CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - What had the looks of a long Saturday afternoon for the University of Pennsylvania football team nearly turned into the greatest comeback in college football history. The Quakers trailed at Harvard, 38-0, late in the third quarter, but mounted a near-historic comeback before the potential game-tying drive fell 20 yards short in a 38-30 loss.
After entering halftime down, 31-0, and falling behind, 38-0 in the third quarter, the Quakers (4-5, 3-3 Ivy) did not concede another first down to Harvard (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) and began to mount a comeback in front of a national television audience on the NBC Sports Network.
The Red and Blue scored 30 unanswered points and were driving for the potential game-tying score in the final seconds. To date, the largest comeback in college football history is 35 points when Michigan State overcame a 38-3 second-half deficit at Northwestern in 2006.
Down by eight, Penn's final drive started at its own 30 with 3:42 to play and no timeouts left. Twice on the drive, Penn converted on fourth down to keep hope alive. The first was a 16-yard pass from Ryan Becker which tipped off the hands of Ty Taylor and right to a waiting Ryan Mitchell at midfield. Faced with 4th-and-5 from the Harvard 42 later in the drive, Becker hit senior Conner Scott for eight yards to the Harvard 34. Two plays later, Becker would connect with Taylor for eight yards and a first down, getting out of bounds with under a minute to play. After a one yard gain, Becker looked for Scott in the endzone, but his pass was just out of the reach of the diving receiver. Third down saw an incomplete pass to Kyle Wilcox in the flat, and on fourth down, Becker's pass over the middle was deflected by Harvard in the secondary and fell to the ground to halt the near-record setting comeback.
It took an incredible effort to reach that point. Freshman Adam Strouss had the first two scores for Penn. The Red and Blue first got on the scoreboard midway through the third quarter. Strouss sparked the drive with a big third-down conversion from the Penn 30. His 26-yard connection was the first completion of his career as well as sophomore Ben Challgren's second career reception. Moments later, Strouss capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown to make the score 38-7 with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
After a three-and-out, Penn took over at the Harvard 48. Sophomore Mike Elespuru ran four times for 25 yards to get the Quakers in the red zone. On 4th-and-4 from the Harvard 8, Becker scrambled to the 1-yard line. Strouss took it in from there for his second straight score and the Quakers were within 38-14 just a minute into the fourth quarter.
The defense forced another three-and-out and the Quakers took over at their own 39. Becker quickly moved Penn downfield. He was 5-for-5 for 42 yards and connected with Challgren from six yards out for Penn's third straight touchdown. Freshman Ryan Ripp converted the two-point conversion when he caught Becker's pass and broke several tackles en route to the end zone. That pulled Penn within 38-22 with 8:30 to play.
For those that still didn't believe, the Quakers forced yet another three-and-out - capped by a David Park stuff of a Conner Hemple sneak on 3rd-and-1 - and then drove 70 yards in seven plays to make it a one-score game. Becker threaded a perfect pass to Scott down the left sideline into the end zone from 10 yards out with 4:30 to play. Becker then connected with junior tight end Ryan O'Malley for the two-point conversion. 38-30.
Armed with three timeouts and a defense which was dominating Harvard, the Quakers kicked away. The decision paid off as Penn stifled Harvard again, leading to - you guessed it -another three-and-out. The big play was a Sebastian Jaskowski tackle on a swing pass on 3rd-and-3 to hold Harvard just short of the sticks. The Crimson were forced to punt and Penn would have its chance to tie the game and potentially make history.
In the end, the 38-point deficit proved to be too deep of a hole. It started early. The Quakers had a chance to strike first. On Harvard's first possession of the game, junior Mike Laning forced a fumble and Jaskowski fell on the ball at the Harvard 25. But a long 43-yard field goal attempt came up short.
Harvard then capitalized on the miss and drove 75 yards in 11 plays to take a 7-0 lead with 3:41 remaining in the first stanza. After a Penn punt, the Crimson took over around midfield and found the end zone again. A two-yard run on the second play of the second quarter gave Harvard a two-touchdown lead.
In response, Penn drove to midfield, but was forced to punt again. Harvard put together a methodical drive, but the Quakers defense halted them inside the five. The Crimson settled for a field goal and a 17-0 edge with 3:01 left in the first half.
Then in the final minute of the first half, Harvard scored two touchdowns in 22 seconds. It started when Penn botched a punt and gave the Crimson the ball at the Penn 28. Harvard made quick work and found the end zone in four plays for a 24-0 lead. On Penn's next play, senior Billy Ragone was intercepted and it took the Crimson just two plays to score again and bring a 31-0 advantage into the half.
The Crimson extended their lead on the first possession of the second half. Another long drive that lasted 12 plays and went 76 yards was capped with a two-yard touchdown run.
In the first half, Penn was outgained 290-56 and had just four first downs to Harvard's 17. After Harvard went up by 38, the Quakers had 262 total yards to Harvard's 29 and Penn had 17 first downs to the Crimson's zero.
In all, Harvard outgained Penn, 395-318, though the Quakers held the advantage through the air at 243-227. Penn was just 2-of-13 on third down, but 4-of-5 on fourth down.
Becker played throughout the second half and was 19-of-32 for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Scott had a team-high six catches and 88 receiving yards, while Taylor added four receptions for 55 yards and Mitchell had four catches for 38 yards. Scott moved into Penn's all-time top 10 in career receptions with 94, while Mitchell is eighth in school history and one away from 100 catches for his career.
Defensively, Laning finished with a team and career-high 12 tackles, including a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Sophomore Trent Dennington had a collegiate-best eight tackles, while Jaskowski finished with seven tackles and the fumble recovery. Senior Tosan Eyetsemitan and sophomore Tyler Drake each added a sack for the Quakers.
As is tradition since 1987, the Quakers take on Cornell in the season finale. It will also mark the 120th meeting between the two programs—the fifth-most played rivalry in college football. The 2013 edition will serve as Senior Day at Franklin Field. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m., and the game can be seen on the Penn Sports Network.