The Most Painful Losses in Princeton’s Ivy Era History

  • June 5, 2020


Can’t promise this part 10 of 12 in our series will be fun, but keep in mind that out of these ashes, some championships subsequently sprung. Even if not, brutal defeats not only produced life lessons, but sometimes lay seeds for victories to be detailed in part 11. We need the losses to make the wins that much more worth celebrating.

Into each life some rain must fall; in fact, sometimes creating slippery fields that didn’t help the Tigers in showdown contests.

As we start below with the aching and progress to the excruciating, generally the losses in which the Tigers were denied an outright title are ranked lower on the heartbreak scale than those that knocked them out of contention completely.  Context – what a defeat did to damage a season – weighed most heavily, but exceptions were made for the especially shocking and disheartening.

“Whether we were in contention that season or not, every loss hurts,” says Steve Verbit, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, a Princeton fixture since 1985. But whatever didn’t kill Princeton football made it stronger.

“When you are around long enough, you are going to have not only historic wins but hard defeats,” said Bob Surace, “The worst is when it’s the last game for a senior, because there isn’t a next week or a next season, but the fortunate thing about sports is that there’s another game. You learn from it and move on.

“The record is what it is from 2010 and 2011 (2-18 his first two seasons) but those players still laid a foundation for our culture of success. If you are a competitor, good things can come out of bad.”

The series, all of which is archived on this site, will conclude in part 12 with a ranking of Princeton’s best teams since the formation of the formal Ivy League in 1956. Even some of those championship teams suffered losses on this list, making all the more appreciated the triumphs we will get to next time. Even in instances where bad just got worse, the celebration of 150 years of Princeton football has been about remembering the memorable. Indelible are the heartbreaks, too. Read ‘em and don’t weep for a program that has won 12 Ivy titles. 

Princeton vs Columbia – 2009

26) Columbia 38, Princeton 0. October 3, 2009 at Princeton Stadium.  

Coach Roger Hughes decided to withhold until after the game an announcement to the team that star running back Jordan Culbreath, whose lethargy had forced him to come out the game at Lehigh the previous week, had been diagnosed with the deadly cancer Aplastic Anemia. But most of the players already were aware their captain was seriously ill, just did not know the prognosis.  

The Tigers proved distracted from beginning to end, as Columbia, which would finish 4-6, repeatedly benefitted from Princeton mistakes. An interception of quarterback Tommy Wornham returned 31 yards for a third-quarter touchdown boosted the Columbia lead to 17-0. The Tigers lost two fumbles and failed to convert on four fourth-down opportunities in rain and gloom that matched their mood.

“One hundred and twenty players in the locker room and you could have heard a pin drop as Roger spoke,” recalls Verbit.  “All the mindset was on Jordan and Columbia beat us in every way, shape and form. It was really ugly.”

Not a match for the preferred treatment – a marrow transplant from a family member – Culbreath responded to a trial program and made an emotional return to the locker room for the Cornell game. The Tigers won that day, and twice more in the final three contests to finish 4-6. That did not save Hughes’s job, but Culbreath returned to play his senior year and has remained cancer free.

25) Harvard 28, Princeton 26.  October 20, 2001 at Harvard Stadium, Cambridge, MA

Once down 14-3 to the unbeaten Crimson, the 1-3 Tigers stopped another threat with a Chris Roser – Jones interception and fought back. A David Splithoff to Mike Chiusano touchdown pass and a flea flicker to Chisom Opara that set up a Cameron Atkinson plunge put Princeton in the lead.

Harvard went back up, but in the fourth quarter, the Tigers rallied for a second time. Following another Atkinson touchdown and a failed two-point conversion, they still were at the Harvard 22 and still a couple points short when Taylor Northrop, Princeton’s all-time career leader in field goals with 45, attempted a 39-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining.

It sailed wide. “I stayed through it, hit in nice,” Northrop said afterwards. “I thought it was going through.”

The Tigers finished 3-6.  Harvard went on to an undefeated league season.

24) Yale 27, Princeton 24. November 15, 2003 at Princeton Stadium. The 2-6 Tigers, only one play away in losses to Columbia and Harvard, this time were one first down away from sealing an upset win. Leading 17-10, they had it, fleetingly, when Jon Veach converted a fourth-and-one at the Yale 23 with just over a minute remaining. But a holding penalty called back the play and Hughes, beset that season with untrustworthy field goal kicking, decided to pooch it.

Yale, which started at its own eight with 1:03 to go, was at the Princeton 22 with time for one more play and Chandler Henley made it, leaping five yards deep in the end zone to catch the ball over freshman safety Tim Strickland, who failed to turn and look for the ball.

Both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime, but Yale was held to a field goal in the second. A touchdown would win it for Princeton and B.J. Szymanski appeared to be going in on off a quick slant from Matt Verbit until James Beck, the beaten corner, desperately and successfully swiped the ball out of the receiver’s hands for linebacker Bryan Dieffenbacher’s recovery that ended the contest.

“No one play wins or loses a game,” said Hughes. Indeed, any one of which would have given Princeton a victory that day were almost too many to count.

23) Columbia 33, Princeton 27. October 4, 2003 at Princeton Stadium.

After jumping to a 20-0 lead, the Tigers’ only drives of the second and third quarters had resulted in a stop of Brandon Benson on a fourth-and-one and a missed Derek Javarone 37-year field goal.  Columbia dominated in taking a 27-20 fourth-quarter lead.  

A 16-play drive, which included a fourth-down conversion of an option run by Matt Verbit, culminated in Benson’s second effort one-yard run, tying the game with 26 seconds remaining. But a Jeff Otis to Pete Chromiak completion to the Princeton 49 gave Columbia a Hail Mary shot on the final play of regulation. Otis put it up into a crowd at the back of the end zone and Wade Fletcher came down with the ball and Columbia’s first win at Princeton since 1945.

“It’s like throwing up in your mouth and the acid taste stays there,” said Hughes. The Tigers finished 2-8. 

Princeton at Penn, 2017

22) Penn 38, Princeton 35.  November 4, 2017 at Franklin Field, Philadelphia PA.

A Tiger defense decimated by injuries on the defensive line gave up 531 yards, including 331 on the ground, and Penn built a 24-7 lead. But Princeton fought back on two touchdowns each by Jesper Horsted and Charlie Volker and, even after Penn went ahead once more on Justin Watson’s touchdown catch, quarterback Chad Kanoff had a last shot and 1:12 with which to work.

Reprieved when an interception was wiped out by a Penn penalty, Kanoff threw completions to Stephen Carlson, Jordan Argue and Tiger Bech to put the ball at the Quaker 13 with 12 seconds remaining.

The state of the defense and kicker Tavish Rice’s plant leg demanded Surace, down three points, first go for the touchdown and regulation victory. Carlson appeared to have both as he caught Kanoff’s pass at the back of the end zone, but side Judge Chris Smith, who had the best view from 10 feet, was overruled by back judge George O’Brien, who was twice the distance away and looking at the receiver’s back as he went down with not only both feet in bounds, but his knees, too.

O’Brien said the receiver was juggling the ball as he was going out, even though he never did.  Rice, kicking all season with a plant leg that would need surgery, missed the 29-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

“You think you won and then you didn’t,” said Kanoff afterwards. “It probably is the worst way you could ever lose.”  By the following season the Ivy League had adopted video review, no consolation to the 2017 Tigers, martyrs to that cause.

“We needed to score a lot and needed to get some turnovers and we did,” said Surace following the game. Everything we needed we got. 

“We fought our tails off. That drive should have gone down as one of the historic drives by Princeton. We have clear evidence that it was caught.  [The official] panicked, there was nothing else to it. I’m sure he feels terrible.  Just not as terrible as my fifth-year senior quarterback and our offensive line walk-ons who are playing the defensive line because we need to get exhausted players off the field.

“It wasn’t even close, what makes it so hard. To have these guys get on the bus disappointed just kills me.”  

His team’s 5-1 start faded to 5-5, but nevertheless was denied a winning season by the officiating fiasco.

21) Yale 14, Princeton 13.  November 15, 1986 at the Yale Bowl, New Haven, CT.   

As the Tigers arrived at Yale week during Coach Ron Rogerson’s second season, among their two victories was one over Harvard. So, the wood for a bonfire practically was stacked when Rob Goodwin’s field goal with 2:22 remaining put Princeton, looking for its first win in New Haven in ten tries over 20 years, up 13-3.

But Dean Cain, Princeton’s all-time interception leader, gambled and lost on a 62-yard touchdown pass from Kelly Ryan to Wayne Detmer.  “Dean was a very instinctive player and so often it paid off,” recalls Verbit.  “But time was Yale’s enemy and you don’t gamble like, that.

“Then our DB bit on play-action and left their guy wide open on a pass for the conversion.”

A Princeton penalty on that two-pointer enabled Yale 15 more yards for its onside kick. The ball went off a Bulldog shin to the Tigers’ Derek Wassink who, instead of just covering, tried to advance the ball and simply dropped it despite not being touched.

Yale recovered and another Princeton penalty moved the Bulldogs closer. Pete Milano’s tackle inside the one succeeded only in making Yale coach Carm Cozza’s call on the final play of the game a hard one. He chose a field goal and John Duryea hit it.

“It is virtually impossible to lose a game that you led by 10 points with two minutes to play,” recalls Verbit. “Those were the two most miserable minutes of my life.

Said Rogerson, whose team would finish 2-8, to the media: “I can’t accept nor believe it. This was an absolute nightmare.”

“And that was mild compared to what Ron said to me,” recalls Verbit, then the secondary coach.  ‘He chased me down the sideline after Dean gambled and missed, then again when our guy bit on the fake and left their receiver wide open on the conversion. Rogerson then was all over me in the locker room and even came into the shower with his clothes on to give it to me again.

“Good thing he was my friend or it would have been worse.”

Columbia vs Princeton, 2017

20) Columbia 28, Princeton 24. September 30, 2017 at Princeton Stadium. Coming off a 2016 Ivy title, but with an inexperienced defense that already was beginning to fray with injuries in the front seven, the Tigers had their hands full with Al Bagnoli’s revived Lions. But Bech’s 18-yard punt return set up a 27-yard Kanoff-to-Carlson touchdown pass that put Princeton up 24-21 with 2:48 remaining. 

A holding penalty set back the Lions into a second-and-20 but quarterback Anders Hill nevertheless converted a first down with consecutive completions. So, on a subsequent third-and-11, this time Surace decided to try to put it all-but away by ordering a blitz.  Hill beat it over the middle with a pass to Ronald Smith. Defensive back Chance Melancon, who had lone deep responsibility, missed the tackle and Smith went 63 yards untouched for the touchdown.

Three straight completions by Kanoff give Princeton a chance from the Columbia 37, until he was intercepted with 34 seconds remaining.

“I am going to kick myself until this is on my tombstone,” said Surace the following day. “Why did we want to pressure in that situation?”

“But then you watch the film and our eyes had been telling us the (true) story.  We had played some softer zone coverages earlier (in that series) on the second-and- twenty and didn’t stop them. Kurt Holuba was amazing in his pass rush at the end, but the other guys were worn down and we weren’t getting anything. They doubled Kurt on a couple plays there.

“So, I thought we had the choice of either a slow death or try to get off the field.  It’s unfortunate that a player who was playing unbelievably well (Melancon) missed a tackle. Using max pressure, we knew we would have an unblocked guy (Mike Wagner) and he was an inch from tipping that pass, about as close as you can get. But credit their quarterback for standing in there and throwing it to a spot without seeing the receiver, who ran a crisp route. It was as good a play as you can see.”

The Tigers bounced back and were 5-1 following a rout at Harvard until the injuries on defense put them into four consecutive shootouts to end the season. They lost every one in the final minutes.

19) Cornell 10, Princeton 7.  October 28, 2006 at Schoellkopf Field, Ithaca, NY- Coming off a 31-28 thriller over Harvard to get to 6-0, the Tigers came to Schoellkopf on a soggy day and suddenly a skilled offense was waterlogged. The Tigers punted six times and converted on only three-of-12 third downs.

Jeff Terrell (13-for-32) had a pass intercepted and run back 41 yards to the one to set up a Cornell touchdown in the second quarter and the Big Red added another in the third on a 40-yard pass from Nathan Ford to Zac Canty. 

Princeton immediately responded by going 88 yards in eight plays and scoring on Rob Toresco’s 2-yard run, but the Tigers were pinned deep by a punt on the next possession. The next drives ended with a stop on fourth-and-six at the Cornell 38, then a sack and lost fumble at the 32. There was still time to reach the Cornell 25 in the final seconds, but an interception killed that final chance. 

“Jeff was so clutch that year, I was stunned,” recalls Hughes. The following week, the quarterback’s presence-of-mind lateral to Toresco after being thrown back on fourth-and-one beat Penn in overtime. Princeton next rallied from a 28-14 halftime deficit to win at Yale and then defeated Dartmouth for a shared Ivy title, the first in 11 years. 

But those Tigers wanted it all, and, to this day, still do.  

“That’s the only time in my career I felt like we lost to a lesser team,” says Terrell.

“Bad weather day, bad mojo, just a bad day. We never could get momentum.  But give Cornell (3-4) credit for being prepared. That’s life.”

Princeton at Dartmouth, 2013

18) Dartmouth 28, Princeton 24.  November 23 2013 at Memorial Field, Hanover, NH.

After losing the opener to Lehigh, the Tigers were a game from running the table to a first outright championship in 18 seasons. But Dartmouth, which came in 4-2, used a short punt, a 56-yard bomb from Dalyn Williams to Bo Patterson, and a 41-yard run by Kyle Brambie to get out of bad field position on the way to a 21-0 lead.

Princeton’s record-setting offense fought back. Quinn Epperly threw to Roman Wilson for one touchdown and ran in another to complete two long drives that cut the deficit to a touchdown by the half. In the third quarter Matt Costello beat two defenders and aninterference call on an amazing 30-yard touchdown catch to tie the game.

After getting a stop on the next Big Green possession, the Tigers were in position to go ahead, and perhaps even take control of the game. But at the Princeton 44, an Epperly run on fourth-and-one was stopped. “I think the only other time we got stopped on a fourth-and-one that year was at Harvard in our triple overtime win,” recalls Epperly.

Dartmouth converted the short field on a 17-yard touchdown run by Williams to go back ahead 28-21.  Princeton answered, was third-and-goal at the Dartmouth one in the fourth quarter when Roman Wilson was penalized for a false start. After a pass for Seth DeValve failed, the Tigers had to settle for a Bieck field goal.

It was Princeton’s last good chance. Another drive failed at midfield before Dartmouth ate 3:37 of clock while light flurries were beginning to intensify. Epperly didn’t get the ball back until three were only 45 second remaining and 76 yards and a blizzard to traverse. It ended with an interception.

“It was snowing so hard, I couldn’t see the play call,” remembers Epperly. “I remember being at the press conference and being eaten up about the loss (saying it ruined the season),

“I didn’t even want the silver ring (for a title shared with a Harvard), so sure was I that we were going to win a gold one the next year. After we were decimated by injuries (in 2014) and (and went 5-5), I look back on 2013 with a lot more appreciation now.  But I would have loved to have won that game. Dartmouth was the only team we didn’t beat in my four years.”

17) Yale 14, Princeton 7. November 11, 1989 at Palmer Stadium. A crowd of 37,762, the largest for a Princeton home game from 1965 to present – and a sellout as portions of the doomed ancient stadium were deemed unsafe – came out to see the Tigers clinch a share of the title for the first time in two decades with a victory over also-unbeaten Yale.

Princeton struck first when captain Franco Pagnanelli’s hit and Garry Kempinski’s fumble recovery set up a 43-yard touchdown drive finished by Chris Hallihan’s 7-yard run. The Bulldogs tied it when Maurice Saah slipped a tackle for a loss by All-Ivy cornerback Frank Leal and reversed 30 yards for a touchdown.

On the following possession, Yale’s Rich Huff came off the edge to block Brad Remig’s punt and the ball went out of bounds at the 17. Chris Kouri burst up the middle for 15, Ed Perks took it in from the one, and the Bulldogs had all the points they would need in what would turn into a battle for field position. Each team punted 10 times and the average Princeton start was from the 26.

“We had a little more option planned but didn’t want to take chances down there,” said coach Steve Tosches.  But his team did have some late chances, the best ending on a fumble by Tiger great Judd Garrett (148 yards on 33 carries) at the Yale 10 with 5:07 to play.

“It was hard, “recalls Garrett. “We hadn’t won a title since 1969 and that had been my goal when I enrolled.  When you are the guy that fumbled the ball away, it was a tough deal, still is a tough deal.”

On the next possession, quarterback Joel Sharp fumbled the ball away on a sack.  A final Hail Mary was intercepted in the end zone,

“It was tough to take because our defense was so good (Yale had just eight first downs) and I was part of an offense that let the whole team down,” recalls Surace, then an All-Ivy senior center.

The crowd of 12,500 that showed up at chilly Palmer seven days later for the season finale against Cornell was reflective of the gloom over an opportunity lost until word reached the Princeton bench of Harvard’s early lead against Yale. Princeton shook off a slow start and beat the Big Red 21-7 while the Bulldogs were going down, 37-20, and the Tigers got their long-awaited championship regardless.

Harvard vs Princeton, 2016

16) Harvard 23, Princeton 20.  October 22, 2016 at Princeton Stadium.

Down 14-0 at the half, and still 17-10 with the clock under four minutes, Princeton’s defense opened the door. Quincy Wolff forced a fumble recovered by Birk Olson at the Harvard 35.

A fourth-down throwback from Chad Kanoff to John Lovett came up two yards short at the seven, but the Tigers forced a three-and-out and James Frusciante’s 19 yard punt runback put them back at the door again – the Harvard 24 with 1:40 to go.  This time, Lovett got it in from the four and Tavish Rice’s PAT tied the game with 49 seconds remaining.

In overtime, a third down Kanoff pass to Isaiah Barnes failed and Princeton settled for a Rice field goal. Kurt Holuba was clearly held on quarterback Joe Viviano’s run to the three and he took it on the next play to win the game and leave Princeton a game back from the Crimson for the league lead.

“The rest of the year, if we come out and act the way we [did in the second half] there is not another group of guys I have ever coached that I would rather be around,” Surace told his team.

The Tigers rebounded to win 56-7 at Cornell the following week, and ran the table as Harvard was losing to both Penn and Yale.  The Tigers got a share of the title with the Quakers, whom they would defeat 28-0. The gold ring, however, had gotten away in a week six overtime.

15) Yale  21, Princeton 13. November 11, 1995 at Palmer Stadium

 Coming off a classic defensive performance that effectively ended Penn’s two-year reign as champions, Princeton had two wins to go for its first undefeated season in 31 years. And when quarterback Brock Harvey ran 92 yards for a touchdown on the first play, the Tigers appeared well on their way.

“Human nature said it was going to be easy and we lost our edge,” recalls Verbit. Yale, 1-4, converted a short field set up by a shanked Harry Nakielny punt, one of five drives that began in Princeton territory. The Tigers responded with Harvey’s touchdown pass to Kevin Duffy to complete an 80-yard march, but Alex Sierk missed the extra point and the Tigers never scored again on a sloppy field. “It negated our speed,” would say Tosches. “We were in a hole most of the game.” 

Damani Leech saved Princeton’s lead for a time by forcing a fumble to end an 84-yard drive at the one-yard line in the third quarter. But set up with another short field, Yale quarterback Chris Hetherington, who had missed most of the season with injuries (and would play 11 years as a running back in the NFL), led the Bulldogs 50 yards in eight plays to go ahead 14-13 with 3:35 to go. 

The Tigers were stopped again, got the ball back in the final minute in the shadow of their goal post, and Yale tacked on with a touchdown recovery of a Harvey fumble. Princeton totaled only 71 yards in the second half.

Not only was the undefeated season gone, but the Ivy championship left in jeopardy.  Going into the final week, a four-way tie was a possibility but a Cornell loss to Penn re-opened up an outright title opportunity for the Tigers. Stymied all day by a good young Dartmouth team, they rallied to a Sierk field goal on the final play and a 10-10 tie that gave Princeton the championship.

14) Dartmouth 34, Princeton 20.   November 21, 1992 at Palmer Stadium.  Dartmouth had a league loss and the Tigers didn’t as the two teams came into one of the most compelling individual duels in Ivy era history—quarterback Jay Fiedler vs. running back Keith Elias.  The contest fully lived up to the hype.

Despite each team forcing turnovers inside their own five-yard lines, Fielder had thrown for three touchdowns and Elias had rushed for 212 yards and scored touchdowns on brilliant runs of 51 and ten yards as Dartmouth got the ball, leading 27-20, with 8:06 to play. Fiedler delivered completions on third-and-13 and third-and-20 in a drive that put away the game on a rushing touchdown by Neal Martin with 53 seconds remaining.

The Tigers settled for a share of the title, which for a long time didn’t feel like one for seniors who didn’t want to go out with a loss in one of the most memorable games in school history.  But Elias, who had another year of eligibility remaining, tipped his cap. “It didn’t hurt,” he recalls.  “I just felt they beat us. It was my favorite game that I was ever on the wrong side of.”

Princeton vs Yale, 1956

13) Yale 42, Princeton 20. November 17, 1956 at Palmer Stadium. Princeton’s first team in the newly-minted formal Ivy League – and Coach Charlie Caldwell’s last – rolled into week eight unbeaten, only to be taken apart by Yale, which came in also undefeated but hardly had dominated as expected. The Tigers lost star lineman Mike Bowman to a clip on the opening kickoff and it was downhill from there as the Bulldogs ran for 192 yards in the first half on the way to a 35-13 lead.

Caldwell called it the best team Princeton had met in 10 years.  “The only questions is where they have been all season?” he said.

Yale crushed Harvard the following week to finish 7-0 while the broken Tigers managed only 99 yards in a 19-0 loss to 4-3 Dartmouth and finished second.

12) Yale 29, Princeton 7.  November 18, 1967 at Palmer Stadium – Despite an early season rout by Cornell, the Tigers came to Yale week with a chance to pull into a first place tie with one of the most star-studded teams in Ivy history. 

Five minutes into the contest Brian Dowling surprised the Tiger defense with a rare first down pass that Calvin Hill ran in for a touchdown. Princeton drove right back with the next possession on the running of Ellis Moore and Dick Bracken to tie the game 7-7.

Interceptions by Keith Mauney and Pete Lips held off two more Yale drives, but Dowling took advantage of a missed interception gamble by Mauney on a pass to Bruce Weinstein to put Yale back ahead late in the second quarter. After a miscommunication resulted in a nonsensical Princeton time out with the ball deep in its own territory, Bracken was tackled for a safety and Yale drove for another touchdown before the half. Princeton was stymied the rest of the way.

“They killed us on the board, psychologically, and every way,” said Coach Dick Colman. The Bulldogs rolled up 409 yards and their fans tore down the Palmer goalposts to celebrate. Princeton lost to Dartmouth, too, 17-14, in the season finale and finished 6-3.

11) Yale 35, Princeton 10, 1979.  November 10, 1979 at Palmer Stadium

 A stunning shutout at highly favored defending champion Dartmouth in the opener keyed the surprising Tigers to Ivy wins over everybody but Brown. Princeton went into the game against unbeaten Yale with a chance to pull into a tie for the Ivy lead.

The campus was fired up about the first late season game with title implications since the 1969 championship and Princeton, playing without injured starting quarterback Steve Reynolds, was trailing only 7-2 when the Tigers recovered a second period fumble at the Yale 14.

Princeton was fourth down at the one when Larry Van Pelt was stopped and Princeton’s best football party in a decade abruptly ended. Yale broke the game open with touchdowns off a fumble return and an interception of sophomore quarterback Bob Holly, holding Princeton to 17 yards rushing and just 127 yards total. Eight of the Tigers’ ten points, including Chris Boudreau’s 92-yard interception return for a touchdown, came when their defense was on the field.

It was the 13th straight win over Princeton by Yale, as sadly recorded by Daily Princetonian sportswriter Elena Kagan, who went onto even bigger things than Yale’s Ivy title that year. A 26-14 win over Cornell in the finale gave Princeton a 5-4 record, its first winning season in eight years.

Dartmouth vs Princeton, 1961

10) Dartmouth 24, Princeton 6. November 25, 1961 at Palmer Stadium

The depleted Tigers came into the season finale with a chance to gain a three-way tie for the title with Harvard and Columbia, but were dominated by the Indians’ ground game while fumbling the ball away three times in the second half. Two of the Dartmouth second half scores were on a misdirection runs by quarterback Bill King and a fake field goal.

“The boys have been playing on their nerves for several weeks,” said Colman. ‘But they just didn’t have the strength to take it with so many men out.” 

Princeton at Yale, 1960

9) Yale 43, Princeton 20.  November 12, 1960 at the Yale Bowl. New Haven CT-Coming off a 4-5 season, the surprising Tigers went to week eight with only a non-league loss to Rutgers until a disastrous start crushed their title dreams.  The opening kickoff rolled free at the two-yard line before Princeton covered it just in time. And though the defense held off the undefeated Bulldogs for a quarter, a 22-point second put the game out of reach. Three fumbles led to touchdowns and two more were scored off long plays.

Colman said his defensive backs did an “atrocious” job reading Yale quarterback Tom Singleton as he killed the Tigers on the option. The running of Hugh Scott made the second half largely even, like the final stats, but Princeton’s opportunity for a championship was gone, despite its 7-0 victory over a good Dartmouth team in the finale.

8) Dartmouth 31, Princeton 13. November 23, 1991 at Memorial Field, Hanover NH.

The Tigers came in with only a loss to Harvard and a chance to tie the Big Green for a title share, but were run over by running back Al Rosier’s 190-yard day. Fiedler, a sophomore, threw the ball only 21 times, but ran for another score. Chad Roghair’s 17-yard pass to Michael Lerch left Princeton down only 17-7 at the half, but turnovers on two third-quarter drives destroyed whatever chance the Tigers had.  Star sophomore Keith Elias was held to just 57 yards in 20 carries.

“It was demoralizing, the way they won it,” recalls Verbit. “We thought we had a good bunch and they just rammed it down our throats.” 

Princeton took solace in its rebound from the 3-7 record in 1990 that had followed its first title in 20 years.  “You definitely can’t be disappointed in the way we played this season,” said Elias. “We were picked to finish sixth by just about all the polls.  “My only regret was losing to Harvard (24-21). I thought we were better.”

Coach Steve Tosches also declared the program turned and, indeed the program would go 39-10-1 over the next five seasons and win championships in 1992 and 1995.

7) Dartmouth 28, Princeton 22.  November 20, 1993 at Memorial Field, Hanover, NH.

For a third straight season, the road to an Ivy title went through Dartmouth, the Tigers coming to Hanover for the finale of the Fielder-Elias trilogy with a chance to salvage a title share despite a devastating rout by Penn in a battle of unbeatens two weeks earlier.

This time, Elias and Princeton finally had Fiedler (three-for-15 for 60 yards in the first half) cornered. Elias’s leaping one-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the Tigers a 22-8 lead. But the Big Green quarterback, was warming up and, as he had in the ’92 season finale, taking over the game down the stretch.

Fiedler finished two drives with touchdown scrambles. After the second, his conversion attempt went off three differed Tiger hands before settling into those of receiver John Hyland to tie the contest 22-22 with 2:42 remaining. When Princeton tried to answer, linebacker Hunter Buckner’s blitz got by Elias to force a Foote fumble and Brian White recovered at the Princeton 38. A Fiedler completion to Hyland produced Dartmouth’s second touchdown in 90 seconds–and third in 8:34–shattering Princeton’s once promising 1993 season into its final pieces.

“Two good teams, and, at the end of a phenomenal 60 minutes, a player who played 10 years in the NFL made plays,” said Verbit. “Disappointing, of course, but easier to take than the ones you feel like you blew or were never in.”  

By the end of the game together Elias and Fiedler totaled 23 Ivy records, but Fiedler had won all three meetings. “He’s the class of the Ivy League,” said Elias, Princeton’s all-time rushing leader, afterwards. “When he does something good, I take pride in it because we are in the same league.”

Tosches thought Fiedler belonged in another one. “I’m glad that was his last game,” said the Princeton coach. “He’s Superman.”

6) Penn 30, Princeton 14. November 6, 1993, at Franklin Field, Philadelphia, PA.

A week eight showdown with also unbeaten Penn turned into perhaps the greatest start-to-finish nightmare in Princeton football history. Eight fumbles, including five on the exchange between Foote and All-Ivy center-to-be John Neid, either ended scoring opportunities or set them up for Penn.

A Foote fumble at the Penn 43 killed Princeton’s first possession and, three plays later, quarterback Jim McGeehan hit Chris Brassell for a 30-yard touchdown. Running back Terrence Stokes then keyed an 82-yard touchdown march. Princeton countered on Elias’ highlight run of an otherwise worst day of his career – 56 yards on 15 carries – to set up a Peter Bailey touchdown plunge, but McGeehan hit Brassell again for a 21-7 Penn halftime edge. 

A 30-yard touchdown pass from Foote to Marc Ross in the third quarter cut the lead to ten and Princeton got the ball back with more than just a glimmer of hope. But another mishandled snap at the Princeton nine set up another Quaker touchdown and ended the miserable day and the Tigers’ considerable hopes for an unbeaten season. Stokes, taking advantage of Tiger sellouts to stop the passing of McGeehan, gashed Princeton for 272 yards.

“It’s almost an impossibility to have than many center-quarterback exchange problems in one game,” recalls Verbit. “And that’s a mystery to this day.

“By the same token, their offense played well and they limited Keith. Two great teams came in undefeated and we laid an egg. It was a game that will stick in your craw as long as you live.”

5) Yale 21, Princeton 14. November 12, 2005 at Princeton Stadium

Following the program’s first win over Penn in eight seasons, only Yale and Dartmouth teams with losing records were left in the path to a Tiger title share with Brown. Princeton, up 14-0 in the second quarter was well on its way. But one of five interceptions thrown by quarterback Jeff Terrell ended a drive at the Yale five just before the intermission. And another pick set up a touchdown that cut Princeton’s lead in half in the third quarter. 

As the Tiger offense ground to a halt in the second half, the defense still seemed about to win the game until a Rob Toresco fumble at the Princeton 21 enabled Yale with a last chance.  Even then, Yale penalties put the Tigers just one play away from being able to probably run out the clock. On fourth-and-25 from the 36, Jay McCareins, Princeton’s first team All-America, was there to make a play, but instead of just batting the ball down, intercepted it.

“That’s on the coaches as much as the player,” says Verbit. “It’s our responsibility to get the players to understand the situation. If there is a big differential in field position, you always knock the ball down.”

Thus, the ball was on the three instead of the 36. The Tigers couldn’t get off the goal line and Colin McDonough’s punt out of the end zone gave Yale another chance. On fourth down, with 1:14 to play, quarterback Jeff Mroz beat McCareins with a tying touchdown pass to Todd Feiereisen,

Rather than taking a knee and living to fight in overtime, the Tigers tried to make something out of the time that was left.  Brian Shields took a first-down pass in the flat from Terrell, was hit by Brendan Sponheimer, and the ball popped up into the arms of linebacker Bobby Abare, who took it to the one. Mroz sneaked in on the next play and Princeton’s title chances were gone almost in a flash; the most devastating, compounded and sickening late turn of events in program history.

“Almost every day I think about that game,” says McCareins today. “I don’t have any regrets about the interception, but about two plays earlier in the game

“I jumped a route, had nothing but green space in front of me, but the quarterback had the ball hit and it didn’t go far enough. And after my first interception, in the first half, my knee scraped when I should have been able to stay up, because that would have been a touchdown.

“On the (late) interception, the receiver was 6-3 and the ball was behind me. The receiver, (safety Tim) Strickland and I all jumped and the receiver got both hands on my forearm as I pulled the ball down.

“If I just tip it, don’t catch it, I don’t know what would have happened because the ball landed on top or me.

“You make a reaction.  I don’t regret my decision.”

The following week the Tigers won 30-0 at Dartmouth, but settled for a 7-3 season and second place. Despite heavy graduation losses that included McCareins the following season, Princeton went 9-1 and won the title.  “We had another championship in 2005 won.” recalls receiver Brendan Circle. “That taste in our mouths certainly added fuel to the fire.”

Dartmouth vs Princeton, 1965

4) Dartmouth 28, Princeton 14. November 20, 1965 at Palmer Stadium.

The Tigers were bidding for a second straight undefeated season when also- unbeaten Dartmouth came to town for the finale. Before 45,725, Princeton led 14-7 in the second quarter, even as casualties mounted. Star tailback Ron Landeck, who had scored the first touchdown, and linebacker Clint Johnson were gone by the second half and though all-time defensive greats Stas Maliszewski, Walt Kozumbo and Paul Savidge continued to stuff the run, Indian quarterback Mickey Beard went to the air, repeatedly making third-down completions on a drive that tied the score at the half.

In the third quarter Dartmouth had three more third-down conversions on a march that put the Indians ahead and then Princeton suffered a fatal blow when Savidge left the game with a broken neck. “I think it affected Maliszewski,” Colman would say. “He and Paul were pretty close.”

The clinching touchdown from Beard to Bill Calhoun went for 79 yards.

“We have a very fine team and they still beat us convincingly,” said Colman. The best three-year record in Princeton Ivy era history produced a 24-3 record but just one championship, the undefeated one in 1964. Dartmouth final-game victories took away the other two.

3) Holy Cross 30, Princeton 26, September 24, 1988 at Palmer Stadium

The Tigers, a 10-point underdog to the defending 1-AA champion Crusaders, jumped up 10-0, trailed 13-13 at the half, regained the lead on a Jason Garrett to Dave Wix pass and a Chris Lutz field goal then made it 23-17 with 12:11 to go. 

But on a fourth down play, Tiger safety Brian Wietharn climbed the back of a receiver as he attempted a catch, when allowing the reception and then making a tackle would have turned the ball over on downs to Princeton. Reprieved by the pass interference call, Holy Cross continued the two-minute drill and Joe Segretti’s five-yard touchdown run put the Crusaders ahead, 24-23, with just 1:13 to play.

Jason Garrett led the Tigers back to the Holy Cross 18 with seven seconds remaining and Lutz’s 35-yard field goal won the game until it didn’t. With two seconds still on the clock, Princeton had to kick off. Lutz squibbed it and Darim Cromwell fielded the ball and ran 15 yards before lateraling to Tim Donovan. He outran three Tigers down the left sideline for the jaw-dropping miracle of all football miracles and the worst how-could-we-possibly-have-let-that-happen final play devastation in all Princeton history.  

There was no video replay to support Tosches’ desperate argument that Cromwell had been stopped (which he hadn’t been), or that the lateral was forward (which it was not clearly). In an instant, the euphoria of perhaps the greatest out-of-conference upsets in program history had turned into a hideous defeat because lane assignments had been blown on the kickoff coverage.

“We have to take out our bitterness on our opponents the next eight weeks,” said Tosches. In probably the most up-and-down season in program history all that anger did the Tigers nothing two weeks later at Columbia, when the Lions broke an NCAA record 44-game losing streak at Princeton’s expense. But the 1988 Tigers still defeated both Harvard and Yale and finished 6-4, prelude to the first title season in 20 years in 1989.

2) Dartmouth 22, Princeton 21. November 30, 1963 at Palmer Stadium-

Despite a loss to Harvard, Princeton entered the finale with an opportunity for an outright title but, thanks to a fumbled snap as it was trying to run out the clock, was in deep trouble. Dartmouth, trailing 21-14, was first-and-goal at the six. 

On first down Cosmo Iacavazzi saved a touchdown at the one. Two more runs were stacked up and, on fourth down, Staś Maliszewski, Iacavazzi, Al Swenson, Don Roth and Bob Keyes swarmed ball carrier Tom Spangenberg.  What was likely the most clutch goal line stands in program history had saved the day and an outright championship until on third down, Iacavazzi, the All-America running back, fumbled for only the second time all season, Dartmouth recovered and this time punched it in, giving the Indians a title share. 

When Princeton visited Hanover the following season, the Dartmouth student newspaper ran a picture of the fumble with a gloating caption, which Colman made certain the team saw the morning of the game.   “My fumble was a leading factor in that loss and now I was being embarrassed by it all over again,” recalls Iacavazzi. “Coach Colman wasn’t a great orator, but he didn’t have to be.  We took it from there.”

Princeton won 33-7.  “Wish it was 100-to-7,” said Colman, who had piled on, sending out Charlie Gogolak to kick a late field goal. The fumble had set the table the Tigers ran to 9-0 that season, but the victory over Dartmouth was the only one against the Indians during a three-year period in which the Tigers went 24-3.  “Asked for his greatest memory of the glorious 1964 season, Maliszewski, the All America linebacker, says, “The Dartmouth game the year before and after.  We should have been undefeated three years in a row.”

Princeton at Columbia, 1988

1) Columbia 16, Princeton 13.  October 8, 1988 at Wien Stadium, New York City-

A year earlier, when Princeton’s 38-8 victory over the Lions, had stretched their losing streak to 35 games, breaking the NCAA record held by Northwestern (1979-82), the national media attention caused Tosches to say afterwards that he wasn’t relieved until the score reached 30-0.

Such was the dread through the Ivy League at being the enabler, ending Columbia’s skid of futility. It was at 44 games when the Tigers went to Wien and jumped up 10-0 on a 27-yard field goal by Lutz and a three-yard run by Kris Keys. Nobody would have predicted that would be the only drive Princeton finished all day. Repeatedly Tiger pushes were turned back by penalties, other mistakes, and a Columbia team increasingly fired up at a rare opportunity to win.

“Whatever could go wrong did go wrong for us,” recalls Verbit. “Every time we got something going there was a setback.”

Columbia’s Greg Abbruzzese had 107 rushing yards in the first half alone as the Lions capped a drive in the final minute with a nine-yard pass from Bruce Mayhew to Matt Less. The extra point was missed but that was the only sign that these were the same old hapless Lions. They stopped another Princeton drive at the ten, forcing the Tigers to settle for another Lutz field goal and a 13-9 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Columbia ran the kickoff back to midfield and 37 yards of Abbruzzese carries set up a Salomon Johnson 2-yard touchdown run that put Columbia ahead 16-13.  The Tigers marched right back but a 22-yard touchdown run by Judd Garrett was called back on a clipping penalty against Dave Wix.

 “We had to search the video to find the violation and, despite many tries, couldn’t,” recalls Verbit. “It never showed up.”

When Tosches chose to go for it on fourth-and-seven at the 27, a blitz sacked Jason Garrett and the Tigers didn’t get the ball back until there were 38 seconds remaining.  A pass to Mark Rockefeller enabled a hurried Lutz try of 49 yards, but it fell short by a good 12 yards on the final play.

“The pain walking off that field that day never will go away,” recalls Surace, then a junior center.

And the Tigers immediately understood, too, that the ignominy would last a lifetime.

“Life is cruel,” said Tosches to the media, not to the Columbia fans who were tearing down the goal posts. But certainly after 44 straight defeats, they may have known that even more painfully than the Princeton coach.  

Today, Tosches calls the debacle the “worst officiated game I ever coached.” Adding to Columbia’s vindication was that all three Garrett brothers (including John, a receiver) for Princeton had transferred from Columbia after their father, Jim, had been fired there as coach after just one season. 

This scarlet letter day in 150 years of Princeton football came in a winning season (6-4) that preceded by just one year the Tigers first Ivy title in two decades.  Columbia would win one more game that year, routing Brown in the finale, then went 1-9 each of the next three so it wasn’t like the Lions got off the schneid on the way to something better, giving those Tigers any eventual consolation.

There are multiple games on this list that cost titles. This one didn’t but the attention it received makes this the hardest recollection of their football lives to Princeton’s participants.

“It’s still killing me,” says Verbit.

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