With national television cameras ready to capture every play, bright lights shining on the field and 14,000 fans in the bleachers, the stage was set for a dramatic Ivy League opener Saturday as the Bears went up against their rival neighbors to the north - the Harvard Crimson.
Despite a strong start in Brown Stadium's third-ever night game, Bruno (1-1, 0-1 Ivy) fell behind in the second half and lost 45-31 to Harvard (2-0, 1-0 Ivy).
We need to give "credit where credit is due," said Head Coach Phil Estes after the homecoming game. "Harvard is a very good football team."
The relentless Crimson defense limited the Bears to 91 rushing yards - fewer than the 120 running back Spiro Theodhosi '12.5 single-handedly accumulated in last week's win over the Holy Cross Crusaders.
"We couldn't run the ball like we thought we could, we didn't tackle very well, and we didn't finish very well," Estes said. "We can play better."
The Bears came out hot on the first drive of the game, moving the ball efficiently and going 75 yards for a touchdown in eight plays. The drive was highlighted by quarterback Patrick Donnelly's '13 43-yard rocket to wide receiver Jonah Fay '12.5. The game's longest completion set the Bears up on the Harvard 27-yard line.
Theodhosi - who was selected for the New England Football Writers Golden Helmet Award after last week's star performance - followed up with a pair of runs, punctuating the 3-minute, 59-second drive with a one-yard rush into the end zone.
"We ran things to perfection," Estes said of the first drive.
Harvard quickly retaliated, bringing the ball to the one-yard line with a series of solid passes by senior quarterback Colton Chapple, who threw for an impressive 351 yards and a touchdown during the weekend showdown. The drive seemed to be over when the Crimson fumbled the ball, but Chapple recovered, and kicker David Mothander nailed the 22-yard field goal to put his team on the board. The first quarter ended with Brown in the lead 7-3.
Bruno could not push through the Harvard defense on the next drive, but a long punt by Nate Meyer '13 pinned the Crimson deep in its own territory. Despite the poor field position, Chapple's offense was able to advance the ball 98 yards, capping the game's longest drive with a touchdown by running back Treavor Scales.
The Crimson scored again before the half came to a close. After the team recovered a Theodhosi fumble, Chapple completed a 30-yard pass to freshman Seitu Smith II on the very next play to put Harvard up by 10. Though the Bears got as far as the Harvard 16 in the closing minutes of the second quarter, Donnelly was sacked on a critical third down and the Bears were forced to go for the field goal. Alex Norocea '14 connected on the 42-yard attempt, narrowing the halftime Crimson lead to 17-10.
"We had a game at halftime," Estes said. "We just couldn't make the stops we needed to in the second half."
The Crimson poured it on in the second half, scoring one touchdown in the third and another three in the final quarter.
"What it comes down to is that Harvard's a good team," Donnelly said. "And when you play a team that good, you've got to bring everything you've got."
A big part of Harvard's success can be attributed to Scales, who ran for a career-high 173 yards in the Crimson's season opener against the University of San Diego and once again demonstrated his offensive prowess by running the ball into the end zone four times this weekend.
"People say he's among the five best running backs in the league," Harvard Head Coach Tim Murphy said of Scales. "But in my mind, he's among the five best players at any position."
As Scales and the offense continued to overpower the Bruno defense, the Bears' offense did a good job of keeping the game within reach down the stretch.
Donnelly coordinated a sharp 53-yard drive late in the third, finishing off with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Fay to make it 24-17 Harvard. Fay led the Bears with 77 receiving yards.
After the Crimson promptly responded with seven points, Bruno led an even more explosive attack, taking the ball 58 yards in just four plays and 1:52. A 16-yard pass to tight end Alex Viox '15 again brought the game back within one possession, 31-24, with nearly a full quarter to go.
But a few minutes later, on a critical third-and-nine - with the home fans riled up in support of the defense - the Bears failed to read the Harvard attack and Scales broke through the line for an uncontested 41-yard run down the middle of the field. The touchdown put the Crimson back up by two possessions, 38-24, and markedly shifted the momentum away from the Bears.
The fourth-quarter "slugfest," as Harvard senior linebacker Bobby Schneider called it during the post-game press conference, continued with another Crimson touchdown that virtually put the game out of reach for the Bears.
Throughout the afternoon and into a chillier second half played under the lights, the Bruno defense was unable to stop the dominant Crimson offense.
"We never put enough pressure on the QB to make bad throws," Estes said.
The Crimson "definitely tightened up against the run in the second half," Donnelly said, which contributed to the shift to a pass-heavy offense in the third and fourth quarters.
The clock was also a factor in setting the offensive strategy as the game wore on, and the Crimson maintained their lead. "When you're playing from behind, you've got to throw the ball," Estes said.
Donnelly threw his third touchdown pass of the night late in the fourth quarter to wide receiver Stian Romberg '15, to cut the Crimson lead to 14, but the time for a comeback had vanished. As the lights dimmed on the fans and field, the final result was vibrantly displayed on the brand-new scoreboard, which had been used to display live coverage, instant replays and entertainment throughout the game: Harvard 45, Brown 31.
Donnelly said that after coming out "really fired up" in the first quarter, the team unfortunately kept making a "mistake here and a mistake there" after a promising first drive.
Murphy said the Ivy clash was "not the kind of game (he) expected," noting that he thought the Bears would keep the game even closer.
Brown "hit us in the mouth a couple of times, but we persevered," Chapple said.
Despite the loss, Bruno remains confident about the season. "If we played (Harvard) again, we could beat them," Donnelly said. "We're not lacking in confidence."
Though that opportunity will not come until next fall, the Bears have already begun gearing up for their next opponent: the Georgetown University Hoyas.
"We need to clean up any mistakes we made on Saturday and focus on how we
can beat Georgetown," Donnelly said.
"The biggest thing we need to remember is that this was just one game," Estes said.
The Bears will spend three weeks on the road before returning for another key Ivy bout against Cornell Oct. 20.