Princeton Football Can't Reverse Harvard Curse; Blowing Early Lead in Falling 39-14 to Crimson
By Bill Alden
Coming into last Saturday's showdown with undefeated Harvard, the Princeton University football team was determined to reverse the curse it had seemingly fallen under in recent games against the Crimson.
The Tigers had not beaten Harvard in the eight games in the series since 1995, with several of the losses coming in excruciating fashion as six of the Crimson's wins have been by seven points or less. One of the cruellest setbacks for Princeton came in 2003 when it fell 43-40 in overtime.
Midway through the second quarter Saturday before 14,304 at Princeton Stadium, the Tigers appeared to be on the way to exorcising the Crimson demon as they cashed in on two Harvard fumbles to jump out to a 14-3 lead.
But Princeton then surrendered 19 points in the last 6:59 of the first half to fall behind 22-14 at the break, trudging into the locker room with crimson-faced head coach Roger Hughes looking ready to explode.
Princeton shut out Harvard in the third quarter but the Tiger defense wore down as the Crimson rolled up 17 points in the final 15 minutes to end up with a 39-14 rout.
A grim-faced Hughes didn't mince words as he assessed his team's disappointing performance. "The score pretty much showed that we got our tails kicked," said Hughes, whose club fell to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Ivy League play. "They beat us in just about every phase of the game."
Earlier in the afternoon, Hughes thought his club was on the way to finally besting Harvard. "We had some opportunities in the first half and we jumped on them and took advantage of some mistakes they made," explained Hughes, in recalling what he was thinking when his club was up 14-3. "I didn't sense that we had any problem at that point. I had a lot of confidence in our defensive scheme."
Even at the half, Hughes believed his club could weather the Harvard onslaught. "There was no sense of panic in the locker room," recalled Hughes. "It was just a matter of tightening some things up. We gave them some short fields to execute on so I was more upset at the way our punting game was going. We've been behind before at halftime and then come out and played well in the second half."
But the Tigers didn't rise to the occasion in the second half as they were held to 68 yards total offense and made two turnovers. "We just didn't generate anything in the second half," acknowledged Hughes. "Right now, we're not getting any productivity out of our passing game. We've had some injuries at wide receiver and we still need to get comfortable there. We had a couple of routes run incorrectly today. Its a combination of timing, protection, and being on the same page."
Princeton quarterback Matt Verbit, who hit on 12-of-24 passes for 119 yards and two interceptions, admitted that the Harvard defense had thrown the Tigers off stride a bit.
"I think that they brought a lot of pressure off the edges the whole game," said Verbit, whose finest moment of the game came when he hit Monte McNair for a 31-yard scoring strike on a fourth down play to give Princeton its first touchdown. "I think that disrupted us a bit."
With the offense stymied, the Princeton defense fought valiantly but ultimately ran out of gas. "The defense played a lot of snaps," said Hughes. "There wasn't a whole lot on the offensive side to bring them some juice and keep it going. I think they were on the field for something like 81 snaps, you just can't be on the field for that many snaps."
The multi-faceted Harvard attack piled up 172 yards passing and 244 yards rushing. The big playmakers for the Crimson were receiver Brian Edwards with nine catches for 129 yards, and prolific sophomore running back Clifton Dawson, who rushed for 201 yards with three touchdowns including an 80-yard gallop with seven minutes remaining in the contest.
Princeton linebacker Zak Keasey made no excuses. "I don't think he's any different than any other back we have played this year," said Keasey, referring to Dawson. "I don't have much to say, it was a disappointing performance."
Keasey's defensive colleague, cornerback Jay McCareins, vowed that Tigers wouldn't lose the focus that distinguished the team as it got off to a 4-1 start.
"You've got to deal with it," said McCareins. "You can sulk for about 10 minutes and then you have to get over it. You just can't dwell on one game. You have to go on to the next one."
At 2-1 in the Ivy play, alone in third place behind Penn (3-0) and Harvard (3-0), Princeton has plenty to play for. "When you have two losses in the league, it's hard to compete for the title," explained Hughes, whose team plays at Cornell (1-5, 1-2 Ivy) this Saturday.
"I don't feel any added pressure at this point. The coaching staff and the players want to execute better. For anyone to go undefeated in this league is going to be quite a feat. What we've got to do, as I just told the team, is to learn from our mistakes and move on."
Verbit, for his part, believes the Tigers can apply those lessons and run the table. "I think everybody on the team feels that," asserted the senior from Newtown, Pa.
"Coming into games, we are more comfortable. We're going to come out this week and work our tails off in practice and get ready to go to Cornell."