Princeton Football Ends Harvard Hex As McCareins' Return Proves Decisive
By Bill Alden
As the Princeton University football team went through its paces at practice before its clash last Saturday at Harvard, Tiger head coach Roger Hughes liked what he saw.
"All week I sensed a special energy level; there was a focus and attention to detail that was at a different level than what we had seen," recalled Hughes.
"You couldn't tell at practice that they had just lost at Brown. They felt they were just a few plays away from being undefeated. The feeling was more anger than disappointment and a determination to not let that happen again."
The Tigers knew it would take all of their determination to beat Harvard after having lost nine straight in the series, including heartbreakers in their last three appearances at Harvard Stadium.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Princeton appeared to be on the brink of letting another one slip away as the Crimson took a 24-20 lead on a 52-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Tyler.
But showing a special focus combined with startling athleticism, Princeton senior star Jay McCareins took the ensuing Harvard kickoff and bolted 93 yards down the sideline to give the Tigers a 27-24 lead.
With the Princeton defense displaying an attention to detail as it forced the Crimson into two punts and then with Rob Toresco bulling for two key first downs, the Tigers held on for a sweet 27-24 triumph before a crowd of 12,023.
The win triggered a raucous celebration among the Princeton players and supporters as the emotion of finally ending the losing streak spilled out and warmed up the blustery afternoon. The victory also propelled Princeton into the thick of the Ivy League title race as it improved to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in league play, tied for second with Brown (2-1 Ivy) and Yale (2-1 Ivy) behind Penn (3-0 Ivy).
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Hughes made sure to contain his emotions. "Until we were able to take a knee, I was not going to let my guard down," said a hoarse Hughes. "I've seen a lot of crazy things happen at that stadium, both during my time at Princeton and when I was with Dartmouth. It was very emotional for the players; I think that winning this was great for them."
Emotions ran high for Princeton right from the start of the contest as Derek Davis started things with a bang, racing 72 yards on a reverse for a touchdown on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage.
The teams exchanged field goals and then Harvard star running back Clifton Dawson, a thorn in Princeton's side, burst 20 yards for a touchdown that gave the Crimson a 10-9 lead.
With momentum slipping away, quarterback Jeff Terrell found his passing touch. He hit Brendan Circle for a 17-yard gain that put Princeton at the Harvard 34-yard line. Terrell went to Circle on the next play as he then connected for a 34-yard touchdown that put Princeton 15-10.
Then Terrell took matters into his own hands as he rushed in for a two-point conversion to give Princeton a 17-10 lead at the half.
After the break, the Crimson responded early in the third quarter as they went on an 80-yard march that culminated with a 29-yard touchdown jaunt by Dawson.
On Princeton's next possession, Terrell was at it again as he found Brian Brigham for a 40-yard pass play that put the Tigers deep in Harvard territory. Princeton came away with a 28-yard field goal from Derek Javarone to gain a 20-17 edge.
With the crowd in an uproar, the Crimson had a chance to grab the lead early in the fourth quarter as they moved 69 yards to the Princeton five. Going for it on fourth and two at the five, Dawson was stopped short as a trio of Tigers wrested him to the ground.
Turning to the air, Harvard struck on its next possession with the scoring strike to Ryan Tyler to take a 24-20 lead. That edge, however,lasted just the 14 seconds it took McCareins to sprint into the end zone on his scintillating kickoff return.
The Princeton defense snuffed Harvard on its two final possessions while the bruising 210-pound Toresco chewed up time and yardage, salting away the game on an afternoon which saw him gain 76 yards on 24 carries.
After seeing his team not come up with the big plays in the losses to Brown and Colgate, Hughes was pleased that he got big plays Saturday from a variety of sources.
"There were three turning points in the game," said Hughes, whose club outgained Harvard 402 yards to 385. "The initial drive and Derek's big play on the reverse, the goal-line stand in the fourth quarter and Jay's return. It was a total team effort."
In Hughes' view, the impetus for the effort came from the desire of Princeton's seniors to finally beat Harvard, exemplified in particular by McCareins and the senior-laden offensive line.
"I think Jay's return was a culmination of a lot of hard work and a desire not to be denied," asserted Hughes of the 6'0, 195-pound cornerback who was named the Division 1-AA National Player of the Week by the Sports Network for special teams play. "Robby gets the credit on that last drive but it was the offensive line stepping up; our seniors dug deep."
In the wake of the win, Hughes asserted that the team will have to continue digging deep if it is to keep on the winning track.
"Before everybody starts patting us on the back, we still left points on the field and another running back got 200 yards on us," added Hughes, referring to Dawson's 203-yard performance.
The Tigers face another stern test this Saturday as they host a bruising Cornell team that is 3-3 overall and 1-2 in Ivy play and also has a win over Harvard to its credit.
"We can't forget what got us to this point," said Hughes. "We have to keep our focus. We haven't been the best at handling prosperity. Cornell is a big, physical team. They are the No. 1 rushing team in the league."
But if Princeton can maintain the intensity it showed against Harvard, Hughes should like what he sees this Saturday afternoon.