How the 1995 Tigers Unity Won the Championship
It’d been two years, and Penn, with an explosive combination of run and pass games, had established an Ivy League regime. They’d done more than that. In those two years, the Quakers hadn’t fallen to a single Ivy opponent.
That’s not to say the Tigers hadn’t come close. It was a battle of the unbeatens in the 1993 season. In the showdown, Penn running back Terrance Stokes gained more ground than Princeton’s offensive weapon, the soon-to-be Bushnell Cup winner, Keith Elias, quadrupling Elias’ yards on double the carries. The Penn 30-13 win was only one of two losses for Princeton that season. And it wasn’t in the cards for Tiger redemption the next year. After a safety in the second quarter, Penn reeled off another 24 unanswered points against Princeton. It was that game, won 33-19, that handed the Quakers their second consecutive Ivy League Title.
So, entering the 1995 season, Princeton was looking to overthrow the defending title holders.
“I do know coming into this year, one thing was a little different,” running back Marc Washington said. “We knew that we had a chance to do something special given the amazing class of upcoming seniors and the folks in my class, the juniors, who had a significant amount of playing time and fair amount of experience under their belts coming off a few pretty successful seasons. We kind of knew we had a real opportunity in front of us if we collectively worked hard. That gave us a little bit extra push.”
They were coming in more experienced this year than last, when the loss of Keith Elias and 15 other seniors in the spring of 1994 to graduation left Princeton with spots to fill.
Senior linebacker and captain, Dave Patterson, would be starting for his third straight season with a school record of 130 tackles, 1st team All-Ivy and team’s most valuable player honors from the previous year. He would join fellow senior linebacker Ryan Moore, who finished his junior year as second-leading tackler with 78 and three sacks, to lead the defensive unit. Tim Greene, who would later become 1997 captain, joined them as a sophomore to round out the linebacker group.
The defensive line would be bookended by repeat All-Ivy end senior Darrell Oliveira and junior Dale Bartley. Seniors Brian Groody and Sam Young and sophomore Mark Whaling would comprise the interior line. The secondary was anchored under the senior leadership of Rich Hill and Rahul Mistry. Senior Hans Schroeder, junior Jimmie Archie, and sophomores Tom Ludwig and Damani Leech completed Princeton’s daunting secondary.
“We were blessed to have at least one player or more at each level (line, linebackers and secondary) that could take a game over at any point,” Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit said. “They were a unit that wanted to be on the field when the game was on the line and truly believed that they would make the critical stop to win the game.”
The offense also had their fair share of veteran talent with fullbacks Brent Godek and Mike Clifford blasting open running lanes, and junior Marc Washington, who averaged the team-best 4.9 yards per carry in the 1994 season. Princeton also boasted two quarterbacks who had seen on-field time. Senior Brock Harvey and junior Harry Nakielny had split the games four to six, respectively, that season. After some uncertainty in the spring over who would take the lead in the fall, Head Coach Steve Tosches decided Nakielny’s style of pass play would suit the Tigers to start the season. Senior wide receiver Roly Acosta would lead juniors Kevin Duffy, Ben Gill, and Alex House in the receiving corps.
The quarterbacks would work behind the Tiger’s offensive line, more commonly known as “The BEAST.” The line was composed of five formidable seniors: center John Nied, guards Carter Westfall and Rich Manzo, tackles Brad Pawlowski and Dave Maier, and tight end Ed Hosty.
“The approach during the training camp of 1995 was to get better every day and fill the positions lost through graduation,” Verbit said. “The league was very balanced coming into the season, and we knew that we would have to be at our best each week to challenge for the Ivy championship.”
Princeton would first face Cornell, when they would kick start their goal of an undefeated season. For Princeton, 1995 wasn’t simply a single great season: it had been a long time coming. Since the 1991 season, the Tigers had been 8-2 three times, only dipping to 7-3 in the 1994 season. In that four year period of winning 7+ games, Princeton had only lost an overall total of 9 games, the lowest for the Ivy League during that time. The Tigers had earned League Co-Champions in 1989 and 1992.
“The players really bought into this winning attitude that we can’t let it down, we can’t stop, we can’t be the team that doesn’t continue all of this,” Tosches said. “You go into the year with the success that the program was having at the time – ’91, ’92, ’93, ’94 – that’s added pressure. Expectations were very high, and they really had to show strength, mentally, to handle all of that, and they did it. That’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
The Big Red met the Tigers on New Jersey turf, but it was clear Cornell had trouble finding their footing there. Princeton was led by Nakielny’s effective passing offense. The Tigers exploded with touchdowns in their first two opening possessions. Then they gained another field goal and touchdown in the second half and, even though they allowed Cornell to score 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, closed out the game on top with a 24-22 final score.
Princeton’s strong showing against Cornell was only the beginning of a trend that would continue to appear throughout the season. Against the Big Red alone, Nakielny completed 22 of 28 for 256 yards. Freshman placekicker Alex Sierk made a 44-yard field goal, the first one of that length by a Princeton player since 1985. Duffy caught 8 passes for 89 yards, the most catches of any Princeton player since 1992. House and fullback Clifford grabbed four catches a piece for 42 and 60 yards respectively.
The Tigers faced two non-league competitors up next. Harvey would lead the team in the coming two weeks while Nakielny nursed a broken thumb from practice, but the offensive change didn’t slow what was beginning to become an orange and black steam roll.
Bucknell fell without a fight 20-3. Credit the Tiger defense to restricting Bison running back Rich Lemon to 15 yards on 13 carries, denying him 18 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Bucknell quarterback Jim Fox had three passes picked, two by cornerback Leech and one by linebacker Greene.
Washington felt the full impact of the 34-23 victory against Colgate a week later. He rushed for a career-high of 219 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per carry. It was enough to put him 10th on the Tiger’s all-time single-game rushing list.“I feel like I played well, but I wouldn’t have been able to generate those kind of stats without my offensive line,” Washington said. “I just knew with confidence they were going to open up huge running lanes, and I was going to have the opportunity to gain a chunk of yards at a time. And by the end, even though they actually hung with us throughout the game, we showed every time we got the ball, we were going to run the ball on them, and it was like there was nothing they were going to be able to do to stop us. We very much wanted it more.”
“I feel like I played well, but I wouldn’t have been able to generate those kind of stats without my offensive line,” Washington said. “I just knew with confidence they were going to open up huge running lanes, and I was going to have the opportunity to gain a chunk of yards at a time. And by the end, even though they actually hung with us throughout the game, we showed every time we got the ball, we were going to run the ball on them, and it was like there was nothing they were going to be able to do to stop us. We very much wanted it more.”
The rest of the team held their own, creating a balanced attack from both the Princeton defense who snagged an interception and Harvey who completed 10 of 17 with no interceptions of his own.
“Colgate was also an important game,” Harvey said. “It was an away game and a weird day. I’m pretty sure we were losing at halftime, but there was a calmness and confidence that came out of it. As a team, I really believe we decided that nothing that day in upstate New York was going to end our dreams.”
But it was on the grass at Brown Stadium where strategy, luck and emotion created a lasting spark for the Tigers.
With Nakielny back from his injury, Tosches was faced with the same big quarterback question as in training camp. Both players had pulled big wins for the team. With impressive play making from both quarterbacks, Tosches redesigned the offensive strategy to a quarterback rotation.
“It added a different dimension to our offense that just seemed to work,” Nakielny said. “I think, it might be because of the relationship and the confidence we all had in each other. I think everybody was 100% on board and accepting of it. We all just went with it. [Harvey] and I were roommates on the road; we got along great. We enjoyed each other’s success.”
The Brown game was a close one. Princeton was behind 13-7 at the half, but they turned it around after half time. Clifford made a 1-yard score in the third quarter. The lead was returned to Princeton, and a fumble on the next Bears kickoff set up Harvey for a 4-yard touchdown. The Tigers won 21-19.
While Princeton made an impression on the field, it was after the game that showed why the team would ultimately go on to lead the battle for the championship.
“[The players] wanted to stay in their uniform, stay in the middle of that field, and celebrate that victory,” Tosches said. “As coaches, we’re trying to say ‘let’s go, let’s get out of here and head toward the locker room,’ and they just didn’t want to leave. And to me, that really signaled the closeness that this game had, feelings that they had for the season, and obviously what they had started. It really signaled the heart they had and how much effort they put into each week preparing, and they wanted to enjoy it.”
And though the Tigers didn’t know it, fervently cheering on the field, Columbia had shattered Penn’s hold over the Ivies by 10 points. Not even halfway through their schedule, Princeton was becoming the season star.
The Tigers slaughtered their next opponent, Lafayette, with a shut out 41-0, its largest margin of victory since Princeton’s 42-0 win over Penn in 1969.
League rival Harvard didn’t stand a chance when Princeton rolled into Cambridge the following week. Winning 14-3, the game hit all sorts of high notes for the Tigers. The defense held the league’s second- and fifth-leading rushers to just 88 yards combined. Damani Leech snagged his fifth interception of the year in the first quarter. Washington had 129 yards on 30 carries.
Columbia’s Lions fell almost as easily as the Lafayette Leopards, with Princeton winning 44-14. Starters on both teams were slowly removed by the end of the game, and Columbia’s only two touchdowns came in the second half.
Now, two years later in the same undefeated 7-0 position, Princeton would match up against Penn rivals. More than 34,000 people had swarmed Franklin Field for the Quaker homecoming, most hoping to see Penn remain in the hunt for the Championship.
“We were all deeply impacted by our loss at Penn in ’93,” Harvey said. “I don’t believe any of our success in ’95 really meant anything to any of us until we played Penn. It kept us intently focused without the distractions of success.”
The Tiger defense grabbed the spotlight early in the game.
“The 1995 defense was a very humble, tight knit, determined, confident and opportunistic group that always found a way to make a play when it really counted. This is what allowed us to win the majority of the close games,” Verbit said. “The thing that made the wins so much fun were there were so many different contributors in each win, making it even more special.”
Penn quarterback Mark DeRosa simply had nowhere to go. DeRosa only completed 13 of 32 for 160 yards. Senior lineman Darrell Oliveira got him for three and a half sacks. Patterson, who had attracted attention from his explosiveness all season, broke Princeton’s all-time tackle record. Leech shutdown their other offensive weapon, All-American receiver Miles Macik. He snagged an interception and held Macik to only three catches for the day.
“I remember early in the Penn game after their quarterback had just been sacked/hit for the second or third time, and he was yelling at his offense in the huddle,” Leech said. “I knew right then that we had them. They were done. That was an awesome feeling of dominance.”
Princeton emerged victorious, 22-9. The Penn reign over the Ivy League had ended, and the Tigers only had two more games before they snatched up the title for themselves.
“Pulling it off at the end of the game, it was for me, personally, just reaching another goal because we had been beaten by Penn the year before and the year before that. Then we finally got them,” Nakielny said. “That was very exciting. It was one step closer to winning the Championship. We knew there were only two games left.”
Yale was the tipping point for Princeton. They could secure at least a piece of the championship with a win, not to mention celebrate it with a bonfire after their previous defeat of other Big Three competitor Harvard. The Elis were already struggling, 2-6 overall, 1-4 Ivy. And if Cornell fell to Columbia, it would be Princeton’s first outright championship in 31 years.
Yale would be making the trek down to Palmer Stadium for Princeton’s last home game of the season. The cold northeast weather had already set in, and it was pouring buckets when the team emerged from the tunnel in front of a season best home crowd of 21,000.
Princeton started in typical 1995 fashion. On their first drive, Harvey dashed 92 yards for a touchdown. The Elis quickly tied it up eight minutes into the second quarter after a shanked 16-yard punt. Another 13-yard pass from Harvey to Duffy put the Tigers up 13-7 after a missed point by halftime. Princeton hit a wall in the second half, only able to gain 28 yards in the third quarter and 43 in the fourth.
“It was the most bizarre game of all time,” Washington said. “Maybe we got a little too sure of ourselves and let our guards down, but just nothing was clicking. We would beat that team 99 out of 100 times we played them, I’m still very confident in saying that to this day, but we got them on that one day that represented the one of out 100 times they could get us. But things do happen, that’s why you play the game.”
In what was one of the biggest upsets in Princeton history, Yale surged back with three minutes left in the game. A fumble recovery by the Elis in the end zone sealed the Tiger’s only loss of the season, 21-13.
“You have to give credit Yale,” Tosches said. “Princeton was a big rivalry for them, and they came down prepared and played a great football game. I think that, and not to make any excuse at all, but the emotion of the week before, of beating Penn down in Franklin Field, not having done that two years prior, the fact that were 8-0, some of that emotion carried over and maybe we weren’t quite as focused, maybe we weren’t quite as ready going into that Yale game as we should have been, and that’s our fault.”
Their hopes for an undefeated season crushed, the Tigers had one more chance to clinch the outright championship title and gold ring with a win or tie in their last game of the season against Dartmouth.
“Losing was like bursting a bubble,” Patterson said. “There was a sense of disbelief. I remember thinking how we let down the fans and alumni, and I said so in the post-game interview. Shortly thereafter I got a letter from an alum saying how proud we should be, and that we didn’t let them down. It made me feel a bit better but no matter how you slice it, losing to Yale sucks. That said, once practice started on Tuesday, we focused on Dartmouth because we still controlled our destiny of winning the Ivy League championship.”
Dartmouth (4-2 Ivy, 7-2 Overall) wouldn’t fall easy. The Big Green had been a consistently solid team the previous few years, keeping pace with Penn as one of Princeton’s biggest rivals. Dartmouth boasted the league’s top defense, able to hold Brown, the top Ivy scorer, to just one touchdown the previous week.
Late in the first half, Leech sparked the Princeton offense with a 47-yard kickoff return. Nakielny connected with Duffy for Princeton’s only touchdown of the game. It tied the game at seven, but a Big Green field goal in the third quarter would leave the Tigers trailing by 10-7. All their hopes were riding on their fourth quarter performance.
Harvey emerged from the sidelines to lead the last drive with under five minutes left in the game. Set up on their 36, the Tigers felt the pressure against the Dartmouth defense who hadn’t given up much yardage the entirety of the game. This was their last chance.
It was slow progress, but Princeton made it to the 18-yard line with 26 seconds left. After two failed passes, the Tigers faced third-and-15 on the 23-yard line after a delay of game penalty. Harvey took the next snap, looking for a tight end. But with the Big Green secondary all over the Tigers, Harvey rushed toward the end zone himself after Washington opened up a lane with a block.
With four seconds left, however, Princeton’s chances of the championship were tackled on the one-yard line.
They had one more down to clinch the Championship. The offense was quickly shuttled off the field, while the kicking team took their places.
“We were on the field seconds before, losing,” Washington said. “I get to the sideline and they were saying, a tie is a win. That was the first time, I was kind of understanding, so we kick it, and we tie. Everyone is like ‘we just won the Ivy League Championship.’ Then it kind of all clicked in, and that’s when the confusion made way for the out and out euphoria. It was just an unbelievably amazing feeling.”
Sierk’s kick capped the 63-yard championship drive, giving Princeton its first gold rings in 31 years.
“My senior classmates played our first game together at Dartmouth, as a part of the Freshman Football program,” Harvey said. “We just felt like our careers had come full circle with our last game being at Dartmouth as well. The winning drive was an even more intense example of the same. I believe, in the moment, we recognized it as one of the few opportunities in a lifetime to accomplish a transcendent goal.”
Princeton and Dartmouth finished with nearly identical stats: 231 yards on 69 offensive plays for the Tigers and 236 on 68 for the Big Green. Even though neither team could gain an edge, the season finale was a perfect one for Princeton, who celebrated their outright Ivy League title with cigars.
“Dartmouth was always very similar to Princeton – great defenses, tough kids, resilient, and well-coached,” Patterson said. “Dartmouth knew that if they could beat us, they would have a shot at tying for the Ivy Championship, thus they were pumped up for the game. It is a testament to the tenacity of our team that we were able to bounce back from the loss to get our win/tie. Thankfully our defense was impenetrable all game long and the offense was able to orchestrate a last minute drive led by [Harvey] for the game tying, Championship winning field goal. They say that a tie is like kissing your sister, but that day our sister looked like Tiger Brooke Shields ’87!”
For the senior class, their final career game could not have ended better. In addition to the Championship title, the seniors also completed their Princeton football experience 23-6-1 of their 30 games (as freshman were not eligible for Varsity play until ’93).
“I was the head coach at Princeton for 13 years, and when we had successful seasons it was because there was great senior leadership,” Tosches said. “That was a great senior class who knew nothing but success in their years at Princeton, and they wanted to make sure they put the finishing touches on their career, with an outstanding senior season.”
The win represented more than just a well-played 10 games for Princeton. A huge part came from the brotherhood that had started bunking, military style, at Caldwell Field House during training camp. The players’ unity, hard work and enjoyment for the game manifested itself on the field and in the championship.
“We all just bonded so well as a team,” Nakielny said. “It was a very special group. I felt like this particular team was more of a group atmosphere than broken down between years. Whether it was just watching particular TV shows together on particular nights, eating dinner together, going out to see a movie, everyone did everything together. It was a rare, special year.”
Princeton ended as the NCAA leader in turnover margin, showing exceptional balance on both sides of the ball – forcing a tremendous amount of turnovers, but very rarely giving any up. The 1995 season also ended with another special award. Patterson was awarded the Bushnell Cup for his outstanding individual performance.
“Not a lot of defensive players win, so it certainly felt good,” Patterson said. “A lot of credit goes to the whole defense. We were a complete unit, and the interior linemen did a phenomenal job of keeping blockers off me all season. Of course the coaches can’t be left out. Steve Verbit and Don Dobes put us in all the right places to be successful.”
The 1995 team will return to Princeton Stadium Oct. 3 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their championship. Their outright Ivy League title still stands as the only one since 1964.
To watch highlights of the 1995 season, click the video below: