It is the kind of game-changing play that the Princeton University football team has failed to produce in recent seasons.
With Princeton locked in a 7-7 tie at Yale last Saturday late in the second quarter, the Bulldogs had second and goal at the Tiger five-yard-line and were poised to take the lead going into halftime.
Instead, Tiger defensive back Trocon Davis picked off a halfback option pass and raced 100 yards for a touchdown and it was Princeton that took a 14-7 lead into the dressing room at intermission.
Building on the momentum from Davis’ stunning play, the longest interception return in program history, the Tigers proceeded to roll to a 29-7 win over the Bulldogs before a crowd of 21,824 at the venerable Yale Bowl.
The win improved Princeton to 5-4 overall and 4-2 in Ivy League play, tied for second with Harvard (7-2 overall 4-2 Ivy) in the league standings, one game behind Penn (5-4 overall, 5-1 Ivy).
In addition to keeping the Tigers alive in the Ivy title race, the victory rekindled one of the school’s venerable traditions as a bonfire will be held on campus to celebrate the win over Yale coupled with an earlier triumph over Harvard. The celebration is slated for November 17 at 7 p.m. on Cannon Green.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace was fired up by Davis’s play and what it represented in his eyes.
“I hope this really shows where we are going as a group,” said Surace. “We have not been able to make plays like that in the past where we were struggling but still playing hard. We kept battling.”
But Surace knew that Princeton’s first half struggles weren’t negated merely by Davis’ moment of brilliance.
“I went in right away and told the coaches that was the worst 30 minutes of the season,” said Surace. “We need to play the second half as though it is 0-0 and I expect our best 30 minutes of the season.”
The Tigers got the message as they controlled the second half, outscoring the Bulldogs 15-0 and holding Yale to only 104 yards total offense in the last 30 minutes of the contest.
“We took the opening kickoff and went right down and got a two-score lead,” said Surace.
“I thought the last 31 minutes were very good. It was good to bounce back within the game and good to bounce back from two tough losses.”
Princeton’s tough start was due in part to the Yale’s different look in the unexplained absence of sophomore running back Tyler Varga, who came into the game with a league-leading 839 yards rushing.
“We had spent a good part of the week preparing for Varga,” said Surace.
“With him not playing, 80 percent of the preparation went out the window. They were using a new scheme and they had us on our heels. They are the only team in the league to beat Penn so they are as good as anybody. We couldn’t get first downs and we didn’t have time to make adjustments.”
In the early going, things looked good for Yale as the Bulldogs jumped out to a 7-0 lead with Grant Wallace catching a 14-yard touchdown pass from Harry Furman.
Princeton knotted the game at 7-7 midway through the second quarter as junior Roman Wilson scored on a one-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers took a 14-7 lead into halftime on the heels of the Davis interception return as he crossed the goal line with 1:01 remaining in the second quarter.
Building on the momentum from the Davis pick six, Princeton took the opening kickoff of the second half and produced a 9-play, 65-yard scoring march. The drive culminated with a one-yard touchdown plunge by sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly. Kicker Nolan Bieck took a high snap and ran in for a two-point conversion to give Princeton a 22-7 advantage.
Later in the quarter, Yale appeared to have a touchdown as Mordecai Cargill burst into the end zone. But senior Mandela Shaeffer stripped the ball and freshman Anthony Gaffney fell on the ball for the Tigers.
“We stopped their back and he fumbled in the end zone,” said Surace, reflecting on the key turnover. “Anthony Gaffney came from the back side and got the fumble. He hustled past six Yale guys. Those are the things you like to see as a coach.”
Princeton put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, producing its longest drive of the season time-wise, taking 6:57 to march 69 yards in 13 plays.
Epperly hit sophomore receiver Matt Costello with a nine-yard scoring strike as Princeton went up 29-7.
The Tigers stopped Yale on downs in its next possession and then ran out the clock as it sealed its first win in the Yale Bowl since its 2006 Ivy title campaign.
With the Tigers needing to win over Dartmouth (5-4 overall, 3-3 Ivy) in its season finale this Saturday and Penn to lose at Cornell to earn a share of the league title, Surace will be reminding his team of a nightmarish experience he had six years ago during his NFL days.
“In 2006 when I was coaching with the Bengals, we had to beat the Steelers, and three other teams had to lose for us to make the playoffs,” recalled Surace.
“Some of the guys got engaged in sending messages to the other teams and they lost focus. We lost in OT to the Steelers; we made uncharacteristic mistakes. Our kicker missed field goals. We dropped balls and made mistakes. We lost an opportunity to make the playoffs and maybe make a run. We need to take care of our own business. Nothing good happens for us if we don’t beat Dartmouth.”
Princeton must bring the focus it showed in the second half against Yale in order to overcome a solid Big Green squad.
“They have played extremely well, they lost to Penn on the last play and gave up a late score in losing to Brown,” noted Surace in assessing Dartmouth.
“They are a young team like us; it is like looking in the mirror. The running back [Dominick] Pierre is a stud. They are playing a freshman QB [Dalyn Williams] along with a sophomore [Alex Park] and the freshman is one of the passing efficiency leaders in the league. They have two wideouts [Michael Reilly, Ryan McMaunus] who are terrific. The offensive line has improved. Defensively, they have been strong since I got in the league. They are good up front, they are fundamentally sound.”