October 27, 2021

PU Football Edges Harvard 18-16 in 5 OT Marathon, Tyler Leads Defensive Charge as Tigers Move to 6-0

EXTRA SPECIAL: Princeton University football players Jeremiah Tyler, left, and Cole Aubrey celebrate after sacking Harvard quarterback Jake Smith last Saturday. Senior linebacker Tyler led the defensive charge with 12 tackles as Princeton outlasted visiting Harvard in a clash of undefeated teams, winning 18-16 in five overtimes. In the win over the Crimson, Tyler had 12 tackles, 10 solo, leading all tacklers. He also picked up two pass break ups and 1.5 tackles for loss. The Tigers, now 6-0 overall and 3-0 Ivy League, play at Cornell (1-5 overall, 0-3 Ivy) on October 29. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

After the Princeton University football team outlasted Harvard 18-16 in a five-overtime thriller last Saturday, Jeremiah Tyler invoked a higher power.

“First of all I just want to thank God. He is good, he is good,” said Princeton senior star linebacker and co-captain Tyler.

The showdown of undefeated rivals before a throng of 10,033 at Princeton Stadium under gray skies turned into football marathon that tested the spirit of players and fans alike.

Over 60 minutes of regulation, the foes engaged in a rugged, take-no-prisoners defensive battle that saw them knotted in a 13-13 stalemate, requiring overtime to decide the matter.

The extra session turned into a roller coaster of emotions. The teams traded field goals in the first two possessions. Princeton, ranked No. 17 nationally, was poised to win when a Jeffery Sexton field goal was blocked. The overtime then went into alternating two-point conversion attempts and 16th-ranked Harvard appeared to secure the win when it converted after the Tigers had failed on their first two point attempt.

The Crimson players streamed on the field to celebrate, but the score was negated after an official review concluded that Princeton head coach Bob Surace had called timeout prior to the snap. With another chance, Harvard again appeared to score, but an offensive pass interference call wiped that out and Princeton held on the next try.

Harvard failed on its next attempt. Princeton then ran a Philly Special play as Dylan Classi threw to Jacob Birmelin in the corner of the end zone, but that pass was ruled incomplete.

With the epic battle still knotted at 16-16, the teams went to a fifth overtime. Birmelin made a leaping grab in the corner of the end zone to put the Tigers up 18-16. The Tiger defense closed the deal, breaking up a Harvard pass.

The drama continued on Sunday as the Ivy League issued a statement saying that the officials made a “procedural error” and that Surace should not have gotten the timeout retroactively.

Tyler was in on the final stop which set off a raucous celebration as Princeton fans stormed the field to celebrate with the players while the Harvard players threaded their way through the crowd with their heads down.

“Coach Mendy [Mike Mendenhall] is always on our butts about watching quarterback vision so I got to my depth and I was just watching where he was looking,” recalled Tyler, who ended up with a game-high 12 tackles in the win along with two pass break ups and 1.5 tackles for loss.

“I just had to melt with his vision and I ended up getting my hand on the ball.”

The Princeton defense got its hands on the Harvard offense all afternoon, holding the Crimson to 47 yards rushing and 187 yards passing.

“It was simple, fly around, make some plays; our main focus this week was on our tackling,” said Tyler, reflecting on Princeton’s defensive approach.

“We made it a point that we had technique so we would finish our tackles in the game, it would transfer over. Everybody bought in and in the practices, everybody was so locked in.”

Tyler and his fellow defenders were hungry to step up after struggling in a 56-42 win over Brown a week earlier as Bears quarterback E.J. Perry passed for 331 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 82 yards.

“As a defense we should have had a better stand, nothing to take away from E.J. but we should have held our own just a little better,” said Tyler.

“The 50/50 balls should have been ours, it was more like we should have made plays.”

On Saturday, the Tigers made plays all day in containing Harvard.

“They had good players, we just had to execute,” said Tyler. “We had to dig deep. We had to have some heart, show some class and perseverance.”

Princeton showed that perseverance as it outlasted the Crimson in the topsy-turvy overtime.

“The mood was ‘oh we have got another one, we have another one,’” recalled Tyler.

“Let’s keep grinding, let’s not lose our intensity. Let’s keep going forward. It was just patience, patience is a virtue. You need it to get through tough times.”

Princeton head coach Surace knew that a loss would be tough to swallow for either team in the heated rivalry

“This game between our two teams, somebody was going to leave disappointed in a great way,” said Surace.

“I grabbed all of their players after the game that I could to congratulate them. We have been in some donnybrooks with them. I don’t know, that might be as good a game we have played.”

It was an uphill battle as the Princeton offense sputtered for much of the game. Tiger quarterback Cole Smith three four interceptions and was sacked seven times while the rushing attack generated only 50 yards.

“We didn’t do as well as we would have liked in the red zone,” said Surace.

“We had a lot of negative plays. They got us on a few great calls. It is two really good teams. I didn’t think it would end like this but I knew it was going to be a game. They are really good up front and we struggled in some areas we have been getting better at.”

Fortunately, the Tiger defense played really well. “I thought we tackled well, we ran to the ball,” said Surace. “We couldn’t get first downs on offense, we were on the field the whole second half, that was frustrating.”

Surace pointed to Tyler as a catalyst of that unit. “Every game he plays so hard,” said Surace. “In these moments against great players, he matches up. I thought he was terrific.”

The disputed OT timeout by Surace turned out to be pivotal moment in the drama.

“I tried getting their attention, they are locked in so I literally just went on the field to get the referee,” said Surace.

“I didn’t know what else to do. I was past the numbers; what are they going to do, call a penalty on me for calling a timeout? I am trying to get somebody’s attention. We had that happen earlier in the year and I didn’t get in the picture. When they reviewed it, they couldn’t find me. I was far enough today on the review; I told the defensive staff through the phones, get the next call, we are good.”

In the view of Surace, the team’s resilience kept it in the picture as it struggled to overcome the Crimson.

“Other than when they felt they lost the game, they never hung their heads,” said Surace.

“Even the offense through their struggles; Cole and the guys up there were good. It was a tough day, we weren’t blocking well and we weren’t protecting well. They are a tough defense, they are one of the best defenses against the run. Collin [Eaddy] is fighting for yards, there is not much there.”

While Princeton didn’t score an offensive touchdown, it did find the end zone on a blocked punt in the third quarter as Liam Johnson deflected the ball and Cash Goodhart recovered the ball in the end zone.

“Mike Mendenhall does such a great job on special teams,” said Surace, whose team will look to keep on the winning track when it plays at Cornell (1-5 overall, 0-3 Ivy) on October 29.

“We put so much into special teams and he really had some good plans this week. Will Powers’ punting flipped field position when we weren’t moving the ball. Little things like that really helped us.”

Tyler, for his part, pointed to team unity as the thing that made the difference for the Tigers.

“I love my team so much and this game, you see how the culture you were trying to bring was so hard, you have two classes of freshmen,” said Tyler.

“As a leader on the team, you have to bring everybody with you. Everybody has to buy in, in their own way. We came together, never flinched and kept moving forward even though some things were going up and some things were going down. We stuck by each other and we just kept finishing and finished strong.”