportunity came on Harvard’s first play from scrimmage, and he dropped a deep pass down the sideline that would have been a sure touchdown – and the perfect start to the game.
His last touch – and Harvard’s last meaningful one on offense – gave the Crimson the perfect ending.
Fischer’s second touchdown catch of the day, a 35-yard haul from quarterback Conner Hempel with 55 seconds remaining, lifted Harvard to a 31-24 victory over Yale as the Crimson clinched an outright Ivy League championship as well as a perfect 10-0 season, the school’s 17th perfect season. The score capped a wild second half, which produced 45 combined points, multiple plot twists and a storming of the field by the Harvard students when all was said and done.
After a first half which only saw 10 combined points scored and Yale scoring the only touchdown, the second half sprung into life in the cold, windy afternoon, with the undefeated Crimson establishing control with 21 unanswered points. Harvard’s offense, which gained only five first downs in the first two quarters, gained five first downs on a 58-yard march to the end zone to begin the third, with Paul Stanton Jr.’s one-yard plunge giving the Crimson a 10-7 lead.
Even after Harvard had a short field goal blocked on its next possession, their momentum on offense continued after the defense forced Yale’s second punt of the half, with Fischer accounting for 61 of the Crimson’s 78 yards on their second touchdown drive of the quarter. Three plays after gaining 21 yards on an end around, Fischer caught his first of two touchdowns on a reverse pass, as fellow wide receiver Seitu Smith came around on a reverse then threw downfield to Fischer. Fischer caught the pass at the 10, then shook off a defender towards the end zone to give the Crimson a 10-point lead.
The Harvard defense, the best in the Ivy League all season long, then capped their third-quarter shutout of the Bulldogs by scoring a touchdown of its own. Yale drove 59 yards to the Harvard 16, but on a third down, linebacker Connor Sheehan wrestled a Morgan Roberts pass away from receiver Grant Wallace and returned the interception 90 yards for a touchdown on the last play from scrimmage in the quarter.
Harvard was one quarter away from a perfect season, but Yale responded with a near perfect final stanza to almost lay waste to the eventual coronation.
Yale, with the wind at its back, took to the air to begin the comeback, and Roberts hit receiver Mike Suragusa on a deep pass of 38 yards to the Harvard 1. Running back Tyler Varga, the Ivy’s leading rusher, bowled in from one yard out to cut Harvard’s lead to 24-14 early in the fourth.
Yale received the ball back at Harvard’s 46 after a defensive hold and a subsequent 14-yard punt, and Roberts hit Wallace for 36 yards on the first play of the drive to set up a first-and-goal from the 10. Three plays later, Varga scored his third touchdown of the day, catching a pass from Roberts and running it in from eight yards out to slice Harvard’s lead to three, 24-21, as well as send thousands of fans dressed in blue and white into near rapture in the stands of the horseshoe-shaped stadium.
The starch was out of the Harvard offense, and, on the next possession, Stanton lost his second fumble of the day, as defensive end Marty Moesta pounced on the loose ball for Yale at the Crimson 46 with 7:42 left. Varga then touched the ball on four of the next five plays, getting Yale into the red zone. After the drive stalled at the 16, Kyle Cazzetta kicked a 33-yard field goal to tie the game at 24 with 3:44 left. To that point, all of the 38 points scored in the second half had been scored by the team with the stiff 14 mile-per-hour wind at its back.
While the perfect season and an outright championship were in serious jeopardy, Harvard composed itself on the final drive. Led by the senior quarterback Hempel, Harvard’s all-time leader in completion percentage who missed the last two games with a shoulder injury and had battled injuries all season long, the Crimson methodically marched down the field to possibly set up a game winning score. Going into the wind, setting up for a field goal would have been a tricky proposition. Instead, Hempel and the offense challenged Yale downfield and completed a pass to Fischer over the middle to Yale’s 35 with just over a minute left.
On the next play, Hempel went deep for Fischer again on a go route, and Fischer got behind his defender to make the catch in stride at the four-yard line and strolled in for the score. The score unleashed a deafening roar from the crowd, as the Crimson were 55 seconds away from winning their eighth consecutive game against their blood rival.
But there was to be one last twist in the game, with Yale owning all three timeouts and starting at its own 29 to try and tie the game. After two incompletions, Roberts hit Varga out of the backfield for 11 yards. Roberts completed two more passes, the last to Wallace down to the Harvard 26 with 33 seconds left. After a sack, Harvard sealed the win as linebacker Scott Peters intercepted an errant Roberts at the 15, going down onto his back and raising the ball aloft to kickoff the wild celebration.
The kneel down from the victory formation was all that was left, and Fischer, who was the deep safety in the formation, took off his helmet and ran into the stands to celebrate with his family in the stands. It almost wasn’t necessary, since about every Harvard student, alum and friend of the university rushed onto and consumed the playing field once the clock hit zeroes.
[Cover photo (Harvard players/fans) courtesy of Jared Wickerham/Getty Images]