WORCESTER — To put it mildly, the beginning of Saturday's Harvard-Holy Cross game at Fitton Field did not match what was to come.
After a long Domenic Cozier touchdown run on the first Crusaders' drive, Harvard's defense and special teams dominated, and the Crimson's offense made a few big plays to capitalize in a 31-21 win.
The victory improves the Crimson to 4-1 and drops Holy Cross to 3-4. Harvard now goes into a crucial part of its Ivy League schedule — at Princeton followed by a home date with Dartmouth — with considerable momentum.
"Certainly an interesting game," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. "Our defense came up with some huge plays forcing some takeaways in the first half, and that really was the focal point of the game. To have short fields and be able to punch those in and jump on these guys was really the tale of the game.
"It was always interesting. A lot of peaks and valleys, a lot of things we would like to have done better. Any time you go on the road and play a good, really well-coached team like Holy Cross and come away with a win, I'm really proud of my players and coaches. They did an outstanding job managing the game."
After the 66-yard touchdown by Cozier — a Milford native and Milton Academy alum — over the left side put Holy Cross up, 7-0, those takeaways Murphy mentioned completely changed the complexion of the game.
It did not play a factor in Harvard's ensuing drive, which resulted in a pretty, 18-yard touchdown pass from Jake Smith to Jack Cook at the back left corner of the end zone to tie it with 9:51 to play in the opening quarter.
But Harvard forced a fumble on the kick return by Ayir Asante, and Jake McIntyre put the Crimson up with a 36-yard field goal.
Yet again, the turnover bug hit Holy Cross on the next drive, as quarterback Connor Degenhardt took a hit, fumbled, and the ball was recovered by Harvard's Jacob Sykes at the Crusaders' 22-yard line.
On the next play, Smith picked up a low snap, kept his composure, rolled to his right and found Duxbury native Ryan Reagan for a 22-yard touchdown to help give the Crimson a 17-7 lead with 4:41 to go in the first quarter.
The Harvard defense took over from there. For the day, Harvard made five sacks, including three from defensive lineman Brogan McPartland, who won the Johnny Turco MVP trophy for the MVP of the Homecoming game.
"We've tried to make that our identity this year," McPartland said of the pass rush. "We just try to (stop) the run, and that's when they drop back. That's where we really (shine). We have a lot of guys who can get after the quarterback. Don't get me wrong. They have a (really good offensive line). We saw them on film. We thought they were one of the best o-lines we faced, but that's our bread and butter. . . . We thought we could get to the quarterback."
Near the start of the second quarter, Harvard struck gold again with a turnover, as Nasir Darnell popped the ball loose from Peter Oliver and Jordan Hill recovered at the Cruaders' 3. On the next play, Harvard's Devin Darrington — who rushed for 109 yards on 28 carries — made a nifty spin move and ran in from 3 yards out to help give the Crimson a 24-7 lead, which is how it stayed until halftime.
"They're a good team," Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney said. "They made the most of every opportunity they had and we didn't. That's the story of the day."
There was one opportunity that the Crusaders did capitalize on to start the third quarter, as Chris Riley intercepted Smith (10-of-19 passing for 161 yards, 3 TD, INT) at the Harvard 26. Two Cozier (98 yards, 2 TD, on nine carries) later, the second from 17 yards out, helped draw the Crusaders to within 24-14 with 14:27 to play in the third.
From there, it appeared that a closer, more exciting finish was in store, as the teams traded one fruitless possession after another. For the most part, neither team really had much going as far as consistent offense, as Harvard had 322 total yards to Holy Cross' 288.
But Smith then applied the dagger when he hit Cody Chrest with a perfect strike on a deep post over the middle, and receiver sprinted in for the 68-yard touchdown with 4:36 left in the third.
Even though Holy Cross popped in a late, 32-yard touchdown pass from Degenhardt to Tenio Ayeni, the outcome was never really in doubt after the Chrest score
Canton native and Catholic Memorial alum Jack McGowan made a fourth-quarter interception, and even though it did not result in any Harvard points, the 17 off those four Holy Cross turnovers sealed the Crusaders' fate.
But the more you watched the game, the more you came away with the sense that this was simply a better Harvard team, rough start be damned.
"Three of our five games this year, the opponent has scored on the first, third play of the game," Murphy said. "We've come back to win two of those. Our coaches have done a great job making adjustments. Again, I'm proud of our whole team, but I thought our defense played very well today. We were nicked up and played a lot of different guys on the (defensive line), but we still managed to get pressure. Still managed to, most of the time, be able to, if not dominate their run, at least contain (the run). Obviously, just really proud of our kids to have the resilience to pull out a challenging game."