By Gethin Coolbaugh, Boston Sports Today
CAMBRIDGE - Andrew Fischer went fishing, and he came back with the biggest catch of his life.
The junior wide receiver set out to reel in a prayer from his quarterback, and the result was a season- and career-defining 35-yard touchdown catch, giving Harvard the lead for good with seconds left en route to a thrilling 31-24 win over Yale in the 131st edition of The Game on a chilly, windy Saturday.
"That will always be in the memory," Fischer said after tearing up the Bulldogs' defense and the stat sheet with eight catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns along with 79 rushing yards on a pair of carries. "It was a great play. No doubt in our minds that we were going to go out there and execute."
Fischer's heroics not only sealed the deal in one of college football's greatest rivalry games, but also gave the Crimson an outright claim to the Ivy League title, their 16th in program history, and finished off an unblemished 10-0 season, marking the 17th time Harvard has gone undefeated on the gridiron.
As for its storied rivalry with Yale, Harvard now has eight straight wins and improved to 58-65-8.
"I've been through 21 of these, and it's a part of you. You think you've seen it all, and then you haven't," said longtime Crimson head coach Tim Murphy, who moved to 16-5 for his career in games against the Bulldogs. "Truly amazing performance by our kids. Sheer will power."
A clash of Ancient Eight titans that featured the league's top defense in Harvard and the number one offense in Yale produced a low scoring and erratic first half, yielding just 10 combined points and a four-point halftime cushion for the visiting Bulldogs, who were seeking a share of an Ivy League title.
Harvard didn't do itself any favors in the first two quarters, failing to convert on scoring chances and putting the ball on the ground twice. A 25-yard field goal from Andrew Flesher with 5:36 to play in the first was the lone bright spot for a Crimson offense that couldn't prevent its drives from flatlining.
Fischer dropped what could have been a touchdown on Harvard's first offensive snap, and the Crimson couldn't secure the scoop and score on a blocked punt to end the ensuing drive. Even with great field position at the Yale seven yard line, Harvard couldn't punch it in and settled for three.
A costly substitution penalty -- the Crimson had 12 men on the field -- gave Yale's offense new life at the Harvard 19 yard line, and it led to the day's first touchdown four plays later, Tyler Varga's six-yard scamper with 38 ticks to go in the first, giving the Bulldogs with a lead they would hold until halftime.
"I think it took a while to get the blood flowing. [It was] a little bit cold out there, [a] windy, dry day" said Conner Hempel, a senior and the starting quarterback for the Crimson. "[It was] tough to grip the ball in those conditions. So I think it took a little bit to get the blood flowing, get into a rhythm."
The flood gates burst open in the second half, with the Crimson and Bulldogs putting up 45 points between them. Harvard changed the narrative with 21 unanswered points in the third quarter, only to see Yale score 17 in the fourth to erase a 17-point deficit and send the two sides back to square one.
Paul Stanton Jr. handed the Crimson their first lead of the game on his one-yard rush with 10:06 on the clock in the third, and Harvard would score on its next possession thanks to some trickery -- wide out Seitu Smith floated a 40-yard touchdown pass to Fischer with 2:45 remaining in the quarter.
Connor Sheehan seemingly put the nail in the coffin for the Bulldogs, ripping the ball away from Yale wide receiver Robert Clemons III for an interception and returning the ball 90 yards down the sideline for the score, his third career pick returned for a touchdown, with six seconds left before the fourth.
Varga found the end zone twice for the Bulldogs in their first two drives of the fourth, scoring first on a one-yard rush with 12:35 left and again on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Yale quarterback Morgan Roberts at 8:21. Kyle Cazzetta's 33-yard field goal at 3:44 was good, tying the game at 24.
With a shot to win it, Hempel used his arm -- and on one play, his legs -- to extend the drive, and both Stanton and Fischer made timely plays, with the former rushing 13 yards for a first down and the latter making a 12-yard snag one play before his game-winning catch with 0:55 on the clock.
"I had full confidence in [Fischer], that he was going to beat his man and come down with the ball," Hempel said. "I knew I was going to him right when the play was called. ... I'll never forget telling our running back to make his block, because this is going to be the play that's going to win it."
Plenty of time was left for Yale to answer, and its offense picked up three first downs and moved the ball 39 yards on eight plays to the Harvard 32 yard line, but Scott Peters intercepted Roberts at the 15 with 10 seconds to play, ending all hopes of a comeback and leashing up the Bulldogs for good.
"There's a part of you no matter what ... that says, you know, we've been extraordinary fortunate, we've won 12 out of the last 13 [against Yale], maybe this just isn't our day," Murphy said. "[I'm] just in awe of the performance by our kids. They, once again, willed this thing into the win column."
Hempel, who missed six games due to injury this year and hadn't played since a Nov. 1 win at Dartmouth, started slow but finished 18-of-28 for 191 yards and a score. Stanton rushed for a team-high 109 yards and a score on 22 carries as Harvard racked up 439 total yards (231 pass, 208 rush).
Roberts eclipsed the 300-yard threshold, completing 26-of-48 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted twice. Varga led all rushers with 127 yards and two scores on 30 carries and Grant Wallace had 10 catches for 127 yards. Yale amassed 430 total yards (305 pass, 125 rush).
"Great football game between two very good teams," said third-year Bulldogs head coach Tony Reno, who is still winless in all three of his attempts against the Crimson. "In the end, Harvard made the play on the last drive, and we unfortunately didn't. That was the difference in the game."
Gethin Coolbaugh is the Editor-In-Chief of Boston Sports Today. Twitter: @GethinCoolbaugh.