When the Princeton University football team played at Harvard last fall, it put 39 points on the board but it wasn’t enough as the Crimson piled up 56.
Last Saturday, when the foes renewed their rivalry at Princeton Stadium before a sun-splashed crowd of 10,823, the Tigers again totaled 39 points.
But this time, that was enough to culminate one of the most remarkable, dizzying rallies in Ivy League football lore as Princeton fought back from a 24-point fourth quarter deficit to pull out a stunning 39-34 triumph over the nationally ranked and previously undefeated Crimson.
In so doing, the Tigers not only snapped No. 22 Harvard’s 14-game winning streak, they put themselves alone in first place in the Ivy League standings at 4-2 overall, 3-0 Ivy.
In reflecting on his team’s rally for the ages, Princeton head coach Bob Surace pointed to belief.
“It is not only me believing in them but they have to believe in themselves and they do,” said Surace whose team was outgained 634 yards to 419.
“They never, ever thought there was anything but a chance and that we were going to make play after play. The Harvard team is terrific. I am looking at those stats, their quarterback [Colton Chapple] is outstanding. I can’t say enough good things about their players and how hard fought that game was.”
The Tigers got some good fortune to help bolster their self-belief. “We kept fighting; we got a few breaks,” said Surace.
“In other games we have lost because that fourth and one ended up being a first down at the end of the game. In this game, we were able to keep them one yard shy and they had to punt. We made a few plays to get down the field. I am glad we don’t play a seven-game series with them.”
Junior receiver Roman Wilson made the final big play, leaping to catch a Quinn Epperly pass for a game-winning 36-yard touchdown with 13 seconds remaining in regulation.
In recalling the play, Wilson wasn’t surprised that it worked. “We lined up quick and Quinn threw a good ball and I had the leverage on the safety and I just had to go up there and make a play,” said Wilson.
“It is something we do every week in practice and all the guys believed that it is going to work.”
Wilson’s grab triggered a wild celebration that saw his teammates mob him in the end zone and then moments later, the Princeton fans stormed the field after the final gun.
With his voice cracking, Wilson said the scene was something he’ll never forget.
“It is just an incredible feeling, looking up and seeing all the fans, and seeing all the alumni, and seeing all my teammates come in,” said Wilson, who ended the day with five catches for 111 yards.
“It means so much because we work so hard everyday. We believed in each other; we believe in every single day of practice. We believe that we are going to come out and give our best and win.”
Sophomore quarterback Epperly, who came on in the last drive in relief of the shaken up Connor Michelson, believed he could get the job done.
“I just had confidence that I could step in and pull it off too,” said Epperly. “This is a big time but just stay calm and try to win it for us.”
For most of the day, the idea of Princeton winning the game seemed farfetched, at best.
Harvard got out of the gate on fire; scoring two early touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter. The Crimson added a touchdown early in the second quarter but their extra point attempt was blocked to make it 20-0.
As the teams headed into the locker room at halftime, Harvard maintained its 20-0 lead, having essentially run the Tigers out of their own building, outgaining Princeton 415 yards to 51.
In the locker room, Surace reminded his players that they had already shown this season that they could fight back from a big halftime deficit.
“I went in there and I told them, we were in this same spot against Lehigh,” recalled Surace.
“It was 17-0 and we fell a few plays short [in a 17-14 loss on September 15]. I said we are going to find out about the character of this group and see if we can show that we have grown as a team.”
The Tigers didn’t waste any time showing their character in the second half as Epperly made a one-yard touchdown run with 10:17 left in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 20-7. A Nolan Bieck 22-yard field goal made it 20-10 midway through the quarter.
But showing its championship mentality, Harvard responded with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Chapple to Kyle Juszczyk to end the quarter with a 27-10 lead.
Just 1:58 into the fourth quarter, the Crimson increased their advantage to 34-10 as Chapple found Cameron Brate for a 14-yard scoring strike.
With less than 12 minutes left in regulation, many fans headed to the exits. The Tigers, though, started heading to the end zone, beginning with a seven-yard TD pass from Michelson to Dre Nelson. Michelson proceeded to hit Tom Moak for a two-point conversion as Princeton cut the lead to 34-18.
Minutes later, Michelson hooked up with Matt Costello for a 29-yard touchdowns pass. Epperly came on and hit Shane Wilkerson for another two-point conversion as the Tigers made it a 34-26 game.
With the remaining crowd on its feet, Michelson struck again, hitting Seth DeValve for a 20-yard touchdown pass to make the score 34-32 with 2:27 remaining. Princeton’s two-point conversion attempt failed and Harvard took possession needing a first down to run out the clock. The Tigers held on third and seven, forcing Harvard to punt.
The Tigers got the ball on their own 10-yard-line with 1:57 left. Michelson, who ended the day with 237 yards passing and was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week, started the drive and hit two passes and made a run to get the ball to the 33. After getting sacked and drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct on Harvard, Michelson left the game with an apparent hand injury.
Epperly then came in and after two runs had Princeton at the Harvard 36. With the crowd in an uproar, Epperly launched the ball to a far corner of the end zone where Wilson snatched it and the victory.
In reflecting on Princeton’s rally, senior defensive lineman and team captain Mike Catapano said the team’s ability to stay in the moment made the difference.
“You have to stay focused; you can’t let the big picture get to you and you focus on technique and making plays and that’s what this team did great today,” said Catapano,
“We just did not quit; we did not let the big picture overwhelm us. That is what we have done all season and that’s what we are going to continue to do, not relent, not give up, and believe.
Surace, for his part, knows that his team needs to maintain that focus as it plays at Cornell (3-3 overall, 1-2 Ivy) on Saturday with three games after that in November.
“It is week six; we have to keep playing,” said Surace. “There is a lot of wow right now. There have been Super Bowls where the ball hits off the helmet and you win the game and celebrate and everything else. The problem was that this wasn’t the Super Bowl; you have to play next week.”
While there is plenty of football to play, Princeton’s super comeback last Saturday will go down as one of the most celebrated games in Ivy history.