The 2006 Championship Team’s Winning Trends
By: Rebeccah Barger
The 1995 Princeton Tigers swept the Ivy league for a championship title 8-1-1. Just over a decade later, as the Class of 2007 team geared up to begin preseason, the legacy was still hanging over them. Princeton football had seen losing records for the majority of the past decade. It was said the team was cursed, from their unlucky “Harvard Hex” to the “Penn Jinx.” Their 2005 season had nearly broken their bad luck, but the Tigers had landed just shy of grasping an Ivy League Championship. Instead, they fell to Brown, and had yet to break the eleven-year streak without a ring.
But the Class of 2007 still had a title in their sights, despite being predicted to finish sixth in the league by the Ivy League Annual Media Poll after Princeton finished second, just behind Brown, the previous season. Princeton was out to prove their 2005 season wasn’t a fluke. Despite their loss of 15 seniors to graduation – including defensive heavy-hitters Justin Stull and Jay McCareins, offensive stars wide receiver Greg Fields and tight end Jon Dekker, and record-setting kicker David Javarone – the Tigers would retain a lot of talent to flesh out their 2006 team.
That talent would include senior quarterback and co-captain Jeff Terrell, who, starting his first-ever college game only the past year, had hit 139 of 253 passes for 1,721 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Junior fullback Rob Toresco and senior tailback Cleo Kirkland would fill out the offensive backfield. Head Coach Robert Hughes would focus on a conservative offense focused on ball control in 2006.
“Going into the 2006 season. my number one hope was to win the Ivy League championship. We had an outstanding turnout of players to stay on campus that summer to train and intern together,” Toresco said. “We were all in great shape going into training camp and we spent the summer running routes and working on timing so the offense was already ahead of the curve for the first day of camp.”
The defense would start seniors across the line, and senior linebacker and co-captain Luke Steckel would lead the fresh group of linebackers. Princeton defense would enter 2006 with old tricks, again featuring the 3-4 scheme they had used in previous years.
“When I was at Princeton, we had a great linebacking core and were known for running a 3-4 scheme and had great success with that in our history,” Steckel said. “We actually did try a few 4-3 schemes early in the season because we had lost so many great linebackers from the year before, but we did end up running a 3-4 scheme because it worked better for us. I do think we were deep in every position. We didn’t have a lot of superstars, just a bunch of strong guys from the top to the bottom.”
The Tigers would face off against Lehigh for their first game of the season. The Mountain Hawks had begun their season two weeks prior, and it had been seven years since the Tigers had seen a victory against them.
“We entered the year feeling like we had missed an opportunity the previous year. We were so close to beating the league and had a bad loss to Yale, that if we had won, we would have been in a good position to win a championship,” Terrell said. “So, for those of us coming back, we were feeling like we had some unfinished business and were excited to come in and continue the winning ways and trend of getting better each year.”
Princeton and Lehigh met at Goodman Stadium. The Tigers would take the field with 15 new starters, but it seemed the infusion of freshness into their team wouldn’t change their luck against Lehigh. By the end of the first quarter, they were behind by 10. Junior linebacker Doori Song would help to turn the tide with a big stop on a Lehigh fourth-and-one just before the end of the half.
With their new momentum, Princeton would strike back against the Mountain Hawks for 14 points. Terrell hit 51 yards in three passes to Toresco, pushing his way into the end zone for seven. Princeton was put into position again by an interception from senior safety and four-year starter Tim Stickland. Terrell passed to sophomore Adam Berry to close the drive with a touchdown.
“The opening games are always hard for the Ivy League, especially against a great program like Lehigh,” senior defensive back Kevin Kelleher said. “Our first game is always the third of the Patriot League season, so in all three phases of the game it takes a while to get used to game speed and settled in. The ability to come back and get a win at Lehigh set the tone for the entire season.”
The Princeton defense would hold the lead by stopping Lehigh on another fourth down attempt and intercepting another pass. Princeton came out on top 14-10.
“Overall, what I remember from the Lehigh game, was just the amount of work we put in during the off-season and how that builds to the season opener. The fact that we won, I just remember the joy in the locker room after that. There was so much emotion in that room. I’m also a pretty passionate guy, and I remember being moved to the point of tears because it was so satisfying to come away with a win after all the work you had put in over the course of the year.”
Lafayette would travel to meet Princeton in their second game of the year.
Princeton was hoping to recreate their moment in 2005 against the Leopards this season. It had been Terrell’s opening debut that would kick off his extremely successful season in which he passed for 1,721 yards for the program’s best record since 1995.
But this week, Terrell would be the veteran leading a young offensive crew.
The Tiger offense would shine against the Leopards. Terrell passed for a career high of 261 yards and rushed for a team-high of 39 yards. Princeton would also rack up three touchdowns, two of which came at critical junctures when the Tigers were down 7-6 and 14-13. Brian Bringham and Will Thanheiser received passes to lift Princeton to 14 points. Sophomore running back R.C. Lagomarsino would take in the last touchdown of the night on a 49-yard run.
With that, Princeton had topped Lafayette 26-14.
“I think we had a great group of seniors and a great team. A lot of the credit goes to the seniors, but we also had a very young team, specifically our offensive line,” Terrell said. “The offensive line enabled me to do what I needed to do. It was a real great group of guys that played hard together.”
Princeton was still eight games away from having a shot at the title, and they had yet to play league opponents. Columbia would be the first on their schedule.
The Lions (2-0) would bring a strong offense to the contest against Princeton. They would also have a chip on their shoulder from the 2005 matchup between the competitors when Princeton nearly shut out Columbia 43-3.
Given the offense’s stunning display at Lafayette, the Princeton defense was prepared to answer with their own moment at Wein Stadium to top the Lions 19-6. They held Columbia to 134 yards, stuffed them on all 11 third- and fourth-down conversion attempts, and added a safety to their performance.
“Columbia was a great performance and a game where we were really able to control the line of scrimmage. I don’t know if it was our best performance; I think like most of those first 4 or 5 games it was the product of a defense growing in confidence,” Kelleher said. “We were coming off two great wins against Lehigh and Lafayette, and beginning to have more comfort that allowed us to do a lot more schematically.”
Having retained their winning streak, Princeton would challenge Colgate. Only three years prior, the Tigers had matched up against the Raiders in exactly the same way. They blew the game in 2004 and saw losses four more times that season. In 2005, they had also failed to rally against the Raiders. They hadn’t won a game at Andy Kerr Stadium in nine seasons.
Entering this year, they were determined to not repeat history in front of roughly 4,000 fans on Colgate turf.
“Colgate was always a big physical team. During our years of playing against one another they always had an offense that could score points,” Toresco said. “They had a very strong backfield with Jordan Scott who was the Patriot League rookie of the year in 2005. We just couldn’t seem to put a complete game together against them.”
The Raiders gained an early lead at 7-0 in the first quarter. It was nearly identical to their 2005 contest, when the Raiders took an early 13-0 lead.
Princeton rallied in the second quarter. Their no-huddle offense struck the right momentum. Lagomarsino rushed for 33-yards to put Princeton in Colgate territory. Terrell took advantage and connected with Circle to tie the game. The Tigers then scored on their next possession with a field goal by Conner Louden. Colgate responded, but missed the extra point. Princeton would take advantage of this slip up to hold the lead. They ended the game 27-26 in overtime.
“We ultimately thought that we should have won that game before overtime. I think we outplayed them,” Lagomarsino said. “It just turned out that we had a couple mistakes, a couple turnovers. It turned out that game was was a huge momentum boost for us, particularly, against a good patriot league school.”
Princeton continued its incredible winning streak, pulling ahead of Brown 17-3. The win improved the Tigers to 5-0 overall and undefeated in the Ivy League. It would also give them a burst of confidence heading into the contest between rivals for the next week as Princeton and Harvard, both undefeated, would face off. Princeton and Harvard hadn’t matched up without losses since 1922. Then, the “Team of Destiny” won the contest and went on to snag the Championship.
Almost 20,000 fans would turn out on to watch the battle in Princeton stadium. But for Harvard, Powers Field felt like home: they had won here against Princeton five straight meetings until last fall when 2005 ended their streak.
The Crimson was looking to win back their dominance. They exploded on Princeton’s first possession by blocking a punt and then rushing for a touchdown. Princeton, not ready to lay down, answered by marching down the field until Terrell connected to junior end Brendan Circle to tie it up 7-7.
After their initial touchdown, it looked like the Tigers had found their stride. They racked up the points: another field goal and a Jake Staser touchdown. They led 17-7.
Harvard needed an edge. They found that in returning quarterback Liam O’Hagan. He snagged a touchdown for the Crimson. Princeton responded with a Toresco rush for another 7. By halftime, Princeton sat at a 24-14 lead.
“Dating back to the new stadium being built at Princeton after Palmer Stadium, I believe Harvard had never lost at Princeton. Tim Murphy and Harvard had been (and continue to be) at the top of the league and in order to be in the discussion to win a championship, everyone knew a win against Harvard was going to be required,” Circle said. “If memory serves, it had been the better part of a century since Princeton and Harvard both played each other with undefeated records as well. This game definitely had special meaning for our team. The team effort to put us in a position to win this game is what I will remember most.”
The Tigers, however, struggled to maintain their dominance in the third quarter. 14 points from Harvard went unanswered. The Crimson seized a 28-24 lead.
With just over seven minutes left in the game, Circle and Terrell connected. The Tigers stole back the lead 31-28. All the defense had to do was hold the Crimson at bay.
Junior defensive back Kevin Kelleher did more than that – he made two interceptions in the last three minutes of the game to dominate Harvard. The Tigers were undefeated 6-0.
“I think the best memories of the Harvard game when looking back is the personal performances by my closest friends whom I still call my closest friends today,” Toresco said. “Brendan Circle had an outstanding game on the offensive side but I distinctly remember the defense coming up big to seal the win. My closest friend, best man at my wedding, and our free safety at the time, Kevin Kelleher had himself a career game. I remember he had 2 interceptions that afternoon. When reminiscing, it just comes back to memory as the perfect day, perfect weather, and great performances from all of my closest friends.”
Cornell was Princeton’s seventh matchup of the season, but were expected to lose. The Big Red at 2-4 and had lost to both Brown and Harvard, who Princeton had championed over.
But something didn’t feel right on the field this week. Cornell would prove to be Princeton’s stumbling block on the way to a ring. The Tigers lost an early lead and finished 7-0.
“To this day, I can’t really explain what happened at Cornell,” Steckel said. “It was a combination of things. We were playing on the road at Cornell, which is always a tough trip. We were coming off the high of an emotional win against Harvard. I remember after the game, talking with Jeff Terrell in the locker room, and we looked at each other and said ‘this will not happen again.’”
Princeton seemed it still had trouble establishing its footing against Penn. The game would be decided in double overtime against the Quakers, despite the strong 24-10 lead the Tigers held in the fourth quarter.
“Penn was always a tough opponent and, while I was in high school [They] were the perennial power houses in the Ivy League,” Toresco said. “As an offense we were able to score a majority of our points in the first half and then we kind of sputtered.”
As the teams entered overtime, Penn, who had scored 14 unanswered points to propel the contest into extra time, trekked down the field in its first possession to set up for a field goal. But, the Quaker’s holder would drop the ball. Princeton would take over, but in its own twist of unfortunate events, their attempt would be blocked.
In double overtime, the game came to a head once more. Princeton sat on the one-yard line. Terrell handed it off to Toresco, who couldn’t push through the Quaker’s defensive line. Just before the whistle, he tossed it back to Terrell who snuck over the line for a touchdown. Penn would have a chance to answer, though – and they did.
The game would come down to the extra point. Penn would go for a game winning two-point conversion. The Princeton defense would head off the attempt just in time. Princeton came out on top in its most dramatic finish: a 31-30 win that lifted the team to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Ivy.
“The Penn game was fantastic because we were able to pull out a nail biter at home in front of our fans, and that win kept us in the title race,” senior defensive back Tim Strickland said. “I don’t really recall us stopping their two point conversion, but I do recall the play that got us there in the first place, which was Robbie Toresco, on the goal line, pitching the ball back to Jeff Terrell who took it into the end zone for the score. That evening, that play was featured on ESPN’s top ten plays segment.”
Aside from the Championship looming large, Princeton had one more goal in mind: The Big Three Championship and bonfire outside Old Nassau. All they had to do was beat Yale.
Just over 43,000 fans would turn out to the see the anticipated match up.
“Yale was undefeated in the league when we played them at the Yale bowl in the second to last game of the season. If we didn’t win the game against Yale, we would have been out of the title race,” Strickland said. “That game, because of the teamwork and effort that was displayed by all, was, by far, the most memorable moment for me during my collegiate playing career.”
Princeton, who blew a 14-0 lead last season, would actually start behind. Yale led by two touchdowns throughout the first half.
“The Yale game was pretty crazy. I remember just buses of students traveled there – everyone was going to the game at the Yale Bowl in New Haven,” Lagomorsino said. “The whole stadium was full. It was super loud, and we played a terrible first half. I remember our quarterback, Jeff Terrell, he had an incredible second half. We basically switched to an all passing attack. We started coming back, and you could feel the energy start to build again.”
Princeton would regain the lead. Circle would score another touchdown, but the Tigers would miss the extra point. Wide receiver Brian Brigham would score another seven on Princeton’s next possession. Terrell connected with Circle for a two-point conversion. Princeton won 34-31.
“The part of I will never forget, and I still get chills thinking about it, is when I rolled over to get up along the Yale sideline. As I looked over the crown of the field to our sideline, it was sheer euphoria,” Circle said. “The coaches were signaling in the victory formation to take a knee to run out the clock and it was sheer joy to celebrate what we had worked so hard to achieve as a team. I am still humbled by the response from the fans who road-tripped up for the game and the ensuing “storming of the field”. We still had another game to play the following week at Dartmouth but the Yale game will forever stand out as the best moment of the season for me.”
Dartmouth would be the final challenge for Princeton, whose hopes of an Ivy League title were hanging in the balance. If they won and Yale lost to Harvard, Princeton would have the outright title. As of now, they were only guaranteed a share.
A touchdown to Princeton wide receiver Jordan Munde early in the game put Princeton in the lead. From there, Toresco scored another fourteen points in the game. Dartmouth would try to keep up, but ultimately failed. Princeton had done it, 27-17, for the win over Dartmouth and the Ivy League Championship.
“It was a fantastic experience to celebrate with the campus community for our wins against Harvard and Yale,” Terrell said. “It was such a special night; I’ll never forget it. We really had some great fans that year. For that season, we generated a lot of interest. We had turned the program into a winning one, and it was fun to see the campus community get behind us.”
Princeton ended their season 9-1. This was the most wins the program had seen in a season since 1964, and it’s first championship in 11 years. Terrell would finish his year honored with the Bushnell Cup, the Ivy League’s MVP award. He, along with teammates Circle, senior punter Colin McDonoough, and senior defensive backs J.J. Artis and Strickland, were named to first-team All-Ivy.
“We had a lot of great individual players on the 2006 team, but the strength in our team wasn’t the individuals. It was in the team as a whole,” Steckel said. “Our group of guys loved each other and played hard for each other, and I think that’s what really set us apart from the teams we played every Saturday. We wanted to win more than they did, and we cared about each other more than they cared about themselves. It was a really special group of guys, and I will forever be proud to have been on that team.”
The Team of 2006 will return to Princeton Stadium this Saturday during the Harvard vs Princeton game at 1:00 PM. Their championship and the history they made as a team will be honored at halftime.
This article marks the third of a three-part “Class of ‘6’” series. To read the others, browse our news section to see the first installment on Royce Flippin and the Class of 1956 and the second on Jim Petrucci and the Class of 1986.