Prior to the kickoff against visiting Yale last Saturday in their final home game, the 20 seniors on the Princeton University football team were introduced one by one to the cheers of the throng on hand.
About three and a half hours later, those seniors were hugging their teammates and fellow students on the field as they basked in the glow of Princeton’s 59-23 rout of Yale before a crowd of 14,824 at Princeton Stadium, a win that capped one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the annals of Ivy League football.
Two years removed from a second straight 1-9 campaign, Princeton improved to 8-1 overall and 6-0 Ivy, clinching a share of the league crown, its first title since 2006. The Tigers, who earned a second straight bonfire celebration emblematic of beating Yale and Harvard in the same season, can secure the outright Ivy title by winning their finale at Dartmouth (5-4 overall, 4-2 Ivy) on November 23.
For senior safety and co-captain Phillip Bhaya, the glorious Senior Day scenario was hard to believe, considering that the class started its career with a 2-20 record.
“It was more than I could ask for, especially with my teammates in the senior class,” said Bhaya, who had nine tackles in the victory and made a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
“Obviously we didn’t have too much success in the beginning but we have come a long way. We stayed together as a group. I am so proud of my teammates, so humbled to be part of this class. To go out like this is really something special. We came to this school to win a championship and we got it done today. It is special and we are going to carry this for a long time.”
Princeton head coach Bob Surace, who took the helm of the program when the seniors were in their freshman season, beamed as he reflected on the team’s accomplishment.
“I just told them in the locker room that I am proud of them,” said Surace, a 1990 Princeton alum who was a star center on the 1989 Ivy championship squad.
“They work so hard. They work hard from the day the season ends all the way through. A lot of it is on their own. You are just proud, they earned this. We are going to get back tomorrow and get ready for the next game. We are going to celebrate this one. I hope they have fun tonight and enjoy it, it has been a long time.”
Surace tipped his hat to the seniors and the leadership they have provided in helping the program ascend to the top of the Ivy heap.
“When somebody said who are your senior leaders going to be and my response was is who aren’t they?” said Surace, noting that the bonfire is slated for this Sunday evening.
“You can go down that entire list. Malik Jackson, who signals our plays, gets into the game and our sidelines is going nuts for Malik. He comes in everyday and works as hard as Quinn [Epperly], he works as hard as Connor [Michelsen], he works as hard as Kedric [Bostic], he works as hard as Chad [Kanoff]. The guys love him. That whole group, they all share in the success we were having.”
That success was also due to some players who kept the Class of 2014 on track during some lean times.
“What was even more exciting is when you are in the locker room and Steve Cody is in there, Andrew Starks is in there, Andrew Kerr, on and on,” said Surace, referring to stalwarts for the 2010, 2011, and 2012 squads.
“There is a whole group of guys that you are celebrating with that are part of it. When you are not winning games and the results are not what they are supposed to be, your team is either going to pack it in and fold or they are going to buy in. Those guys bought in every day and that allowed these guys to carry the torch and have some success.”
The Tigers produced a performance to be proud of in dismantling Yale as the archrivals met for the 136th time.
After falling behind the Bulldogs 6-0, the Tigers jumped into the lead when sophomore running back Dre Nelson juked his way 42 yards for a touchdown to help Princeton take a 7-6 lead.
“I can’t wait to see his first touchdown. I don’t know what he did, you are watching and the next thing you know coaches are going he is going to score,” said Surace of Nelson, who ended up with 77 yards on five carries and another touchdown.
“It was like Dante Hall of the Kansas City Chiefs, he is spinning, he is moving and the next thing you know he is out. He is a ball of excitement and he works really hard.”
The excitement was just beginning for Princeton. Tiger quarterback Quinn Epperly hit Connor Kelley for a 23-yard touchdown with 5:08 in the quarter to extend the lead to 14-6.
Yale then responded with a touchdown on a 13-yard pass from Logan Scott to Morgan Roberts. The Bulldogs tried to catch Princeton off guard with an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff but the gamble backfired as Tiger junior defensive back Jakobi Johnson scooped up the loose ball and bolted 46 yards for a touchdown to put Princeton up 21-13.
“Coach Aurich [Andrew Aurich, Princeton’s special teams coordinator and tight ends coach] has been messing with us a long time; he pretty much made us paranoid of an onside kick on every play,” said Johnson. “We just had to be ready for it. The ball popped up and I saw an opportunity so I just took it.”
The Tigers outscored the Bulldogs 10-3 in the second quarter to take a 31-16 lead into halftime.
The third quarter started with a bang for Princeton as Epperly ran for a 4-yard touchdown on the opening possession of the half to make it 38-16. Minutes later, Bhaya made his interception return to break the game open as the Tigers went up 45-16 and never looked back.
Epperly, for his part, viewed the early sequence in the third quarter as pivotal.
“The pick six by Phil was a huge turning point in the game,” said Epperly, who passed for three touchdowns and rushed for one to give him 23 TD passes and 17 rushing touchdowns on the season.
“We had just scored. We felt we needed a stop to get right back on the field and to get a pick six like that was huge. To play in this offense and to engineer it, is just a dream come true and it is a blast to be a part of.”
Bhaya was the beneficiary of some good play by Princeton’s front seven on his interception.
“I didn’t notice at the time because I saw their tight end tip it but Jason Ray was coming off the edge and he got his hands up and actually tipped it the first time so I have to take my hat off to him for that one,” recalled Bhaya, referring to his classmate and star linebacker. “It just fell right into my hands so I didn’t do too much on that one.”
In Epperly’s view, the Tigers still have more to do as they go after their first outright Ivy crown since 1995.
“I think everyone is very well aware that we don’t want to share this title in any way or form,” said Epperly, whose brilliant play had helped Princeton score a program and Ivy record 413 points this season as it has hit the 50-point mark five times.
“I think there would be no better way to send these seniors out on top of a senior day like this. That has been the goal since day one to win a championship and I think it would leave a very bitter taste in everyone’s mouths if we had to share that. Tomorrow we are going to come to work, just like we have all year, and we are going to take this next game seriously because we want to get a win.”
Surace’s vision for the program extends beyond the championship. “We are building something and hopefully building something that is strong with the way we work, the way we operate, and the way we function,” said Surace.
“We want smart, tough, disciplined, team-oriented guys. If we have smart, tough, disciplined, team-oriented guys and they have enough talent, that is really fun. I have been places where you have guys that are selfish and have ego and you are dealing with that kind of stuff. I get to deal with great kids.”
Bhaya, for his part, believes he and his classmates have held up their end of the deal.
“With Princeton football, there have been thousands of student athletes who have come before us,” said Bhaya.
“There are going to be thousands more after us. We are really just one small part of a bigger program here and I think our duty is to leave the program and this university a better place than when we found it and I think, especially for our senior class and this team in particular, we have done that.”