The press box at Princeton Stadium was unusually crowded last Saturday, teeming with NFL scouts in town to get a closer look at Cornell’s record-setting senior quarterback Jeff Mathews.
But by the end of the afternoon, the focus was squarely on Princeton University junior quarterback Quinn Epperly, who turned heads as he produced one of the most remarkable performances in Tiger and Ivy League history.
The junior lefty completed his first 29 passes of the contest to break the NCAA Division I record set by Richie Williams of Appalachian State, who completed his first 28 passes against Furman on October 9, 2004.
Ending the game completing 32-of-35 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns, Epperly triggered a 53-20 rout of the Big Red before a crowd of 7,206 as Princeton improved to 6-1 overall and 4-0 Ivy, taking sole possession of first place in the league standings.
Early in the afternoon, Epperly had the sense that he was in a groove. “At halftime one of the other quarterbacks came up and asked if we had an incompletion and I said I couldn’t really remember one,” recalled Epperly.
“I kind of knew that we were in a zone throwing the ball. The receivers made some excellent catches and the lineman played well, I don’t think I had pressure on me hardly all day.”
In the third quarter Epperly realized that he was closing in on a record but he tried to block it out.
“They said it over the loudspeaker in the middle of a drive and I was like I can’t think about that,” said a smiling Epperly. “We have to move on and get a score here. I wasn’t too concerned about it.”
Afterward, Epperly, whose playing style is reminiscent of Tim Tebow, sounded sentiments similar to the former Florida star and Heisman Trophy winner.
“It is an honor,” said Epperly who rushed for a team-high 69 yards and three touchdowns.
“I have been truly blessed, especially today. I think on a couple of those I got a little bit of help from receivers. It is just an awesome thing to be a part of and I’m happy that we got the win.”
Princeton head coach Bob Surace was thrilled to see the history unfold before his eyes.
“You could tell he was on fire,” said Surace of Epperly, who was named the Ivy Offensive Player of the Week for a record third straight week and was featured prominently on ESPN’s SportsCenter throughout Saturday night.
“I looked at the stats, our long run for the day was a 21-yard run by Bostic in the fourth quarter; our long throw was a 20-yarder to Roman Wilson. It was just unbelievable execution. They weren’t going to give up big plays and he just kept hitting perfect drive routes, dig routes, and slant routes. It looked like pass on air where the ball doesn’t hit the ground. And that is really something to behold, especially because the guy on the other side is as good a quarterback and thrower as has ever played in the Ivy League.”
The Tigers drew inspiration from another historic Ivy League figure as the program celebrated the recently deceased Dick Kazmaier ’52, the 1951 Heisman Trophy winner over the weekend.
“Our whole team went to the celebration yesterday and that was just unbelievable and you still have chills,” said Surace.
“When you walk out at halftime, I was in tears to see all those guys out on the field.”
Princeton needed to stop Cornell’s history-making quarterback Mathews, who came into the game with an Ivy career record of 10,417 passing yards, in order to earn the victory and drop the Big Red to 1-6 overall, 0-4 Ivy.
“You are always holding your breath with him because he is so good,” said Surace of Mathews.
“I thought our pressure was good. I thought our coverage was really good. We were really tight and we forced him into a lot of really short passes. To hold him to 230 yards and sack him seven times; that was really good.”
Princeton senior defensive lineman Matt Landry, who ended the day with four tackles and 1.5 sacks, said the Tigers turned up the heat on Mathews in order to contain him.
“Obviously Jeff Mathews is an outstanding quarterback, not only in the Ivy League, I am sure he will have a great career in the NFL,” said Landry.
“Up front as defensive linemen, our goals are always to contain the quarterback but to also put as much pressure on him as possible to make him feel uncomfortable at all times. The defensive backfield and linebackers had great coverage and we were able to get after him quite a bit today.”
In Landry’s view, the team’s defensive unit is reaching a new comfort level. “I think this defense is clicking on all -cylinders,” asserted Landry.
“Each and every week, we just strive to do our best and improve on our mistakes from the previous week. We always focus on doing our best on every single play. I think we are just excellent, all the way from the defensive front back to the secondary.”
The Princeton offense was clicking from the start on Saturday, converting an interception by Caraun Reid into an early touchdown. The Tigers marched 31 yards on six plays and took a 7-0 lead after a 7-yard touchdown pass from Epperly to Roman Wilson.
After a Cornell field goal, Epperly excelled with his feet and arm, rushing for 27 yards and hitting three passes in a drive culminated by his one-yard plunge as the Tigers went up 15-3.
The Big Red responded with a field goal and then scored a touchdown as Connor Michelsen fumbled after a sack and the loose ball was taken into the end zone by Cornell’s Justin Harris.
With its lead narrowed to 15-13, Princeton broke the game open as Epperly scored his second TD of the game to culminate an 80-yard scoring march and then ran for a third with 1:01 left in the half as Princeton built a 29-13 lead heading into intermission.
The rout was on in the third quarter as Epperly hit Seth DeValve for a 12-yard touchdown pass to put Princeton up 36-13. On the next Tiger possession, Epperly found Wilson in the end zone for a 17-yard scoring strike as the lead increased to 43-13.
In the fourth quarter, Princeton hit the 50-point mark for the fourth time this season, tacking on 10 points with a Nolan Bieck field goal and a 12-yard touchdown run by Joe Rhattigan.
In Landry’s view, it was important for the Tigers to follow up their 51-48 triple overtime win at Harvard last week with another triumph, noting that the Tigers dropped three out of four games in 2012 after a stirring 39-34 win over the Crimson.
“Obviously it was frustrating to do that,” said Landry, referring to last year’s shaky finish,
“It leaves a bad taste in your mouth coming off that season. But as a team we are focused on our game plan and being the best we can be every single week.”
With the Tigers headed to Philadelphia for a critical clash at Penn (4-3 overall, 3-1 Ivy), Epperly is not going to let the accolades from his record-breaking effort distract him from the task at hand.
“We focus in on what we can control, coming to practice every week, working hard, and trying to win the remaining games,” said Epperly, who has passed for 18 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more this fall to help the Tigers win six straight since an opening day loss to Lehigh.
“I think a lot of it is just a credit to our hard work and effort, that is the main thing we pride ourselves each week at practice and that carries over to games. I think even sometimes when we don’t execute perfectly, we try to play very fast and that helps a lot to fix some errors. I think a lot of guys have bought into that and it has turned into a 6-game winning streak.”