On paper, the Princeton University football team held a marked statistical edge as it hosted Penn last Saturday.
The Tigers were ranked second in the Ivy League in both scoring offense and scoring defense while the Quakers were sixth in the two key categories.
But Penn has shown a quality not measured in numbers, an ability to pull out close games. Penn had won nailbiters this fall against Dartmouth (28-21), Columbia (24-20), and Brown (20-17) to go 3-1 in Ivy League play, tied atop the league standings with Princeton and Harvard.
A revitalized Princeton team tried to give Penn a taste of its own medicine as it took a 21-14 lead into the fourth quarter last Saturday before a hardy crowd of 7,494 in Princeton Stadium, braving chilly winds days after Hurricane Sandy had howled through the area.
The Quakers, though, followed their blueprint for success, producing late game heroics as they scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and then held off a late Princeton drive to escape with a 28-21 triumph and their sixth straight win in the rivalry.
A glum Princeton head coach Bob Surace didn’t hide his disappointment as he reflected on a game that got away from the Tigers, who committed four turnovers and made some critical mistakes on special teams.
“It is just frustrating; it is two weeks in a row where we had opportunities to close a game out and we didn’t do it,” said Surace, whose team had lost 37-35 to Cornell on October 27.
“That is the bottom line; there is no excuse for it. We have to learn to be a more disciplined team and to take better care of the ball.”
The team’s lack of discipline left Princeton’s league title hopes on life support as Harvard rolled past Columbia to join Penn at 4-1 in Ivy play with Princeton at 3-2 and only two games remaining in the season.
“I let them know that there is a likelihood that we are not going to reach our goals,” said Surace, recalling his postgame message to his squad after it fell to 4-4 overall despite outgaining Penn 444 yards to 307. “We lost the chance to control our own destiny with those things.”
Princeton junior defensive back Philip Bhaya, who made a key second quarter interception to set up a touchdown for the Tigers, echoed Surace’s sentiments.
“It is a real tough one to swallow; we haven’t had too much success the past couple of years,” said Bhaya.
“I think this one is especially tough because this team is definitely a special team. We have been really playing hard and together and with everything on the table for us after winning those games, it is really disappointing for us to come up short here.”
Penn head coach Al Bagnoli said his team had a “been there, done that” feeling when it headed into the fourth quarter locked in a tight contest.
“We don’t get rattled, we have been in so many close games,” said Bagnoli. “We have gotten an awful lot of practice in it and we have gotten a lot of confidence in our ability late to make some plays under duress. We have probably had six, seven, or eight games in the last two seasons that have come down to two-minute drives or come down to last plays.”
The Tigers showed their renewed confidence as they fought back all afternoon. After Penn jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, Princeton cashed in Bhaya’s interception, marching 24 yards in a drive that culminated with Quinn Epperly’s three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Hayes to make it a 7-7 game midway through the second quarter.
On their next possession, the Tigers took the lead. Going 66 yards in eight plays, Princeton found paydirt as Connor Michelson hit Will Powers with a 30-yard scoring strike. The Tigers, though, botched the extra point and their lead stayed at 13-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, Princeton made another special teams lapse as Eric Fiore raced 53 yards on the return. Taking advantage of the good field position, Penn marched 45 yards in a drive that culminated with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Billy Ragone to Ryan O’Malley. The Quakers converted the point after and took a 14-13 lead into halftime.
The Tigers regained momentum midway through the second quarter, producing a 73-yard scoring march. Michelson hit Roman Wilson with a 21-yard touchdown pass and then found Wilson in the end zone for a two-point conversion as the Tigers grabbed a 21-14 advantage.
Early in the fourth quarter, it looked like Princeton was on the verge of putting the game away as it marched to the Penn 23-yard line. But a Michelson pass was picked off in the end zone by former WW/P-S star Dave Twamley.
Minutes later, Michelson was picked off again with C.J. Mooney snagging a batted pass out of the air and racing 15 yards for a touchdown as Penn tied the game at 21-21.
After Princeton went three-and-out on its next possession, Penn took the lead 28-21 as Ragone ran three yards for a TD to culminate a 10-play, 53-yard drive.
The Tigers, though, didn’t fold as Michelson hit several big passes to get Princeton to the Penn six in the waning moments of the contest. But committing the final turnover of the day, Michelson lost the ball after getting sacked and Penn ran out the clock.
With Princeton playing at Yale (2-6 overall, 1-4 Ivy) on Saturday in the latest chapter of the storied rivalry between the schools, Surace believes his team will put the disappointment of the Penn game in the rear view mirror and summon up a big effort.
“I felt our guys played hard today; we made some unfortunate errors and it has got to get corrected,” said Surace.
“I think that we will get them ready; Yale is obviously another big game. Our coaches will come in competing and battling and our seniors will set an example that way and follow the coaches’ lead.”