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Sophomore wide receiver Rory Starkey, Jr. hauled in two touchdown receptions to help Penn football top Harvard in a 24-20 battle in Boston.

Credit: Alec Druggan

BOSTON — After what happened in their last two wins, it should come as no surprise that the Quakers were once again involved in a nail-biting fourth quarter.

Penn football went back and forth with Harvard for the entire game on Saturday at Harvard Stadium, and the Red and Blue ultimately pulled off a 24-20 victory. The win was the Quakers’ third in a row, all of which have come by four points or less.

Two big plays by sophomore wide receiver Rory Starkey, Jr. made the difference. Starkey first hauled in a 71-yard bomb down the right sideline to give the Quakers (5-4, 3-3 Ivy) a 17-13 lead to open the second half.

He then came up with another clutch touchdown grab in the fourth quarter, a one-hander on a fourth and 1 from 16 yards out. With Starkey’s catch, the Red and Blue regained the lead with just over seven minutes remaining.

“It was a run-pass option, and they gave us the look we wanted, so we called it and threw it,” senior quarterback Nick Robinson said.

“Initially, when I saw the ball in the air, I didn’t think I was going to catch it,” Starkey said. “But I just stuck my hand out there and [the ball] stuck.”

The Crimson (4-5, 2-4), down 24-20 at that point, still had plenty of time to answer with a score of their own. They drove all the way down the field and got to Penn’s seven-yard line, but they stalled on the first three downs at that spot. On fourth down, junior quarterback Jake Smith tried to find junior tight end Adam West over the middle, but the pass fell incomplete in the end zone.

However, the Crimson got another chance in Penn territory with just over two minutes left after a Penn three-and-out. The Red and Blue again came up with a big stop, as the defense stuffed the run up the middle on fourth and inches with 1:45 remaining. With no timeouts left, Harvard was unable to stop the clock, and Penn took three kneel-downs to seal the win.

“We just knew that we had to capitalize,” senior defensive lineman Prince Emili said. “Fourth and 1, fourth and 20, no matter what, you just have to get the job done, no matter where you are on the field. We knew at that moment that was the game right there [on] the line, so you just have to put everything out there, and we did.”

Early in the afternoon, it looked as if Penn might cruise to victory. The Quakers cashed in on their first drive with a three-yard draw by Robinson. Then Harvard botched a snap on its next punt and gave Penn the ball at the Crimson 28-yard line. Penn sophomore kicker Daniel Karrash pushed his kick wide right, and the score remained 7-0.

The rest of the first half was a defensive battle. Harvard’s only explosive play of the half was a 47-yard strike down the right sideline from Smith to junior wideout B.J. Watson to knot the game at seven.

The teams traded field goals before Harvard’s Jake McIntyre knocked in a career-high 42-yard field goal after an interception near midfield by junior defensive back Max Jones toward the end of the half.

Credit: Alec Druggan

Sophomore wide receiver Ryan Cragun

The 71-yard Robinson to Starkey connection killed any sort of momentum that the Crimson picked up entering the second half.

Harvard’s final score of the contest, which gave the group a 20-17 lead, came off a double reverse from freshman running back Aidan Borguet to senior wideout Cody Chrest, who cruised untouched into the end zone.

“I mentioned to our staff two weeks ago that we’ve scored more touchdowns on that particular play than any other special play we’ve had over the 26 years we’ve been here, so let’s use it,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.

The Crimson were unable to dial up anymore magic on offense, though, as the Penn defense held tough for the remainder of the game. Penn’s run defense was particularly imposing, as the group limited Harvard running back Devin Darrington — who is second in the Ivy League in rushing — to just 24 yards on 16 carries.

Now riding a three-game win streak, the Quakers will come back to Franklin Field on Saturday for the season finale against Princeton, a game in which they hope to continue their turnaround from midseason.

“[As] Nick said, a lot of teams would buckle when you’re sitting there [at] 2-4,” coach Ray Priore said. “Our kids just ride a little bit harder, and fight a little bit harder, and stay together, and squeeze a little bit tighter. And that’s just great to our kids’ mindset, their heart, their drive, and how passionate they are.”