Princeton’s Greatest Comebacks of the Ivy Era
BY JAY GREENBERG
Our sixth of an 11 part series of the most memorable victories, moments, and performances during the Ivy League era of Princeton football continues with 15 grand comebacks.
The worst weather days, greatest team offensive and defensive performances, upset wins, and upset losses were previously posted and are archived on this site. Still to go in the coming weeks are the top individual single game performances, clutch plays, most heartbreaking losses, and greatest wins. We will conclude by ranking the best teams the program has produced.
For now, here are 15 times that the Tigers did not say die. Rankings are subjective of course, factoring in whether the game helped win a championship, but ultimately judged on the degree of difficulty.
15) Princeton 6, Rutgers 6 | September 28, 1974 at Palmer Stadium
A 94 yard, 3rd quarter, punt return for a touchdown by Tony Pawlik had given the Scarlet Knights a 6-0 lead in the season opener. After their kicker had been injured on one of two failed attempts, the backup missed the point after. So after a 4th down tackle by Princeton cornerback Glen Pratt with 3:49 to play, the Tiger offense, never mind its game – long struggles, still was only a touchdown and a conversion away.
A group of about 20 Rutgers students either were not sweating or were bored by a day of defensive football, stopping play during the Princeton drive by swarming one end zone, then the other, to tear down the goal posts. The Tigers kept moving regardless.
At the Rutgers 10, quarterback Ron Beible eluded a rush, and threw for Bob Reid. The pass was incomplete, but the official behind the play with the lesser view flagged interference. On the second of two tries from the 1 yard line, tailback Walt Snickenberger took the ball in to tie the game with 22 seconds remaining. Now what to do about a conversion without goalposts?
Athletic Director Royce Flippin told head referee Tom Elliott that Princeton had a spare set in storage that could be erected in five minutes. When Elliott rejected that idea, Coach Bob Casciola suggested moving to the practice field next door. Elliott turned down that one, too, ruling that even though Rutgers students were the culprits, security was the responsibility of the home team.
The Princeton cheerleaders put their megaphones down in the approximate position of the goal posts. Of course, that, too, was not going to fly. Without precedent to cite, Elliott was left to his best judgment and ruled the Tigers would have to go for two.
Beible’s pass went off the fingertips of an open Bob Harding in the end zone and Princeton settled for a tie. “It’s a pretty bush way to lose a win,” commented Stuart Morrison, the denied Tiger kicker. “After the amount of preparation we put in, it’s ridiculous to take the game away from the players.”
Casciola was crestfallen, but more objective. “We need better home management,” he said. “People are being paid to do a job, and they could have maintained one set of posts.”
Forty six years later, the coach hasn’t changed his mind, “The officials did the right thing,” Casciola says.
14) Princeton 19, Yale 14 | November 11, 2000 at the Yale Bowl, New Haven, CT
With the Tigers (2-6) behind, 14-3, Jon Blevins had relieved Brian Dinielewicz to start the second half and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to fullback Marty Cheatham to start the comeback. Taylor Northrop’s 25 yard field goal early in the 3rd quarter left Princeton still trailing by one when they got ball back at their 20 with 1:18 remaining.
Blevins threw a staple of the struggling offense during Roger Hughes’ first season as coach: A check-off pass in the flat to Cheatham. “The tackler was trying to ride me out of bounds,” recalls the fullback. “I ducked my shoulder.”
“My head was down so I knew I still was in. Made one cut to make a guy miss.”
Cheatham went up the sideline for 44 yards, where he collided with Tiger sophomore wideout Chisom Opara, who was trying to clean up the last defender, and went down at the Yale 38.
“Now we could see the end zone,” Opara recalls thinking. “[A win] started to seem more real to me.”
“But I thought we would be playing for a field goal.”
So after catching a pass to get his team six yards closer, Opara was sent deep on the next play, and was surprised to look back and see the ball coming his way.
“I was pretty well covered,” Opara recalls. “It probably should not have been thrown.”
But he leapt in a sandwich between two defenders and came down with the winning touchdown in what was the only Princeton win in the final five games of a 3-4 Ivy season. But it occurred at Yale (4-3), and therefore was worth much more than just consolation.
“I had always liked home games, just from the convenience of our locker room and sleeping in my own bed the night before,” recalls Opara. “But this was huge; my first time playing in that historic stadium and for the first time, I experienced the great satisfaction with silencing a crowd.”
“And I knew how much it meant to a senior like Blevins. So it was a pretty cool moment.”
13) Princeton 22, Rutgers 21 | September 30, 1967 at Palmer Stadium
In the season opener, the Tigers jumped up 14 points after only 13 plays. Another touchdown was called back, Ted Garcia missed three field goals and two Scarlet Knights touchdowns were set up by fumbles. Thus, 162 rushing yards and three touchdowns by Rutgers’ Bryan Mitchell had put Princeton behind 21-14 with 1:58 remaining, needing 57 yards from its single wing attack.
Tailback Bob Weber led a drive that was finished with his pass to quarterback Rob Schoene with 58 seconds remaining. Trailing 21-20 in days long before there were overtimes, Coach Dick Colman wanted no part of a tie. Tailback Scott MacBean took the ball from fullback Don Hazen on a reverse to the left, straightened up, and lobbed a pass to Weber standing by himself in the left flat for the winning two-point conversion.
“I’m still looking for the guy who was supposed to be covering that flat,” said Rutgers coach John Bateman after Jim Dulin’s desperate 61 yard field goal attempt fell harmlessly on the Tiger 14 at the final whistle. “I haven’t seen him since I sent him in to do that.”
12) Princeton 20, Cornell 17 in OT | October 29, 2005 at Princeton Stadium
The 4-2 Tigers, who had jumped to a 14-0 lead, fell behind 17-14 on a 6 yard touchdown pass from Ryan Kuhn to Luke Siwula with 10:24 remaining. Quarterback Jeff Terrell took Princeton 63 yards in a painstaking 18 plays to set up Derek Javarone, who kicked a 32 yarder to tie the game with 2:18 remaining.
In overtime, Cornell was 3rd and 3 at the 18 when Tim Strickland made a leaping interception at the 5. “A stock out route to their outside receiver,” recalls the safety. “When I turned around the ball was coming right at me.”
Well, it wasn’t quite that routine. “Amazing interception,” recalls Javarone. “Tim was an incredible athlete who made big plays repeatedly.”
The Tigers ran the ball three times to set up Javarone from 35 yards. “I can’t say I always relished those situations,” the kicker recalls. “But two years earlier, against Penn, after making three, I missed one that would have won the game.”
He also had failed just before the half on this day. No wonder that . . .
“I really wanted this one,” Javarone says. “I was so much into the zone that after the game, I could barely remember making the kick.”
The 42nd field goal of his career set an Ivy League record and the win put Princeton into a four-way tie for the Ivy lead. When the Tigers followed up with a 30-13 victory over Penn at Franklin Field the following week, they went into the Yale game with a chance to get a share of their first title in 10 years, only to blow a lead in the final seconds.
11) Princeton 32, Cornell 25 in OT | October 26, 2002 at Schoellkopf Field, Ithaca, NY
Down 25-10 after a terrible 1st half, the Tigers figured it could have been worse. Punter Joe Nardello’s final seconds tackle of a Cornell player on his way to running in a block had saved a three-score deficit.
On a snowy, slippery day not fit for man, beast, nor comebacks, the Tigers made no headway. By the start of the 4th quarter, three running backs had fumbled the ball away and so had quarterback Matt Verbit, who was starting in place of the injured David Splithoff.
Princeton finally got an opportunity off a short field to start the 4th and drove 43 yards, Verbit taking it in from the 6 to make the score 25-17 with 11:18 remaining. On the next Tiger possession, Verbit scrambled for one 1st down, threw to Blair Morrison for two more and Cameron Atkinson bounced off two tacklers to score from the 3. Verbit ran an option for a two-point conversion to tie the game.
“By that time, the snow was coming down so hard that you couldn’t see the lines anymore,” recalls wide receiver Blair Morrison.
Princeton got the ball back, couldn’t move and with under a minute to go Nardello punted so the Tigers could take their best chance in overtime. The kick was called back by a procedure penalty and on the second try the wet ball horrifyingly went through the punters hands and Cornell recovered at the 15.
Leery of the footing, the Big Red decided to get closer and Joe Weiss, who had 12 tackles, including two sacks, on the day, tipped a pass that was intercepted by All-American Jay McCareins in the end zone, his third in four games. The Tigers were reprieved.
“We knew then we were going to win,” recalls Morrison.
Verbit took a sack, but then completed three straight passes, and on the fourth play, Morrison came to the line against a corner that he and Verbit saw was allowing the receiver too much room on a slick field.
“In those kinds of conditions they either had to do press or do two men over the top in a zone,” Morrison recalls. “They were giving me a running start.”
“Matt hand signaled me to do a three step fade. But I thought the ball would be going to someone inside and, when I turned around, it was in the air coming to me. It was high, outside to my left, where the DB couldn’t get it. I had to jump and fell backwards, coming down having no idea where I was.”
He looked at the official. His hands were up. Derek Javarone kicked the PAT.
Cornell, with the chance to answer, was at the 7 when a 4th down pass by Michael Razzano sailed out of the end zone and the Tigers, who came into the game following a close loss to Harvard, had won to stay in the race. But they were overmatched against Penn the following week and finished 6-4, Princeton’s first winning record in three seasons under Roger Hughes.
10) Princeton 31, Colgate 28 | October 18, 1997 at Andy Kerr Stadium, Hamilton, NY
Road warriors that entire season while Princeton Stadium was being built on the site of razed Palmer Stadium, the Tigers picked the wrong bus company. Or, driver anyway. He got lost on the way from the hotel in Binghamton, resulting in a 12:15 pull-up at the Stadium for a 1 pm game. Some players were not fully taped before the hurried warmup.
Starting well enough regardless, the Tigers were leading 24-21 with three minutes remaining when quarterback Harry Nakielny’s attempt to throw the ball away in the flat was picked off by Colgate defensive end Blaine Hicks, who ran 60 yards to put Colgate up 28-24.
“Rush to the right, tuned to the left to get rid of it and didn’t see him,” recalls Nakielny.
“There wasn’t much time to gather myself. But it was done and over. We still had a lot of time.”
And he put it to use. Nakielny completed a 22 yard pass to Ray Canole to put the ball in Colgate territory. Following two incompletions and then managing just a four-yard check down to fullback Mike Clifford, the Tigers were left with 4th and 6, but Nakielny beat two pass rushers and found Ryan Crowley for an 8 yard gain to keep the drive alive.
Two more completions to Canole and Crowley again put the ball at the Colgate 16, then Nakielny threw an 11 yard strike to Phil Wendler. It was 1st and goal at the 5 with no timeouts remaining.
Nakielny spiked the ball, and then missed connections with Canole in the end zone to leave the Tigers 3rd and 3. “After we drove the whole field, the entire offense was just like, ‘we’re getting in, there’s nothing stopping us now,” Nakielny would tell The Daily Princetonian.
He audibled before drilling the ball to Ken Nevarez on a slant just inside coverage with 1:03 remaining to push the Tigers record to 4-1 in what would become a 6-4 season. Goat had turned hero.
9) Princeton 27, Columbia 26 | October 2, 2004 at Wien Stadium, New York, NY
Columbia, helped all day by 11 Tiger penalties, snap mishaps and one red zone fumble, went up 20-17 on a 4 yard touchdown run by Ayo Oluwole with 2:11 remaining. Princeton began their final drive with a beat up receiver corps necessitating the use of McCareins, the All-America defensive back and kick returner, who earlier in the game had blocked a field goal.
“I think I played 100 plays that game,” McCareins recalls.
Three of them resulted in catches during a 13 play, 64 yard, drive against the clock.
“What I remember most was a 3rd down when we needed 10 yards,” recalls Matt Verbit. “Jay was single on one side, running a 10 yard out.
“When I released it, I thought it was five yards over his head. He made a tremendous grab.”
When the drive stalled, Javarone’s 21 yard field goal forced overtime.
Columbia used the first possession to score on 17 yard run by Rashad Biggar. But on the PAT, McCareins came off the edge for his second block of the game. On neither had he been required to leave his feet.
“I noticed before the first one that the center would squeeze the ball really tight a half second before the snap,” recalls McCareins. “When his fingertips moved, I was gone. The second one, same thing. That one, I even got with my forearm.”
Princeton gained only 5 yards on three plays, but on 4th down Verbit avoided a blitz and took off down the right side, cut inside, and took a defender to the 2. Two plays later Jon Veach went in from the 1 and it was up to Javarone again.
“Kicks to tie the game always were more nerve-wracking than ones to win it,” the kicker recalls. “But always it’s about the process, why you keep your head down.”
“I didn’t even have to look up to know I had made that one.”
The Tigers stretched their record to 3-0. They would finish 5-5.
8) Princeton 14, Dartmouth 9 | November 3, 2018 at Princeton Stadium
In this epic week eight battle of unbeatens, the Tigers never were down more than two points. But they had not enjoyed any field position since their game opening touchdown drive and were backed up again, starting at their own 3 following a downed punt late in the 3rd quarter.
In the most exacting and painstaking way, they converted on 3rd down twice – Jesper Horsted snatching the ball away from the defender on one, reaching out with one hand for the other – and on 4th down twice, too, with Lovett runs. Princeton used 23 plays and 8:59 of the clock, only to have Lovett stopped on 4th and 1 at the 5.
But the defense forced a 3 and out and Tiger Bech’s return set up Princeton at the Dartmouth 35. A face mask penalty, and a 3rd and 1 conversion by running back Ryan Quigley set up a 1st and goal at the 5 and Lovett made himself thin, twisting through a tight hole for the hardest earned of go-ahead touchdowns with 6:33 to go.
“There is such beauty in just a four yard run against that Dartmouth defense,” said Coach Bob Surface afterwards. “You execute perfectly to get four yards and you think should have been ten.”
The Princeton defense got two more stops in an exhausting and exhilarating victory on the way to an undefeated season.
7) Princeton 18, Harvard 14 | November 5, 1966 at Palmer Stadium
After suffering only three losses between 1963-65 (including an undefeated 1964), the Tigers had taken huge graduation losses that included All-American linebacker Staś Maliszewski. They were not impressive in close early wins and absolutely humiliated in a 31-13 loss to Dartmouth and a 7-0 defeat by Colgate.
Captain Walt Kozumbo rallied the troops with a locker room speech and convincing wins over non-contenders Penn and Brown followed. The door back to a title share opened when Harvard upset Dartmouth, but that only made the Crimson a two touchdown favorite when it came to Palmer the following week.
Harvard, on their way to a 219 yard rushing day with a three-headed monster of tailbacks Bobby Leo, Vic Gatto and fullback Tom Choquette, led 14-3 and, thanks to a fumble by Princeton’s Doug Martin, had the ball at the Tiger 9. But two Larry Stupski tackles and an interception by Jim Kokoskie stuffed the threat.
Martin culminated a drive with a redemptive two yard touchdown leap and defensive back Doug James threw for a two-point conversion to John Bowers. Thus, the Tigers were down only a field goal when starting the 4th quarter at their own 7.
They drove for another Martin over the top touchdown to take the lead. After Harvard marched right back to a 4th and 2 at the Princeton 20, Kozumbo shed a block and tackled Choquette. The most tension filled chain stretch in Princeton history proved Harvard had come up two inches short.
“We were so outmanned by Harvard that to win was an incredible accomplishment and the way we did it was storybook,” recalls Martin.
The following week the Tigers used a blocked kick by Kozumbo, run in for a touchdown by Stupski, to beat Yale 13-7. Princeton then scored in the 4th quarter on a Rich Bracken run to beat Cornell 7-0 and get a share of the title with Harvard and Dartmouth.
“We emerged from obscurity, triumphed over hardship,” recalls linebacker Ron Grossman. “And to everyone’s surprise, we had success.”
6) Princeton 31, William and Mary 31 | September 23, 1989 at Palmer Stadium
As the peripheral winds from the remnants of powerful Hurricane Hugo swirled to 50 mph gusts through Palmer Stadium, the 1-0 Tigers, trailing 31-17 with less than ten minutes remaining, got a huge break when William and Mary’s Tyrone Shelton dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone.
Linebacker Joe Macaione intercepted on the next play, and on 2nd down from his own 4, Joel Sharp scrambled away from the rush and hit Tommy Haan over the middle. The senior receiver broke multiple tackles to the William and Mary 22 and two plays later Sharp hit Joe Baker for a 24 yard touchdown.
Chris Lutz’s successful PAT was cancelled by a procedure penalty, and the All-Ivy junior kicker missed the second try, leaving the Tigers down eight with 5:54 to go. The defense forced a punt and Sharp remarkably completed three clutch 3rd and 10 passes, one of them to tight end Pete Masloski, whose facemask was grabbed on the tackle. Facing a 4th and 5 at the 19, Sharp hit Garrett over the middle for six yards to get Princeton to the William and Mary 13 with 14 seconds remaining.
“My job was to sprint out and either throw it to the guy in front of me or run,” recalls Sharp. “Somebody was coming off the corner, I wasn’t going to be able to make it.”
“So with a guy in my face, I threw it to Scott Gibbs where he was supposed to be at the back post, without making eye contact with him. He probably didn’t see the ball until it was in the air.”
Gibbs caught it with six seconds remaining. But every clutch play the Tigers had managed was going to be for nothing if the Tigers didn’t make one more for a two-point conversion.
“Everybody in the stands and on both teams knew the ball was going to (running back) Judd Garrett,” recalls center Bob Surace.
But going over to the bench, Sharp was surprised to learn how.
“Joel came back to the huddle and said ‘(Head coach Steve) Tosches wants you to line up in the slot and work the option route, a play we never had run from that specific alignment,” recalls Garrett. “It would have me on a linebacker and I think that’s what Tosches saw. I said ‘okay, let’s do it.’”
“As soon as we lined up, I remember thinking, ‘It’s done,’” recalls Sharp.
Not quite so easy.
“I got enough of a step on my guy and went up,” remembers Garrett. “But Joel had a much livelier arm than you thought and it kind of handcuffed me. I didn’t catch it totally clean but was able to press it against my body.”
The game was tied. Lutz deliberately squibbed the kickoff and William and Mary fell on the ball at the Princeton 48 with time for one Hail Mary. It was broken up in the end zone, but Princeton’s All-Ivy linebacker Franco Pagnanelli was caught holding. So Steve Christie, who would become a 77 percent field goal kicker in a 15 year NFL career, had a shot with the wind at his back from 53 yards out.
It hit the left upright and the distraught Pagnanelli – “I couldn’t believe that I had lost this game,” he told the Daily Princetonian – had been reprieved.
The Tigers went on to their first Ivy title in 20 seasons.
5) Princeton 16, Lehigh 15. October 17, 1987 at Palmer Stadium.
Thanks to a botched Lehigh PAT snap and a failed two-point attempt following the next touchdown, the 3-1 Tigers somehow were down only 15-10 at the half.
“We were getting physically manhandled,” recalls Tosches. “Jason Garrett was taking five step drops and they were there waiting for him. Judd Garrett had (just 18 yards in 12 carries for the day). I think our players were intimidated.”
“We added some things at halftime, appealed to them to play hard, and we started doing better.”
The Tigers shut out Lehigh in the 3rd quarter and crept within two points when Rob Goodwin hit a 38 yard field goal. With the clock under three minutes, Lehigh was driving to a putaway score, but a sack by Rick Emery left the Engineers in a 3rd and 17 at the Princeton 33 and needing an underneath completion of 10 yards to reach field goal position. Instead, quarterback Mark McGowan threw to the goal line and Dean Cain, Princeton’s all-time interception leader, got there for the pick.
“Dean was a very good athlete with a great feel of where to put himself,” recalls Tosches.
Full disclosure, three decades later: “In the film session the next day (defensive back coach) Steve Verbit told me I had called the wrong side,” recalls Cain. “Maybe they didn’t plan to go away from me but probably they did and I was fortunate to be shaded to the wrong side.
“Better to be lucky than good. The quarterback hung the ball up there.”
Princeton started from their 2 with 2:25 remaining. Two passes to Judd Garrett got the Tigers off the goal line, and a throw to Jeff Baker for another 1st down put them on the 24. But a holding call and the seventh sack of Garrett on the day left Princeton 2nd and 28 before things got even worse. On the next play the blocking almost completely broke down, leaving the quarterback running for his team’s life, but he got rid of the ball.
It was now 3rd and 28. Verbit recalls thinking, “There was just no way,” But the line held this time and a juggling catch and run by Judd Garrett on an underneath route got back 20 of the yards to give the Tigers a fighting chance on 4th down. And fighting was the best characterization of Garrett’s efforts when he caught a shortie and made it to the sticks and out of bounds to stop the clock.
“When he got a little time Jason was just phenomenal,” recalls Tosches. But another sack followed, the ninth of the day, although only of four yards. John Garrett caught the next one in the flat and high tailed it to the Lehigh 49, making the sideline barely, Lehigh’s protestations notwithstanding.
Jason went to Judd again for 15 yards and then, with no time outs remaining, threw it to John one more time to get the ball to the 20. The officials felt the need to measure for a 1st down when, in the mind of the Hank Small, the apoplectic Lehigh coach, one was obvious. The Tigers needed that clock stoppage to rush their field goal unit onto the field and Rob Goodwin was not rattled. His 37-yarder was perfect for one of the most unlikely wins, 16-15, in program history, followed by one of its most jubilant on field celebrations.
“Those efforts by my brothers to get out of bounds were just amazing,” recalls Jason Garrett.
“Greatest drive I ever saw,” clams Verbit, and perhaps the most emotional in Tiger history, as it became a metaphor for a season that had begun with the sudden death of beloved third-year coach Ron Rogerson to an August heart arrack.
“I was crying,” remembers Cain. Out of tragedy, the Tigers went on to a 6-4 season.
4) Princeton 10, Dartmouth 10. November 18, 1995 at Memorial Field Hanover, NH.
A Princeton team with a dominating defense led by All-American linebacker Dave Patterson had won it first eight games, been upset by Yale in an attempt to sew up an outright title in week nine, and now, in the finale at (4-2) Dartmouth, was in a death struggle just to get a share of the championship. Combinations existed that could have led to a 4-way title deadlock. But Princeton could still win the championship outright if it got at least a tie against the Big Green (overtimes were instituted for the first time that bowl season and for all games the following one) and Penn (2-4) upset Cornell (4-2).
Dartmouth scored first on an eight yard Jon Aljanicic run. A 47 yard kickoff return by Damani Leach sparked Princeton to a six yard touchdown completion from Harry Nakielny to Kevin Duffy with just 16 seconds remaining in the half. But Dartmouth’s Dave Regula’s field goal in the 3rd gave the Big Green a 10-7 lead it held deep into the 4th quarter.
Nakielny had been the starter that season until his hand injury gave the job to Brock Harvey, who had kept the Tigers unbeaten. When Nakielny was ready to go again, Tosches felt neither quarterback deserved to lose the job so he began to alternate them by the series.
Nakielny was more the pocket passer and Harvey more the option type, but the contrast wasn’t so stark that there was a different set of plays for each guy. So even though Nakielny had directed the touchdown drive before the half, if was Harvey’s series when the Tigers, who had been gone 3 and out on the last three consecutive possessions, got the ball back on their own 36 with 4:25 remaining.
Cornell had knocked off Penn, the players knew. Even a tie would give Princeton the outright title, its first in 31 years.
“I was the last one in the huddle because I was getting the play,” recalls Harvey. “I was thinking that for the seniors, this was kind of poetic because our freshman team’s first game was at Dartmouth. I said, ‘Here it, is, our last drive together. We can write our own ending.'”
Light snow and less than ideal footing had not helped all day, but maybe the Tigers just needed the urgency. For the second time in the game with the clock ticking – this time now or never for a championship – Princeton began moving. The Tigers converted four 1st downs, including on a 3rd and 5 pass to Brent Godek, and a nine yard completion to Ben Gill. They were at the Dartmouth 23 with 15 seconds remaining, time for one more pass to get closer for freshman kicker Alex Sierk.
“When everybody was covered, I looked back to see the defensive end from the left side had over committed and come inside,” recalls Harvey. “One block by (tailback) Marc Washington sealed it. There was a lot of field out there.”
“The cornerback came from the opposite side and chopped my legs out before I could dive.”
Harvey was knocked out of bounds at the 1 with four seconds remaining.
“If it was drier, I might have gone for a touchdown,” recalls Tosches. “Nobody likes a tie but this one would give us an outright title, not a tie.
“Sierk was a good kicker. By the tenth game, he no longer was a freshman.”
Light snow was swirling as Sierk and the field goal unit trotted onto the field.
“The offensive leaders on the team were very upset with the decision to kick,” Sierk recalls. “My thought was ‘I don’t want to let these guys down.'”
“I was happy to have the shot. Also happy that Brock had run down the left side because for a left footed kick the angle is better than from the right. And of course the kick was now a lot shorter.”
As the Tigers on the sideline held hands, J.R. Davis’s snap was perfect as was Brett Budzinski’s hold. “At the time I thought I kept my head down like you’re supposed to,” said Sierk. “When I see the footage of it, I think I cheated and looked up.”
He did to one of the happiest sights in Tiger football history, never mind the sister-kissing tie. That Tiger team, the first to win an outright title for the school in 31 years was, after all, a family. Still, there were enough initial mixed emotions that it took several seconds for the jumping around to begin.
“There was joy,” recalls Sierk. “But there was so much pressure on all of us, I would say I mostly remember relief.”
3) Princeton 35, Yale 31 | November 11, 2006 at the Yale Bowl, New Haven, CT
The Tigers, who never led a single game by more than 14 points all season and came from behind to win six, arrived in New Haven with only one loss, at Cornell, and a chance to move into a first place tie with the unbeaten Bulldogs.
Princeton, perhaps over amped, started sluggishly on both side of the ball. Even its first touchdown, which cut the Yale lead to 14-7, was fumbled forward into the end zone, where Adam Berry fortunately recovered. When quarterback Jeff Terrell’s six yard run cut the Bulldog advantage to 21-14, Yale’s leading Ivy offense came right back with a 69 play touchdown drive.
Still Princeton was at the Yale 27 when the clock ran out; the offense gathering momentum if only the defense could get some stops in the second half.
“If we just settle down, there is no way they are going to stop our offense”, coordinator Steve Verbit told his defense. The first two Princeton drives of the second half ended in a 4th down sack and a punt, but a short punt by Yale enabled Terrell to complete a 7 play, 41 yard drive with a 15 yard touchdown to Brendan Circle
“I ended up in the slot against the outside linebacker, with the safety over the top,” recalls Circle. “Being one on one with the linebacker opened up lots of space in the middle of the field. Jeff and I had a lot of confidence in each other in adjusting the routes and we were definitely in sync that game.”
With Princeton within a touchdown, Terrell threw a pick on the next possession. But a defense keyed that day by safety Tim Strickland – “I couldn’t believe they still kept trying him,” said Verbit – had taken control of the game.
“Verbs was right; what we hadn’t done in the first half was maintain our gaps,” recalls Strickland. “And I think we put an extra guy in the box to make them throw to beat us.”
Yale had to kick a field goal. So down only 11, the Tigers kept coming, passes to Circle and Berry setting up an 8 yard touchdown pass to Circle that cut the lead to 31-26. When the Tiger got the ball back on a punt, it took just two plays for Terrell to find Brian Brigham well behind the defense down the sideline for a 57 yard touchdown.
Yale punted with 4:51 to play in the belief that they would get the ball back. On 3rd and 8 Terrell found Circle on the sideline for a completion that would enable Princeton to run out the clock.
“I remember that (putaway) catch more than any other in my career,” recalls Circle. “From our team being 5-5 as a sophomore to being in position to win as a junior (until a tragic late loss to Yale), this was our chance – the culmination of everything the seniors had worked for.”
“My memory is so clear of catching that ball, rolling over, getting up, watching the referee wind the clock and seeing the crowd on our side going crazy. We were bringing back a bonfire.”
Oh yes, that too. Held Friday night prior to Princeton’s title-clinching 28-18 win over more stubborn than expected Dartmouth, the inferno was the first in 14 years. The win at the Yale Bowl had been the most exhilarating there in Princeton Ivy era history.
“Jeff had a career day (446 yards of the Tigers total 504 were by his arm) at a perfect time and the defense shut down what had been the best offense in the league,” says Circle. “We never had more fun than we did playing that day.”
2) Princeton 35, Yale 31 | November 14, 1981 at Palmer Stadium
Yale, which came to Palmer unbeaten in eight games and for 14 years against Princeton, moved to 21-0 lead on a short run by quarterback John Rogan and two plunges by star running back Rich Diana. Princeton quarterback Bob Holly hit Derek Graham for a 20 yard touchdown and then drove the Tigers five plays in just 28 seconds to score on a pass to Larry Van Pelt, who juked his way in from 13 yards out and cut the lead to 21-15 at the half.
A 19 yard strike to Kevin Guthrie gave Princeton a brief 22-21 advantage before Yale answered with a field goal and a Diana touchdown to go up 31-22. But the Tigers and Holly came right back to finish a drive with a nine yard touchdown throw to Dave Ginda.
“By the end of that season we were a pretty good team, maybe as good as any in the league,” recalls Holly. “We just kept playing, never stopping to think that Yale was better than us.”
With 1:23 remaining, the Tigers, down 31-29, started from their own 24 with no timeouts. While 35,000 persons in Palmer held their breath, a diving catch by tight end Scott Oostdyk one foot past the 1st down marker on a 4th and 10 saved the drive.
On a windy day, Coach Frank Navarro decided to put his trust into Graham and Holly from the Yale 20, rather than a field goal. Yale men of a certain age always will question the pass interference call that Graham, who had 15 catches on the day, drew from the by then well-toasted DB Pat Conran. But the officials’ call was emphatic; the flag in the air even before the ball hit the ground.
“I think he would have caught it if not for the interference,” recalls Holly. “Derek was catching everything.”
The ball was marked at the one with one second remaining.
“I was thinking field goal,” recalls Holly. “But the kicking team wasn’t coming on and there seemed to be some indecision.
“I didn’t get a call from the sideline so I took the initiative and decided on a rollout with a run-pass option. Put a little pressure on the defense with a run threat and, if somebody is open, throw it, or, if there is an opening, run it in.
“After seeing it on film, the opening wasn’t a big as I had thought. Nowadays, they reach out because when the ball crosses the plane, it’s a touchdown. Then, I tucked it in and just put my head down.”
Holly had to cut back on linebacker Jeff Rohrer, who went on to play six years for the Dallas Cowboys, to get in by a head and a shoulder.
The goalposts were gone in the pandemonium. The 14 losses since the last win over Yale had seemed like 150.
Holly’s 501 yards that day still represents the greatest passing day in Princeton history, 19 years into the next millennium. Graham’s 278-yard receiving day stood as a record for ten years until broken by Michael Lerch. More on those accomplishments in later lists, but to those who witnessed the comeback, this was the game of Princeton’s 20th century, even though the Tigers only finished 5-4-1 and third in the Ivies.
Yale settled for a share of the title with Dartmouth and then didn’t lose again to Princeton for another three seasons.
1) Princeton 39, Harvard 34 | October 20, 2012 at Princeton Stadium
The Tigers, 2-18 in their first two seasons under Bob Surace, were awakening in Year Three. A surprising 19-0 shutout of Brown the previous week was a third straight win, making Princeton 3-2 when the undefeated defending champions came to visit and for one half utterly dominated.
Harvard’s Colton Chapple was in the process of throwing for 448 yards, Trevor Scales was running for 108, and tight end Kyle Juszczyk on his way to catching 15 passes as Harvard took a 20-0 halftime lead. Surace reminded his team that in its opener it had been down three scores going to the 4th quarter at Lehigh and had scored twice to make it a game, albeit a 17-14 loss.
“I think there was an acceptance that Harvard that year was better than us,” recalls quarterback Quinn Epperly. “But we were young and improving and kept playing because that’s what we were being taught to do.”
On their first 2nd half possession, the Tigers drove 86 yards to a touchdown. And when Princeton’s Jakobi Johnson recovered a Paul Stanton fumble on the kickoff at the Harvard 4, a window suddenly opened, only to be slammed again when the Tigers were forced to settle for a field goal by freshman kicker Nolan Bieck. The Crimson powered 78 and 66 yards for two more touchdowns and a 34-10 lead with 13 minutes remaining in the game.
It was over, or would have been 999 times out of a 1,000, but Anthony Gaffney ran the kickoff back 59 yards. Then, Dre Nelson completed a 34 yard drive by catching a seven-yard lob from Connor Michelsen, who then hit Tom Moak for a two-point conversion.
Nelson flew off the edge to block a punt and Matt Costello used his body as a shield and remarkably came down with a 29 yard touchdown pass before Epperly, at that stage of his career the goal line quarterback, hit Shane Wilkinson for a two-point conversion. Somehow the Tigers were only a score and a two-point conversion away from tying the contest.
Of course that meant they were one stop away, too, and it looked like they never were going to get it. Helped by a 40 yard kickoff return by Stanton, Chapple, Ricky Zorn and Cameron Brate had the ball at the Princeton 5 in a lightning three plays before the Tigers swarmed three runs. Greg Sotereanos got his hand up to block David Mothander’s attempted 22 yard field and the suddenly unstoppable Tigers drove for a Michelsen to Seth DeValve 20 yard touchdown with 2:27 to go. Miraculously, they were a two-point conversion away from a tie until Michelsen’s throw for Wilkinson was broken up.
The Tigers still had three timeouts and, by then, all the belief in the world. On third down, Mike Zeuli ran down Chapple and the punt left the Tigers, trailing by two, starting at their own 10 with 1:57 remaining.
Michelsen hit Wilkinson for 15 yards, and then, on 3rd and 2, the quarterback pulled the ball down and ran for another 1st down before being clobbered by Zach Hodges, Harvard’s Bushnell winning defensive lineman, on the non-throwing arm. Hodges was flagged for taunting-Harvard’s 12th penalty of the game – as Epperly came in for Michelsen. Three plays later, the Tigers were at the Harvard 36 on 3rd and 2, still a good 15 yards from giving Bieck his best chance.
“The play they sent in was one of our Rambo packages,” recalls Epperly. “I just performed it like it was called – a high low on the corner where Roman (Wilson) ran a wide release fade.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to go for a touchdown. I was just running through the normal reads on that call. The corner stayed up on the outside guy. The next read would have led me to Shane Wilkinson on a backside crossing route and I’m told he was open but I kind of read the safety position and felt Roman had leverage, which is why I took a shot.
“I got crushed on the throw.”
When Wilson looked back, the ball already was in the air. “We had the ball the whole 4th quarter and were playing incredibly fast,” he recalls. “That was the most tired I ever have been in a game.”
The pass was behind Wilson just a little as he went up in front of defensive back Chris Splinter. “Of course, you can’t let the (DB) push you so I put my hand out a little bit but I wouldn’t call it a push,” recalls Wilson. “It was too close a game to call a (marginal) penalty.”
“I remember after I caught the ball, I stood up and looked at our sideline. It was a picture I never will forget, seeing the team and crowd going wild. To an extent it hit me then that we had done something special. But I don’t think it was until later that night that I realized, wow, how difficult that situation was to make that kind of comeback.”
So much had been required that perhaps Harvard Coach Tim Murphy, whose team had dominated for three quarters, was not merely being gracious when he told Surace during their handshake that the best team had won. A defense that had not gotten a step the entire first half rose dramatically to make plays that repeatedly had gotten the Tigers the ball back. The special teams had made a huge, momentum-turning play. The goal line quarterback had hit a bomb with just 13 seconds to play to climax a 29 point 4th quarter by a team that had won two games combined over the previous two seasons.
“How many things had to go right?” asks Wilson rhetorically. “Just one goes wrong and you don’t pull out a game like that.”
In other words, it was the closest thing to a sporting miracle. And to some extent it also was a program turner, even though the Tigers won only one more game after that one – at Yale – and finished 5-5. The following year they won the title, the first of three in the Surace era.