In sports, every successful season comes with its fair share of breaks, and the No. 14 Dartmouth football team certainly got one of its own on Saturday in Cambridge.
With just six seconds left on the clock, the Big Green sat at Harvard University’s 43-yard line, down 6-3. After escaping pressure from the defense, quarterback Derek Kyler ’21 fired a bullet into the end zone just before taking a hit. The ball was tipped by two Harvard defenders and ultimately found the hands of wide receiver Masaki Aerts ’21 for the game-winning touchdown. With the 9-6 victory, the Big Green (7-0, 4-0 Ivy) continued its perfect season and Harvard (4-3, 2-2 Ivy) fell just short of playing Ivy League spoiler.
“It was pretty crazy — I was supposed to roll out to the right, which I did, and then there was an unblocked Harvard player, so that threw everything off,” Kyler said after the game. “I had to improvise a little bit. Honestly, I’m not sure how I got out of that. Once I got out, I just threw it up into the crowd, which is what we are coached to do, and then hoped for a tip to one of our own players. That’s exactly what happened, and we were very fortunate for that.”
Wide receiver Drew Estrada ’20, who had a 22-yard reception to set up the Hail Mary pass, was just as shocked by the final play as the rest of the team.
“I was kind of in shock at first,” Estrada said. “I was just hoping Masaki held onto the ball. It was an incredible play from Derek to give us enough time to get down the field. Masaki came in clutch with the catch. Just a crazy way to end the game.”
Just as fortunate, if not more so, was Kyler’s escape just prior to delivering the ball downfield. Had he been sacked, Aerts would never have had the opportunity to make a play on the ball.
“It’s kind of funny because, before the play, Hunter Hagdorn, one of our receivers, he says, ‘You can’t get sacked, you just gotta give us a chance,’” Kyler said. “That’s what we’re coached to do, and it stuck with me. It was in my head. As I was scrambling around, I was like, ‘Holy cow, I can’t get sacked.’ As soon as I figured I had enough space, I just tried to launch that thing.”
The heroics on Saturday were not just confined to that single play. Following a fumble by Kyler, the Crimson had the ball on the Dartmouth nine-yard line with just 1:19 to play, but a defensive stand on fourth-and-goal from the two yard line gave the ball back to Kyler and the Big Green offense one final time. With exactly one minute to go, no timeouts, and the ball at the Dartmouth four, Kyler led the team downfield in just six plays to set up the game-winning Hail Mary pass with just those final six ticks on the clock.
“The odds definitely weren’t in our favor, but we practice the two-minute drill every week,” Kyler said. “We’re pretty confident in our up tempo offense. I’ve been in situations — not quite the same situation — but similar situations throughout the year. We felt confident. Just keep chipping away, and then just put ourselves in a good position at the end.”
The Big Green were lucky to even be in that situation. For the first time this season, the offense struggled. Dartmouth only generated a total of 273 yards, a season low. The team felt the loss of quarterback Jared Gerbino ’20, who exited the game in the second quarter with an injury. The Big Green had scored at least 28 points in each of its first six games, averaging over 40 per game. But on Saturday, the nine points on the board were the fewest a Big Green football team has scored in a win since 1996.
“It just shows everyone that we’re never out of the game, and our defense is always going to keep us in [the game],” Kyler said. “They played great.”
The Dartmouth defense was indeed superb, bending but never quite breaking. Harvard only generated 304 yards of total offense, went just four of 15 on third downs, and only scored once after reaching the red zone, on a 38-yard field goal in the third quarter.
The Crimson did have control for the vast majority of the game, even if the score was relatively close. Harvard chewed the clock early; Dartmouth had just three drives in the first 20 minutes of the contest. The Big Green did not score until a 42-yard field goal from Connor Davis ’22 with just 59 seconds left in the first half, a kick which knotted the game at 3-3.
The offensive stalemate continued well into the second half, but after Harvard clung to a 6-3 lead for the majority of the third and fourth quarters, it appeared as if the Crimson would be spoiling the Big Green’s perfect record.
“Harvard’s a great coached program,” Kyler said. “It’s always going to be close, in my opinion, when we square off with each other. They had a good scouting report on us. They were showing things that they hadn’t shown before. They came in with a good game plan — not that we didn’t — but they probably executed better than we did.”
But the Dartmouth offense did finally click at the very end of the game, giving the Big Green its first win in Cambridge in 16 years.
“It took forever to come down,” head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 said of the Hail Mary play in his postgame press conference. “Then it’s, ‘Did that really happen, or am I dreaming?’ To see the joy in the eyes of the players and in the stands ... I’ve never been involved with a game like that where you win on a final, desperation pass. We’ve thrown a bunch up but never caught one.”
Dartmouth now looks ahead to next Saturday, which undoubtedly features the most important game on the schedule: a matchup with undefeated Princeton University (7-0, 4-0 Ivy), which will likely be the de facto Ivy League championship. Since the conference does not permit postseason play, the path to the conference championship will run through the winner of next week’s game.
To top it off, Dartmouth and Princeton will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of college football. The first college football game was played on Nov. 6, 1869, between the Princeton Tigers and Rutgers University. Dartmouth and Princeton will mark this commemoration by playing their game at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
“I’m very excited for it,” Estrada said. “It’s cool that we get to play at a stadium like that. I’m looking forward to the stadium and the atmosphere, and it should be a lot of fun.”
Kyler, too, recognizes how neat the experience will be.
“I think the atmosphere is going to be crazy,” Kyler said. “We have to do our best to treat it like every other game, go about our game plans, and do what we’re coached to do every single play.”