Christopher Eisgruber is a busy guy these days as he settles into his new role as the president of Princeton University.
But last Saturday afternoon, he took the time to send a message to mark a bit of school history.
Eisgruber was one of the many well-wishers who contacted Princeton University football coach Bob Surace in the wake of the Tigers’ epic 51-48 triple overtime win at previously undefeated Harvard.
“I am lucky it was a road game,” said Surace, a former Tiger football star reflecting on the marathon which was the first triple overtime game in program history.
“I had 70 e-mails and texts waiting for me when I got on the bus, from the president of the school, to alums, to my college roommates. That’s what happens when you coach at your alma mater.”
The congratulations were certainly justified as Princeton achieved a second straight win for the ages over the arch rival Crimson, matching the drama of last year’s triumph which saw Princeton rally from a 34-10 fourth quarter deficit to stun a then-undefeated Harvard squad 39-34.
For Surace, it was special to simply be on the sideline of a second straight classic. “We are just calling the plays, it is the players who are out there executing and playing their hearts out,” said Surace, whose team piled up 520 yards of total offense and exceeded 50 points for the third time this season in improving to 5-1 overall and 3-0 Ivy League while the Crimson dropped to 5-1 overall, 2-1 Ivy.
“It was a beautiful thing to be part of a special game between two such historic schools. It gives you chills.”
Like Muhammad Ali needed Joe Frazier to push him to his limit, Princeton and Harvard bring out the best in each other.
“I think it was two really good teams playing against each other,” said Surace.
“It was like a pay-per-view boxing match; sometimes you get a dud and sometimes you get a classic where you keep the ticket. It was two teams where there was going to be a wave of points each way.”
Like last year, the decisive blows were landed by the passing combination of Quinn Epperly to Roman Wilson. In 2012, Epperly hit Wilson for a 34-yard touchdown that provided the margin of victory. On Saturday, lefty junior Epperly floated a six-yard pass to senior Wilson in the third overtime to clinch the win.
Epperly ended the day with personal records of 37 completions (37-for-50 for 321 yards) and six touchdown passes. He was later named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season and has now accounted for 15 touchdowns in the air while rushing for 11 more. Wilson, for his part, made nine catches for 76 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score.
“They both continue to work hard and lead the team,” said Surace, reflecting on what Epperly and Wilson have meant to the Tigers this year.
“They are cool, they don’t flinch. Quinn made a fumble earlier in the game and came right back on the next drive.”
Epperly helped Princeton jump out to a 13-0 first quarter lead as he hit Connor Kelley with a five-yard touchdown pass on Princeton’s initial possession and then found Des Smith on a six-yard scoring strike later in the quarter.
Harvard battled back in the second quarter as quarterback Connor Hempel hit Ricky Zorn for a 33-yard touchdown pass. The Crimson then forged ahead 14-13 after a 60-yard scoring gallop by Paul Stanton.
Epperly found Kelley on another 5-yard touchdown pass as the Tigers regained the lead at 21-14.
Running back Stanton scored again, this time on a two-yard plunge as Harvard knotted the game at 21-21 in the waning seconds of the first half.
As his players assembled in the locker room for halftime, Surace kept it short and sweet. “I told the guys to leave it all on the field and they did it in bucketfuls,” recalled Surace.
“Our locker room was in a trailer under the stands and when we came out there were parents, friends, and students cheering us, it was a wall of sound. It gave me goose bumps.”
Riding that emotion, Princeton scored on its first possession of the second half as Epperly hit Matt Costello for a 10-yard touchdown pass to put the Tigers up 28-21. Harvard responded with a 23-yard scoring strike from Hempel to Tyler Ott and the teams headed into the fourth quarter knotted at 28-28.
The Tigers regained the lead as Epperly hit Seth DeValve with a touchdown pass to make it 35-28. Capitalizing on a Princeton fumble which gave it the ball at the Tiger 19, Harvard tied the game at 35-35 with 2:50 left in regulation on another Hempel scoring strike to Ott.
The contest headed into overtime and Harvard executed well on the first possession as Hempel found Ott in the end zone to go ahead 42-35. With Wilson scoring on a nine-yard reverse aided by a big block from Epperly, the Tigers evened the contest at 42-42
The teams traded field goals on their next two possessions to make a 45-45 game. Making a fine defensive stand, Princeton held Harvard to another field goal and took over trailing 48-45. Epperly hit Costello with an 18-yard pass to get the ball to the Harvard 6. Two plays later, he lofted the ball to the corner of the end zone which Wilson snared to clinch the win and end the 3 hour, 59 minute saga.
With Princeton hosting Cornell (1-5 overall, 0-3 Ivy) and its record-setting quarterback Jeff Mathews on November 2, Surace is hoping that his team can build on the dramatic win over Harvard unlike last year when the Tigers fell 37-35 to the Big Red.
“We didn’t let down last year, they just beat us,” maintained Surace, reflecting on the game which saw Mathews pass for 525 yards.
“We have to execute against a quarterback of that caliber. They have 25 guys returning with starting experience. They nearly beat Harvard (a 34-24 loss on October 12). There is such parity in the league. You take 200 plays in a game and flip three and things would be different. We have to be more exact.”
In Surace’s view, the character his team has developed in going through the ups and downs over the last three seasons could make the difference.
“I told them I am proud; they are such a tough group,” said Surace, whose team is tied for first in the Ivy standings with Penn (4-2 overall, 3-0 Ivy).
“I have been using a saying I got from Jason Garrett’s [former Tiger quarterback and current Dallas Cowboys head coach] camp this summer and that is ‘hold the rope.’ If a call doesn’t go your way or there is a fumble, you don’t give up; you just keep playing.”