On a day of FCS craziness, one of the wackiest results came in Massachusetts on Saturday afternoon between Harvard and Holy Cross. The Crusaders, ranked #6 in the national polls, were expected to roll the visiting Crimson. Tim Murphy’s squad, however, had other plans and sent Holy Cross packing with its second loss of the season and the first against an FCS opponent since the playoffs last year.
Harvard started fast, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive. Cooper Barkate, the sure-handed receiver, mixed it up and ran in for an eight-yard touchdown to start the scoring barrage for the Crimson. Barkate’s TD came on the heels of a 33-yard drive that was set up by a great return on the kickoff.
Trailing 7-0, things went from bad to worse for Holy Cross. After marching down the field in what appeared like it would be an answering series, quarterback Matthew Sluka was sacked and fumbled the ball. Harvard’s Tyler Hueneman jumped on it for the first of five turnovers that the Crimson defense would attain.
The fumble, though, would not necessarily turn the fortunes for the Crusaders just yet and it only took Sluka one play to redeem himself. On the next possession, he hit receiver Jalen Coker for an electrifying 74-yard touchdown to knot things back up. The crowd at Polar Park had reason to be excited again.
The Crimson responded and did so quickly. Charles Deprima found Dean Boyd for a 26-yard score on the ensuing drive to regain the lead. The momentum for Harvard only grew from there when linebacker Matt Hudson stepped in front of a Sluka pass and took it 24 yards the other way on the pick.
The unease that was settling into the Holy Cross crowd morphed into dismay when running back Shane McLaughlin plowed in from three yards out to extend the Crimson lead to 21-7 in the second quarter. The Crusaders were starting to reel and they needed some sort of life before halftime.
That life came in the form of another Sluka-to-Coker connection. The duo’s second touchdown of the day was a 30-yard dart with under seven minutes until the break. Shortly following, the Crusaders’ D forced a punt and it seemed as though things were finally starting to sway back.
Harvard DB A.J. Lopez, though, made it abundantly clear that that would not be the case as halftime approached. Lopez intercepted Sluka deep in Holy Cross territory and went 27 yards untouched the other way into the end zone. It was a 14-point swing that stunned the Crusaders and put the Crimson up 28-14.
Sluka and company would tack on a touchdown before halftime but still found themselves down seven as they headed into the locker room; not an ideal situation against an unranked foe at home.
The teams would trade punts until midway through the third when Harvard again added onto its lead. Barkate hauled in a 31-yard pass from Deprima for his second touchdown of the afternoon on 4th and 8. It was a gutsy call and it paid off in spades. The Crimson held a 35-21 edge as the game entered its late stages.
Desperation started to set in for the Crusaders but all that came from that was two more turnovers on their next two drives. Another Sluka interception led to three more points for Harvard and then another untimely fumble followed shortly after.
An upset seemed immanent by this juncture but Holy Cross would not fold. As the fourth quarter ticked on, Sluka hit Justin Shorter for a big 67-yard gain. That play paved way for the fourth Crusaders touchdown of the day a few plays later. Byron Shipman brought in the three-yard score that drew it back to within ten.
The defense did its part and forced Harvard to punt on the next series but unfortunately for Holy Cross it was not enough. A fourth down pass from Sluka to Shorter came up well short, sealing the shocking loss. Harvard took it 38-28.
This defeat will have long-lasting effects for the Crusaders and their playoff push down the line. While it will not at all affect their bid for another Patriot League title, it will almost certainly cost them the chance at another playoff seed come December. Now with two losses, it’s hard to imagine the committee granting a bye.
Sluka finished his day with 320 yards and four touchdowns., numbers that are expected from the senior QB. It was his three interceptions, though, that hurt. Coker had a big day with 176 receiving yards and two scores but the Crusaders defense struggled greatly, allowing over 200 rushing yards.
Meanwhile Harvard takes home a massive win. The Crimson are still unbeaten with a might impressive victory now on their resume. Deprima completed nine passes for 151 yards and rushed for another 89. The defense, however, is the unit that really came to play. They took the ball away five times and held Holy Cross to just 3-of-11 on third down.
Holy Cross (3-2) will travel to face Bucknell next Saturday while Harvard (3-0) will take on Cornell at home.