The senior class at Harvard numbers 36, the largest contingent on a Tim Murphy-directed squad in his 20 seasons on the sideline.
And in their final showcase at the Stadium, those upperclassmen were the anchors in a dominating first-half performance, one headlined by stout defensive effort at the point of attack, along with a precise 17-of-18, 227-yard, two-touchdown performance from junior quarterback Conner Hempel as the Crimson opened up a 31-0 cushion.
After Harvard held off a furious fourth-quarter charge from Penn to pull out a 38-30 nail-biting victory in front of 10,235, the Crimson (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) had put themselves in position to possibly play for a share of the league title Saturday in New Haven, in the 130th edition of The Game.
The Crimson put the home finale away with a 24-point second quarter, their eruption coming against a Penn squad that had seized an early 16-0 lead on Ivy leader Princeton last week before falling, 38-26.
With a big push from right guard Austin Scheufele, Hempel rolled left and plowed in from the 2 just 39 seconds into the second quarter for a 14-0 cushion, the finish to a 54-yard march. Senior kicker David Mothander, out since early October with a quad strain, pushed the cushion to 17-0 with a 20-yard boot with 3:01 remaining in the half, the 27th of his stellar career, three behind program leader Matt Schindel (’08).
When sophomore Paul Stanton burst in from the 8 with 40 seconds left in the half, his 12th TD of the season, the Crimson were cruising, 24-0.
Eight seconds later, captain Josh Boyd picked off Billy Ragone near midfield and Hempel went back to work. The 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound junior capped his half with a 40-yard loft down the middle to Ricky Zorn before hooking up with freshman end Ryan Halvorson for the 3-yard score, and a rather stunning 31-0 bulge.
Buoyed the healthy return of senior linemen Nnamdi Obukwelu, Jack Dittmer, and Austin Taylor, the Crimson bottled up the Penn ground game (18 yards on nine carries) in the first 30 minutes.
Hempel, who connected on his first 11 passes, put the Crimson on top, 7-0, with 3:41 left in the first quarter, tossing a 15-yard strike just inside right pylon to senior tight end Cam Brate. Sidelined the previous two weeks against Lafayette and Columbia, the 6-5 Brate reached over safety Mike Laning for the reception.
The hosts marched 76 yards on 12 plays on the first series of the second half, with Stanton plunging in from the 2 to make it 38-0.
But the Penn D stepped up, forcing four straight three-and-outs and the Quakers (4-5, 3-3) clawed back to within 38-30 on Ryan Becker’s 10-yard connection with Conner Scott in the left corner of the end zone, and his ensuing conversion to Ryan O’Malley with 4:30 left.
But with 21 seconds left, Becker’s toss on fourth and 8 from the Harvard 20 sailed incomplete, and the Crimson celebrated as one.
Craig Larson can be reached at email@example.com.