It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
For almost the entirety of last Friday’s game, Dartmouth football simply dominated Harvard University, and shockingly so in what seemed destined to be a tighter game. Every big play, every turnover, every lucky break and every point went the visitors’ way for the first 53 minutes of action. In what was unequivocally the most important game of the season, and perhaps the most monumental in decades for the program, the Big Green could not have envisioned a better course for much of the game to take.
With its loathsome rival and Ivy League behemoth on its heels, though, heartbreak struck the Dartmouth team.
Harvard finally found the end zone at the time it really mattered, putting its first points on the board at 6:38 in the fourth quarter off a turnover. The Crimson later engineered a touchdown drive to take the final lead 14-13 with 38 seconds left. Dartmouth quickly mounted an offensive push the other way in one last gasp of life, but the No. 15 Crimson (7-0, 4-0 Ivy) blocked a 46-yard field goal with a second remaining to preserve the win and hand the No. 22 Big Green (6-1, 3-1 Ivy) its first loss on the season.
Harvard continued its unbeaten streak against Dartmouth since 2003 and extended its current winning streak to 21 games, but more importantly, now possesses the inside track to secure its fourth Ivy League title in the last five years.
Playing in a nationally broadcast game and in front of more than 13,000 fans — with the Big Green faithful, composed of students, alumni and family out in full, raucous force — Dartmouth jumped on the opposing defense right off the bat. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Dalyn Williams ’16 swiftly followed a running lane up the middle for 14 yards. Two plays later, the senior arced a ball that fell into the hands of favorite target Ryan McManus ’15 to catapult the team 43 yards forward to the opposing 20-yard line. The opening drive stalled thereafter, but Alex Gakenheimer ’17 ensured his side would come away with points after splitting the uprights on a 33-yard field goal to put the Big Green on the board 3-0 over Harvard.
The following possession brought even more success. After a face mask penalty on Harvard helped move the chains, Williams threw a wide-receiver screen to KJ Booze ’16 to reach a first down right before opposing pressure swallowed him. An effective ground game guided the way before a key third-down conversion through the air set Dartmouth up 12 yards from the end zone. On third and goal from the three-yard line, Ryder Stone ’18 evaded a defender and shed off another tackle as he lunged for the score, giving Dartmouth a 10-0 lead.
Largely absent throughout the season, the Big Green rushing attack offered a vital boost to the offense early on Friday. Not only was he trusted to finish off the drive, but Stone also notched two first-down runs along the way. In addition to one from Williams, Dartmouth had gained more first downs on the ground than in the air during its only touchdown possession. By end of the first quarter, the team still had more rushing first-down conversions and had an edge in ground yardage over Harvard.
On the other side of the football, the Harvard offense — despite getting shutout up to this point — did not necessarily have a despondent showing. Quarterback Scott Hosch led the unit to pick up sizable chunks of yardage on several drives, as the Dartmouth defense proved penetrable. Yet the distinction here lies with how the Big Green responded to its opponent on the brink of scoring.
In the first half, Harvard completed one passing play for more than 53 yards, two for more than 20 and two for 10 yards, in addition to a 20-yard run, all of which rendered futile by an opportunistic Dartmouth defense.
With the Crimson moving the ball more productively on its second drive, a pass interference call on the third down set the home team up with first and goal from the 10. The Dartmouth defense, however, stiffened up, and after Hosch tripped on a third-down play in the backfield, safety David Caldwell ’16 blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt.
Two drives later, following a long pass set Harvard up with great field position minutes before halftime, Will McNamara ’16 lurked in coverage and intercepted a throw over the middle by Hosch. Coming at his team’s own five-yard line, the play represented a crucial stop and kept Harvard off the scoreboard through half an hour of play.
But the senior linebacker was not done on the night. On the opening possession of the third quarter, the Crimson received an excellent starting point after a 53-yard kickoff return put it at Dartmouth’s 35-yard line. On fourth and six from the 31, though, Hosch moved to his left and — opting not to run for what would have been an easy first down — instead threw a pass across his body that got picked off again by McNamara.
Yet even these two thrilling, drive-snapping plays couldn’t match what the Dartmouth defense did in its next two times out. Midway through the third quarter, Hosch cultivated a rapport with top target Ben Braunecker—connecting three times for 28 yards and two first downs—as the Crimson advanced deep inside Big Green territory once again. On a first-down run from inside the 20, Folarin Orimolade ’17 caused Paul Stanton to fumble, and Caldwell recovered the ball at the 12-yard line to mark the third consecutive Harvard possession to end in a turnover.
Meanwhile on offense, Dartmouth took a slight step back from its earlier exploits, which, as Williams noted, came in part to due to effective changes made by the Harvard defense.
“They got a decent amount of pressure, and I didn’t do a good job of checking the ball down,” Williams said. “So I put a lot of that on myself. We just didn’t put the ball in the end zone, we had our chances. They came out [in the second half], and they were expecting our deeper patterns, doing a good job of matching up with our underneath routes, so they did a good job of adjusting.”
On the second drive of the second half, however, Williams begun to elevate his passing proficiency, throwing for 59 yards to put the team within striking distance of another score. The Big Green would have to settle for a 39-yard field goal and a 13-0 edge. This came at the end of what was perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the contest, as Victor Williams ’16 dropped a pass that found him wide open from McManus on a trick play.
The failure to pad its lead with another four points — the difference between a touchdown and a field goal — would soon loom large for the Big Green.
As the game entered the final quarter and Harvard continued to move forward on offense, Dartmouth executed a goal-line stand for the ages. Another great kickoff return jumpstarted the drive for the Crimson, and two quick passes through the air by Hosch soon had his team within yards of a touchdown. But amid seven carries from inside the four-yard line — one of which moved the chains to reset the downs — the Big Green defense valiantly stuffed each and every run and quarterback sneak, yielding only three yards and thus forcing a turnover on downs. With just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the suffocating stand felt like a defining juncture in the game.
“That will go down [as] a legendary goal-line stand,” head coach Buddy Teevens said. “I will never forget that. The passion, the emotion on the side line, seeing the look in the eyes of the guys on the field, the excitement in the stands behind us. Dartmouth was well represented today, there’s a lot of folks that came down. None of us will forget that, we’ll talk about that forever.”
The ball returned to the Big Green one yard from its own end zone, but the drive would only last a short time. After two short carries and an incomplete pass, Dartmouth once again punted the ball, with the Crimson starting play on their own 49-yard line. Harvard made a few plays to move the ball up the field, but with time ticking in the final quarter, the Big Green still maintained a solid 13-0 lead.
Later in the drive, with all the momentum on Dartmouth’s side and with Harvard facing a 4th-and-12 situation, Hosch accelerated his team’s comeback trail after lofting a deep ball to the to the left end zone pylon, which receiver Seitu Smith somehow managed to come down with for the 39-yard touchdown with under seven minutes to play.
The two teams traded punts thereafter, but Dartmouth quickly gave back the ball after suffering a crushing late blow, as Crimson linebacker Jacob Lindsey forced Stone to cough up a ball that Harvard pounced on at the Dartmouth 49-yard line. Retaking possession at 2:54, the home side made sure its last chance would not go to waste.
Methodically navigating the short and favorable field position, Hosch followed a first-down run by his running back Stanton with two passing ones of his own to set Harvard up nine yards removed from the end zone. Hoping for a repeat goal-line stand, the Big Green defense failed to notice it left Crimson receiver Justice Shelton-Mosely open right inside the end zone, to whom Hosch — rolling to his right — zipped the ball for the decisive touchdown. An ensuing successful extra point gave Harvard a 14-13 lead, its first of the night.
Determined to not let its season’s title aspirations all but evaporate, the Dartmouth offense concocted one last scoring opportunity. With only 38 seconds remaining, the Big Green started at the 35-yard line after a Crimson kickoff fell out of bounds, and Williams quickly stringed together two passes to get to Harvard’s 29. The final seconds ticked off following an incompletion — leading to the Harvard team prematurely swarming the field — but the officials correctly put one second back on the clock. With one last chance to take the lead, though, the Harvard rush pierced through Dartmouth’s special teams protection as sophomore Stone Hart deflected a 46-yard Gakenheimer field goal attempt to seal the Crimson victory.
“It’s a tough loss obviously, it’s not the best feeling in the world,” McNamara said in succinctly summing up his team’s emotions after the game.
By the end of the devastating night for the Big Green, Dartmouth held a slight advantage in total offensive yardage as well as possessed a +2 turnover margin on the day. In an improvement from last Saturday against Columbia University, the Big Green offensive line granted plenty of time for Williams to throw, who in turn was able to connect on several deep passing plays. In the early stages of the second quarter, a completion also gave the senior quarterback the school’s all-time record in passing yards.
On the other end, as a result of his late game heroics, Harvard’s quarterback Hosch increased his undefeated mark as a starter to 13-0.
With three games left in the 2015 season for both teams, Dartmouth — as long as it wins out — can only hope for Harvard to slip up and get upset at some point to have any chance of splitting the Ivy League crown. Nevertheless, McNamara asserted that he and his teammates will not ease up as the season winds down.
“We have three games left,” he said. “Our team loves playing with each other, so we’ll take advantage of all three.”
The Big Green will take on Cornell University in another Friday night game this weekend at 8 p.m. in Hanover. Only the Big Red, along with Brown and Princeton Universities, remain in Dartmouth’s schedule to wrap up the season.