Connor Kelley hasn’t forgotten how much it stung when the Princeton University football team was crushed 52-10 by Penn in 2010 as the Quakers rolled to the Ivy League title.
“I was there in Coach [Bob] Surace’s first year back when I was a quarterback and so I felt a pretty good beating that year and we have all taken it these past three years,” said Kelley.
Surace, for his part, still feels the pain from that dark afternoon. “They were kind in the game, it was 52-10 and they took it easy,” said Surace. “It could have been a lot worse.”
But when Princeton found itself trailing 16-0 at defending champion Penn last Saturday, it wasn’t about to take another whipping in a series which had seen it lose six straight.
“I think our guys believe if we just keep playing and playing, that eventually we can get this game back to where it is manageable,” said Surace.
“There is no panic, there is no infighting. We use that phrase, ‘hold the rope.’ Our guys hold the rope together, coaches and players. Penn is a really good team, they have won three of the past four championships. You are not going to walk in and put up 35 at halftime, especially at homecoming and all week long they are getting corrected on mistakes they made the week before. We knew we were going to get a championship bout.”
Getting off the canvas, the Tigers delivered some knockout blows to the Quakers as they rallied and pulled away to a 38-26 win over Penn before 21,214 at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
In so doing, Princeton kept its place atop the league standings, improving to 7-1 overall and 5-0 Ivy to stay ahead of Harvard (7-1 overall, 4-1 Ivy) while Penn’s title hopes were dealt a serious blow as it dropped to 4-4 overall and 3-2 Ivy. The win helped the Tigers break into the national polls as Princeton is ranked No. 25 in the Sports Network’s FCS College Football Poll, its first ranking since being voted as the No. 18 team in the final 2006 poll.
The high-powered Princeton offense sputtered in the early going, as its first five possessions resulted in three punts, a safety, and an interception.
Princeton quarterback Quinn Epperly acknowledged that the Tiger offense was out of synch.
“I think that was the worst display we have had passing the ball,” said Epperly.
“We have got a lot of corrections to make. Yeah, credit to them but I think also credit to our guys, especially the guys up front on being able to grind some things out. I think it just shows our effort and our work ethic. It was definitely not a pretty game on the offensive side but we were able to get a win.”
By contrast, the Tiger defense produced some beautiful moments, generating six turnovers, including three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. The critical turnover was a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter by senior defensive back Elijah Mitchell that put Princeton ahead 17-16.
“We blitzed on the play and fortunately we got a really good amount of pressure and I felt what I thought was the running back releasing or a screen of some type and I pulled up a little bit and that just put me in position to make the play,” recalled Mitchell. “I got the ball and tried to do something with it.”
When Princeton surrendered a touchdown just before the half to go into intermission trailing by 23-17, Mitchell inspired the team by his words as well as deeds.
“I didn’t have to say much at halftime,” said Surace. “Elijah took over the halftime speech. Sometimes these guys are a little shy about those things. He got the guys up; I had chills. He had the guys rocking and rolling and bouncing off the walls as we went out for the second half.”
The Tigers proceeded to control the second half. They regained the lead at 24-23 as Epperly scored on a two-yard touchdown run with 6:52 left in the quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, Epperly found the end zone on a one-yard plunge as Princeton went ahead 31-23.
After a Penn field goal narrowed the margin to 31-26 with 9:37 remaining in regulation, converted senior receiver Kelley came up big, scoring on a 14-yard touchdown pass as Princeton increased its advantage to 38-26 and never looked back.
In Surace’s view, Princeton’s victory came down to a willingness to mix it up physically with the Quakers.
“I felt it was two really tough teams,” said Surace, noting that the Tigers had to battle to get 98 yards rushing in 44 carries.
“This is the least we have rushed for this year. They rushed for 60-70 more yards (161 yards on 32 carries) than us. They pressured our quarterback; we pressured their quarterback at times. It was a good football game. The thing you have to do is to match their toughness. From 1987 when I first played them through now and probably before then, they have been a tough, physical team. You can’t go and allow them to push you around. I felt, especially in the second half, we at least held our own.”
Epperly showed his toughness as he overcame a hard hit to his throwing shoulder in the first quarter to hit on 32-of-45 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 53 yards and two touchdowns.
“He didn’t come back in the next series and the trainer said he was fine,” said Surace, referring to Epperly’s temporary absence from the contest after he was slammed to the ground after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Sam Chwarzynski,
“You look at him, that one touchdown run he had at the end where he is hit at the line of scrimmage and just fights his way into the end zone. He is another 220-pound guy and for all the good touch and accuracy he has as a quarterback, there is a physical side to him that is pretty impressive.”
While Princeton’s turnaround from back-to-back 1-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011 is certainly impressive, Mitchell and his teammates aren’t satisfied yet.
“First off, I think it is a testament to every single player that we have and the job that has been done recruiting but also the coaching,” said Mitchell, who will try to help Princeton stay on the winning track as it hosts Yale (5-3 overall, 3-2 Ivy) on November 16.
“We feel like we are trying to rise from the bottom and we are not done. It definitely feels amazing, I am not going to lie to you. But we also feel that what we are still trying to accomplish has not been done yet.”
Kelley, for his part, basked in the glow of finally beating Penn. “Right from the beginning, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Kelley, who ended the day with six receptions for 75 yards.
“We knew that coming in. We had a similar experience at Brown where we were down at the beginning (overcoming a 17-0 deficit to win 39-17 on October 19) so we just kept battling. Everybody on the offense knew that it was coming and that we just had to keep doing what we do and how we practice. It really feels great.”