In 2012, the Princeton University football team opened its season by falling behind 17-0 to Lehigh at halftime.
In the second half, the Tigers mounted a furious rally only to come up short in a 17-14 defeat.
Last Saturday, Princeton flipped the script on the visiting Mountain Hawks as the teams renewed their rivalry in the Tigers’ season opener.
With the no-huddle offense clicking, the Tigers roared out to a 22-3 lead by intermission over No. 18 and 2-0 Lehigh.
“We came out pretty strong,” said Princeton senior safety and co-captain Phil Bhaya. “We made a couple of plays. We were playing fast.”
But this time, it was the Mountain Hawks who fought back, outscoring the Tigers 26-6 in the second half to pull out a dramatic 29-28 victory before 6,982 at Princeton Stadium and a national television audience as the contest was shown on NBC Sports.
A forlorn Princeton head coach Bob Surace acknowledged that Lehigh put on a dazzling show over the last 30 minutes of the game.
“They executed great on offense in the second half,” said Surace, reflecting on the defeat which was Princeton’s fourth straight loss in the series.
“We couldn’t get off the field. I think in the third drive [in the second half], they had a 15-play drive. They had a couple of other drives. Both teams had good tempo to their offenses. Not getting off the field on those key plays put some guys on the field more than we would have liked. They did a great job.”
Staying on the field so long appeared to wear down the Princeton defense.
“We’ll look at it on film and see if our energy was the same; my initial impression is no it wasn’t,” said Surace. “We’ll see if we have to rotate more guys. They were on the field a lot.”
Princeton had plenty of energy on the offensive side of the ball as it piled up 501 yards, nearly matching the 513 yards gained by Lehigh.
“Both teams ended up with 500 yards of offense,” said Surace. “It was almost like whatever team had the ball last. I think we punted twice and they punted three times. We couldn’t get each other off the field. If you could get back-to-back drives, that was the key. We wanted to get three-and-outs because they were tired.”
In the first half, the Tigers ran the Mountain Hawks ragged, starting with its first possession of the game. After senior linebacker Jason Ray recovered a Lehigh fumble, Princeton took over at its 24-yard-line and proceeded to march 76 yards in six plays, taking a 6-0 lead on an 18-yard touchdown gallop by sophomore DiAndre Atwater. The Tigers made it 8-0 as Ray ran in a two-point conversion.
Midway through the second quarter, Princeton increased its lead to 15-0 as junior quarterback Quinn Epperly passed and ran the Tigers up the field. Epperly connected on two straight passes to Matt Costello and hit Atwater on a seven-yard aerial to get Princeton to the Lehigh 14-yard line. After Atwater rushed for 10 yards, Epperly made a 4-yard touchdown run.
Lehigh answered with a field goal to make it 15-3 but the Tigers went on the march again, this time triggered by the passing of Princeton’s other junior quarterback, Connor Michelsen, to senior star Roman Wilson. Michelsen found Wilson for gains of 23 and 33 yards as Princeton advanced to the Lehigh 5. Epperly then came on and culminated the 75-yard march with a 5-yard scoring strike to Wilson as Princeton built a 22-3 advantage at intermission.
In Wilson’s view, the Tigers hurry-up offense had the Mountain Hawks on their heels. “That is how we try to play,” said Wilson. “We want to play as fast as we can, whether the defense is ready for it or not.”
In the second half, Princeton seemed ready to put the game out of reach, taking the opening kickoff and marching 55 yards to the Lehigh 21. The drive stalled and the Tigers lost the ball on downs, eschewing a field goal attempt in the wake of a blocked kick by Lehigh in the first half.
Led by senior quarterback Brandon Bialkowski, Lehigh caught fire. With Bialkowski hitting on 7-of-10 passes, the Mountain Hawks drove to the Princeton five. Tailback Keith Sherman took it from there, scoring on a five-yard touchdown run as Lehigh narrowed the gap to 22-9.
After a Princeton three-and-out, the Mountain Hawks went on the march again. Bialkowski connected on 8-of-10 passes, including a 15-yard touchdown pass to Zach Hayden as Lehigh made it a 22-16 game.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Mountain Hawks flew past the Tigers, marching 73 yards after blocking another Princeton field goal attempt. A pass play of 48 yards from Bialkowski to Josh Parris got Lehigh to the Princeton 4. The quarterback then found Dylan Colgate in the end zone and the Mountain Hawks converted the extra point to edge ahead 23-22 with 11:31 remaining in regulation.
Showing resilience, Princeton responded with a 71-yard scoring march which saw both Michelsen and Epperly make big plays as the former completed three straight passes to get Princeton into Lehigh territory while the latter made a key run and pass to move the Tigers to the Lehigh 17. Atwater produced another big run, spurting 17 yards for paydirt and his second touchdown of the evening. Princeton’s two-point conversion failed, leaving the Tigers ahead 28-22 with 8:03 left in the fourth quarter.
But Bialkowski kept up his hot play, hitting on 7-of-8 passes to get the Mountain Hawks to the Princeton 17. Running the ball four straight plays from there, Lehigh capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Sean Farrell to go ahead by 29-28.
The Tigers got the ball with 2:45 remaining and made one first down on a 13-yard run by Atwater, who ended the game with a career-high 111 yards on 13 carries. A Michelsen pass, though, was intercepted three plays later and Lehigh ran out the clock to seal the victory.
Wilson, for his part, was in no mood to see the performance against Lehigh as a moral victory for the Tigers.
“We showed flashes but it didn’t matter because we didn’t finish,” said a glum Wilson, who made a career-high nine receptions for 168 yards in the game.
“That was the big difference. A lot of the time it is the little things. That is what we are going to have to do, go back and watch the film and fix those little things.”
While Surace was proud of how his team battled, he acknowledged that it squandered a big opportunity.
“When they took the lead by one, for our offense to go down the field and score a touchdown was a good sign,” said Surace, whose team plays at Georgetown on September 28.
“The bottom line is that we didn’t win. We can’t sugarcoat that but when you are looking for positives, that was a real positive. We showed a lot of heart in that drive. There are positives you can take against a team like Lehigh but the bottom line is we had a chance to make a statement and we didn’t.”