Boris Tsang/Sun Senior Photographer

Defense kept Cornell in the game, but the Red ultimately could not keep pace with the Crimson, losing its lead in the second half.

October 9, 2021

Defense Puts Up Valiant Effort, Football Doomed by Offensive Struggles in Loss to Harvard

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This article has been updated. 

Cornell and No. 22 Harvard entered their matchup having experienced very different fortunes in their first three games of the season. 

While the undefeated Crimson was coming off a 38-13 victory over a ranked Holy Cross team, the winless Red was coming off a tough loss to a struggling Bucknell team. Despite being outmatched by a hot Crimson team, Cornell put up a strong effort. On the back of its defense, the Red went into halftime with a 7-3 lead, but the team could not keep pace with Harvard, ultimately falling 24-10. 

With Cornell (0-4, 0-2 Ivy League) coming into the game with a -7 turnover differential and Harvard (4-0, 2-0) boasting a +7 differential, the turnover battle would be key to deciding the victor. On that front, the Red got off to a great start.

After starting the game with fifth-year quarterback Richie Kenney and going three-and-out, senior cornerback Demetrius Harris picked off Harvard’s Jake Smith on the Crimson’s first offensive play of the game. 

Despite the turnover, the Red failed to gain any traction on its next three drives, as drops by wide receivers stymied the offense. Cornell’s defense continued its strong start, shutting down the Harvard offense and its running back Aaron Shampklin, the leading FCS rusher in yards per game (125.7).

Harvard received the ball before the conclusion of the first quarter. At the top of the second frame, Harvard head coach Tim Murphy opted for a quarterback switch, placing sophomore Charlie Dean in at signal-caller instead of Smith.

The move paid immediate dividends as Dean, together with sophomore running back Aidan Borguet, engineered a drive into the red zone. The duo picked up numerous chunk gains to carve up the Cornell defense. But junior linebacker Jake Stebbins stepped up during a goal-line stand, containing three rush attempts by Harvard. The Crimson, stuffed near the goal line, settled for a 20-yard field goal by junior kicker Jonathan Lipel to take a 3-0 lead with 9:27 left in the second quarter. 

“There are endless positive things I can say about those guys,” said head coach David Archer ’05, referring to his defense. Stebbins paced the defense with seven tackles, including 2.5 for a loss. Harvard, coming in with an average output of 239 rushing yards per game, was held to half that total as Cornell contained the Crimson to just 119 yards on the ground.  

Cornell’s offense, still stuck in the mud, went three-and-out again. Harvard made the Red pay, blocking Kiefer’s punt and taking possession at the Red’s 20-yard line. With its back against the wall once more, Cornell’s defense stepped up.

After forcing two stops, senior defensive lineman Jack Muench strip-sacked Dean, and junior safety Jalyx Hunt recovered the ball. This time around, the Red capitalized on offense. Kenney found senior wide receivers Thomas Glover and Raymond III for chunk gains to move down the field. Cornell then found its longest play of the afternoon on a 24-yard catch-and-run by fifth-year wide receiver Alex Kuzy. 

The Red then cashed in on the next play, as fifth-year running back SK Howard found plenty of running room on a 24-yard touchdown splash, putting the team up 7-3. On the next two drives, the Crimson and the Red both whiffed on their opportunities. On another Kiefer punt, Cornell received a prime scoring opportunity after Harvard wide receiver Gavin Sharkey muffed the ball, gifting the Red excellent field position in Crimson territory.

Cornell failed to convert, though, as Kenney nearly threw an interception, but due to an egregious drop by Harvard’s Jack McGowan, the Red evaded a turnover. Archer decided to go for a field goal, and junior placekicker Scott Lees’ 53-yard attempt fell just wide of the goal post. 

The Red’s defense was phenomenal in the first half, holding a Harvard team that came in averaging 43.7 points per game to just a field goal and 94 total yards on offense in the opening 30 minutes. Cornell, which only forced one turnover in its first three games, forced three Crimson turnovers in the first half and also sacked Dean twice. Thanks to this strong defensive effort — along with the fact that Cornell did not commit any turnovers on its own — the Red entered halftime with a 7-3 lead. 

“[Coming into the game,] we needed to limit turnovers,” Archer said. “And not giving the ball away on offense was a huge improvement.”

Harvard regrouped during the half, and the Crimson came out firing to start the drive. The opening catalyst for the Crimson was a 24-yard reception by tight end Haven Montefalco near midfield. Soon after, Shampklin rumbled down the sideline for a 31-yard pickup on the ground. 

Despite the Red rallying for another goal-line stand, penalties derailed Cornell as junior defensive lineman Onome Kessington and junior cornerback Paul Lewis III were flagged for a face-mask penalty and a pass interference, respectively. On third-and-goal, Shampklin punched it in from the one-yard line, giving Harvard a 10-7 edge. 

Cornell immediately responded, though. Kenney continued to connect with his receivers, completing three passes for 40 yards while Howard and senior running back Devon Brewer picked up chunks on the ground. The drive stalled at the Harvard 15-yard line, and Lees converted on a 33-yard field goal attempt, tying the game at 10. 

It did not take long for the Crimson to retake the lead. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Dean found wide receiver BJ Watson on a short reception, and the senior did the rest, taking it to the house on a 75-yard touchdown, lifting Harvard to a 17-10 lead over the Red. 

Cornell failed to respond on its next drive, going three-and-out, but senior punter Koby Kiefer’s 56-yard boot helped flip the field. The Red’s defense regrouped to force a Harvard punt that only went for 33 yards, and Cornell took over in great field position at the Harvard 49-yard line. 

The Red looked like it was churning again, as Kenney completed two passes to Kuzy and senior wide receiver Curtis Raymond III. In the red zone, Cornell was faced with a 4th-and-1, and Kenney kept the ball for a QB sneak, which fell a half-yard shy of the line to gain, a tough blow for a Red team that was down by just one possession. 

In its previous three outings, Cornell struggled in the fourth quarter, and the same was true on Saturday in Cambridge. While the defense still held Harvard to 17 points, the Red whiffed on its first two drives in the fourth quarter, only moving the sticks once during the first seven minutes of the quarter. 

The Red’s defense forced yet another Harvard punt, and the offense was once again stuck in poor field position at its own nine-yard line. But for the first time all quarter, Cornell showed signs of life, ultimately reaching its own 46-yard line off a 15-yard catch by Kuzy, who wound up finishing with eight catches for 92 yards on the day.  

From there, the Red sputtered. An incomplete pass and a six-yard loss on a Brewer catch put the Red in poor position to convert, and Cornell failed to move the sticks on third and fourth down. Shampklin then iced the game for Harvard, finding an open crease to score a 35-yard touchdown. 

“We just have to figure out the right combinations of personnel to get out there,” Archer said of his offense. Through four games, Cornell is only averaging 14.5 points per game, which ranks dead-last in the Ivy League. And aside from its two last-minute touchdowns against Yale, the Red has struggled tremendously in the fourth quarter, having failed to score in the final frame against VMI, Bucknell and now Harvard. 

With the Crimson up 24-10 and less than two minutes remaining on the clock, the score held up as final. The Red was unable to mount a miraculous comeback.   

After three games away from Schoellkopf, the Red will return home next week in search of its first win. The team will attempt to come away with its first win of the season in a Friday-night tilt against regional rival Colgate.