by Scott Reed
The October day in Ithaca was sunny and warm, a backup quarterback set records, and a movie star was in attendance - it was an odd, surreal game at Schoellkopf Field. Everything about the afternoon seemed atypical - everything except, of course, the outcome, as Harvard beat Cornell for the 10th time in their last eleven meetings.
The Ithaca day dawned radiant and, dare we say, almost hot, in a region known for its harsh winters and crisp autumns (This writer chooses to avoid upstate New York for this very reason). This pleasant surprise of a day was the backdrop for an unusually competitive Harvard-Cornell game and the best statistical performance by a Harvard quarterback in nine years.
The game was more competitive than Harvard-Cornell matchups of recent memory - the Crimson had won the last four games between the two with ease and had beaten the Big Red in nine of their past ten games. Saturday, however, Harvard found itself on the ropes for three quarters, as the Big Red offense, behind sophomore quarterback Jeff Matthews, kept pace with the Crimson every step of the way. Cornell set the tone early as they took the opening kickoff and drove 70 yards on three passing plays for the first score of the day. Matthews easily and quickly picked apart the Harvard secondary in a manner reminiscent of Holy Cross's Ryan Taggert in the Crimson's season opening loss. "It was an eye-opener that this was going to be a tough game," Harvard head coach Tim Murphy would say afterward of the drive. Although the Harvard offense would respond, Cornell would regain the lead 17-10 in the second quarter and 24-20 late in the third. It was not the kind of matchup between the two programs that Ivy League fans were used to seeing: the Crimson had romped by more than two touchdowns in each of their last four games with Cornell.
Of course, this team is not the Cornell of the last four years either, as the Big Red came in with a record of 2-1 and leading the league in total offense and total defense. That Cornell would challenge Harvard was not a surprise to the Crimson themselves, or at least to the coaching staff - a special meeting was called the Thursday before the game to address the importance of not looking past them. Saying that a team will take a game seriously is one thing, however, while doing it is another, and early on Harvard was surprised and given all it could handle.
Surprises occurred off the field as well on Saturday, as actor Bill Murray was spotted in attendance; Murray was shown several instances on the video board at Schoellkopf field and could be seen at times conversing with the Harvard band.
The most surprising storyline of the afternoon, however, and without a doubt the biggest story of the game, was the day recorded by Colton Chapple, Harvard's backup quarterback filling in for the injured Collier Winters for the third straight game. Chapple, a career second-stringer, ended the day with an eye-popping 414 yards through the air. That was the most passing yards recorded by a Harvard quarterback since Neil Rose threw for 443 at Dartmouth back in 2002. The nine year stretch between then and Saturday included the entire quarterbacking tenures of Ryan Fitzpatrick (now the starter for the Buffalo Bills) and Chris Pizzotti, two of the best signalcallers in Crimson history.
Could Chapple be better than those two? The opinion here is that he isn't anything close to Fiztpatrick or Rose in terms of raw talent, but that shouldn't take away from the outstanding day he had, a day that will go down in the Harvard history books. After the game, Chapple was quick to credit his wide receivers "We've got a lot of playmakers, and I was just trying to get the ball to them." Harvard does indeed have talent on the outside, and was bolstered by 100-yard receiving days from seniors Alex Sarkisian and Chris Lorditch. There were clear height mismatches that the Crimson were able to exploit, as Harvard's receivers often had six or eight inches of height on the Cornell cornerbacks. Yet, mismatches and talented wide receivers alone cannot account for Harvard's brilliant passing performance: there was something simply special about Chapple on Saturday.
In the end, though, a day full of surprises ended in a predictable final result, as Harvard continued its winning tendencies over Cornell. That Harvard was able to weather the storm from the Big Red and respond with 21 unanswered points is a testament not only to Chapple and the offense but to the coaching staff as well. And with the Crimson win, Harvard, which started 0-1 and now sits at 3-1 with two good options at the quarterback position, moves ahead to a future that looks much brighter than it did four weeks ago.
Scott Reed is the play-by-play announcer for Harvard football and men's basketball on WHRB.