PHILADELPHIA — Harvard safety Chris Splinter’s in-your-face defense gave Penn receiver Mitchell King just inches of wiggle room at the back of the end zone. But King got free and leaped high to snare backup quarterback Andrew Holland’s 18-yard toss for the game-breaking touchdown early in the fourth quarter on Saturday, carrying the Quakers to a 30-21 triumph at Franklin Field and command of the Ivy League race.
“That was a quality throw and a quality catch,’’ said Penn coach Al Bagnoli. “Their guy [the 5-foot-10-inch Splinter] was all over him [the 6-6 King]. Our guy was just more athletic than their guy.’’
“He [Holland] went right up the seam,’’ said Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “Two guys battled for it. Their guy made a great play, and barely got his feet in.’’
Penn (5-4, 5-1) broke a deadlock with the Crimson (7-2, 4-2) atop the Ancient Eight standings to earn at least a tie for its 16th league crown, its third in four seasons, and Bagnoli’s ninth.
The Quakers can take it outright with a win at Cornell next Saturday, but a Penn loss could open the door for defending champ Harvard to get a share of the crown (needing a win against Yale). Penn will have Holland at the controls after senior quarterback and team leader Billy Ragone left Saturday’s game with a severely dislocated right ankle.
Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple hit on 17 of 27 passes for 174 yards and a score but was intercepted twice and sacked six times. The Crimson converted just 4 of 13 third-down chances, failing at critical junctures. Harvard trailed at halftime for the first time since its 2011 season opener, and its 21 points were a season low.
“Bottom line, their coaches and players did a better job than we did and deserved to win,’’ said Murphy. “We knew we had to win the turnover margin and wound up minus-2. Penn’s a gritty and resilient team and they just found a way to win another.
“It was pretty simple, really. They just blocked our guys. You can talk about speed, about strategy, and a lot of things but they blocked at the point of attack, pretty consistently throughout the game, and made the most of it every time.’’
The Crimson rallied to pull even at 7-7 and 14-14. Ragone clicked for a 2-yard touchdown pass to Ryan O’Malley to complete an 84-yard drive that ate up a big chunk of the second quarter and gave Penn a 21-14 advantage.
When Ragone, who had thrown for 108 yards and rushed for 95, went down on the final play of the third quarter, it was Holland who aroused the Quakers.
Ragone’s 32-yard touchdown toss to a wide-open Conner Scott on the game’s first drive put the Quakers up just 2:45 in. It took five minutes for the Crimson to tie it. Splinter’s interception set up Harvard for a 49-yard-march. Six plays after the turnover, Chapple went in from the 4.
Lyle Marsh’s 47-yard, zig-zagging sprint preceded Ragone’s 3-yard scoring run around the right side of Harvard’s line. Early in the second quarter Chapple powered a 72-yard drive with completions of 26 and 25 yards to Kyle Juszczyk, and Treavor Scales strolled in from the 1 for the score.
The scores by O’Malley and King built Penn’s lead to 28-14 but Harvard wasn’t done. Five minutes into the fourth, Chapple flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Juszczyk, wrapping a 64-yard drive.
But the Crimson failed to convert a pair of key third downs on their next two drives, and Penn put it out of reach by sacking Chapple three straight times, the last one in the end zone for a safety that made it 30-21.
“We thought we could take advantage of Penn’s backup [quarterback], but ultimately we couldn’t,’’ said Murphy. “Ragone had a tremendous game and is a real team leader. He showed who he is and kept us off balance.
“When he went out, it gave us a little lift. But they rallied around the backup.’’