In its first possession, Princeton went three-and-out with two incomplete passes and a three-yard run. Minutes later, the Tigers shot themselves in the foot as they had two touchdowns called back due to penalties and then missed a field goal as the game remained scoreless midway through the first quarter.
But those early stumbles seemed like ancient history by the end of an afternoon that saw Princeton roll to a 53-7 rout of Columbia, piling up 629 yards of total offense in the process as it improved to 2-1 overall while the Lions dropped to 0-3.
In so doing, the Tigers made history as their 53-point output was the second straight game in which they hit the 50-point mark in the wake of a 50-22 win over Georgetown on September 28, marking the first time the program has scored at least 50 points in back-to-back games since the 1907 campaign when it did so against Bucknell and Wesleyan.
While junior quarterback Quinn Epperly, who triggered the onslaught as he threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more, was proud of the team’s historical accomplishment, he doesn’t think fans will have to wait for a century to see more such offensive fireworks.
“It is what we have been practicing for,” said Epperly, who connected on 19-of-25 passes for 272 yards and rushed for 54 yards on 11 carries.
“We knew what we were capable of. We knew this is what should be the usual and we haven’t been performing up to the standard in years past. This is really just the beginning of what should be a very high scoring offense.”
In Epperly’s view, the team’s offensive prowess comes down to a simple formula.
“I think it is just hard work,” said Epperly, who was later named the Ivy Offensive Player of the Week for his performance.
“We have been up here, not just me, but almost all of the guys have been up here all summer, working and throwing multiple times a week and working out everyday. I think the work that we have put in is finally starting to pay off. It is not finished nor have we done much so far you are starting to see a little bit of what it is about and how it is paying off.”
A beaming Princeton head coach Bob Surace was pleased with the second straight 50-point outburst but sounded a cautionary note.
“I told the guys I was proud of them,” said Surace. “You can’t take anybody lightly, especially us from what we have been through. We need to continue to practice well, we need to practice with effort and play focused football. I told them that I am going to watch that video and there are going to be as many corrections this week as there have been. We got a punt blocked; we had scores called back because of penalties. Our kickoff coverage was inadequate so we are going to work on some things and we have to keep improving. The teams we play week to week are going to be quality opponents and we have got to get better.”
Although the Tiger offense turned heads, Surace was quick to credit the defensive effort as Princeton held Columbia to five first downs, -6 yards rushing, and 139 yards of total offense.
“It is a team thing, it is not just the offense.” asserted Surace. “When we struggled and had an early drive and didn’t get much and then we had two scores taken off the board and then missed a field goal, we just kept playing. The defense kept getting the ball back so I do think there is a team concept to that. I think they really complemented each other well. It seems like that is the best we have played since I have been here in forcing three-and-outs.”
Senior linebacker Jason Ray, who had five tackles on the day, said the defense did gain strength from offense’s dominance.
“When they have long drives, we have more time to rest,” said Ray. “Since Lehigh, we really had a focus of getting off the field on third down. When we are fresh coming out there after the offense scores on a 12-play drive, it makes a big impact on us because we are able to give it all we have on those three downs and get off the field.”
The first of those long scoring drives came late in the first quarter when Princeton marched 85 yards on seven plays to go ahead 7-0 after Epperly hit Roman Wilson with a 13-yard touchdown pass.
The Tigers ended the quarter in the middle of a drive which culminated with an Epperly touchdown run of three yards to make it a 14-0 game with 14:26 left in the half. That march covered 62 yards on nine plays.
Princeton increased its lead to 22-0 when it went 80 yards on 10 plays as Epperly hit Seth DeValve for a 20-yard scoring strike. Tyler Roth hit Joe Bonura with a pass for a two-point conversion.
Epperly ran and passed the Tigers down the field on its next possession. The junior lefty rushed for 19 yards and threw for 30 more as Princeton marched 63 yards in 13 plays, scoring on an Epperly pass to Wilson to put the Tigers ahead 29-0.
After Columbia struck for its only score of the game on a 70-yard pass play, the Tigers were on the move again. With Epperly finding Matt Costello for a 39-yard pass play, Princeton got to the Lion 20. For the third time of the half, Epperly chucked a TD pass to Wilson, this one covering 20 yards as the Tigers took a 36-7 lead into intermission. Senior Wilson ended the day with nine catches for 144 yards and those three touchdowns.
In the second half, Princeton pounded Columbia into submission, scoring on an Epperly one-yard TD run and a Nolan Bieck field goal in the third quarter to make it 46-7. Early in the fourth quarter, sophomore Dre Nelson got loose for the Tigers, racing 55 yards to the Columbia nine and then sprinting to paydirt on the next play for the final score of the day as Princeton eclipsed the 50-point mark to go up 53-7.
Basking in the glow of the win, Surace pointed to the team’s unity as a key factor in its success.
“Everybody is together in the locker room after a game or a practice. That is the only way you can work with multiple quarterbacks, multiple receivers, multiple running backs. You really see a true team. Alex Ford is getting a pick at the end and the guys are going nuts. Having played on some good teams and having coached some good teams, that camaraderie is important. They are not all going to be like this. There are going to be a lot of tough, tight games.”
With Princeton hosting a tough Patriot League foe Lafayette (1-3) this Saturday, Surace is determined to keep his team from resting on its laurels.
“There is that phrase, you are either coaching it or allowing it to happen,” said Surace.
“Last week, everybody is patting our guys on the back and everybody is telling them how good they are. I know the errors that we made. You are not going to win games against certain teams if you have a blocked punt. If you can’t execute field goals better, that is not going to happen. When you get points taken off the board twice in a series, that is a hard thing. So we have corrections to make if we are going to play better against Lafayette.”
Epperly, for his part, believes that Princeton is primed to play better and better as the fall unfolds. “I definitely think that we are all very confident and know what we can do,” said Epperly.
“I think now it is just going out and proving it and with every win, I think more confidence is going to come.”