November 17, 2021

PU Football Pulls Away to 35-20 Victory over Yale, Playing at Penn in Finale Aiming to Win Ivy Crown

PULLING AWAY: Princeton University football player John Volker races upfield last Saturday as the Tigers defeated Yale 35-20. Freshman running back Volker rushed for 29 yards and caught a 64-yard touchdown pass in the win as Princeton improved to 8-1 overall and 5-1 Ivy League. The Tigers are tied for first in the league standings with Dartmouth, also 8-1 overall and 5-1 Ivy, with one game left in the season. Princeton plays at Penn (3-6 overall, 1-5 Ivy) on November 20 in its season finale. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Coming off a disappointing 31-7 defeat at Dartmouth, its first setback of the fall, the Princeton University football team was chomping at the bit to get back on the field as its hosted Yale last Saturday with first place in the Ivy League on the line.

But Princeton had to wait a little longer as a line of thunderstorms swept through the area delaying the Senior Day ceremony and kickoff by 90 minutes.

“It was a very emotional day for sure with the lightning delay, it was very unusual,” said Princeton senior receiver Dylan Classi.

Emotions were high for Princeton as it looked to bounce back from the defeat to the Big Green.

“It was a tough loss but everything we want is still in front of us and that was the mentality throughout the week,” said Classi.

“We knew we were playing for a championship. Practice was where it started. We had a great week of practice, we were able to come out today and execute.”

The Tigers went out and executed very well, pulling away to a 35-20 win over the Bulldogs before a crowd of 7,686 at Princeton Stadium to improve to 8-1 overall and 5-1 Ivy. Princeton is tied for first place in the league standings with Dartmouth, also 8-1 overall and 5-1 Ivy, with one game left in the season.

As a bonus, the Tigers earned the bonfire at Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall, emblematic of beating Yale and Harvard in the same season.

Classi got the first score of the day on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cole Smith late in the first quarter.

“That is something we worked on all week and is something we felt very comfortable calling in the game,” said Classi. “They gave us a look that was good for that play call.”

With Princeton trailing Yale 17-14 in the waning moments of the first half, Classi came through again, making a 44-yard reception to get the Tigers to the Yale 32-yard line and coming up with a 13-yard catch on the next play. Princeton cashed in as Smith hit Jacob Birmelin with a seven-yard TD pass to go up 21-17 and never trailed again.

“That was big, very big; we said on the sideline that we were going to go and drive down the field and score,” said Classi, who ended up with six receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown in the victory.

“Hats off to the whole offense, all 11 guys. They played their butts off and truly executed on every play. We play hard for each other, that is what it comes down to.”

The Tigers jumped out to a 35-20 lead in the third quarter and cruised from there.

“It was good to go up big,” said Classi. “It was a close game in the first half, we had a couple of plays go our way. We were able to capitalize on that.”

Classi was not surprised that the Tigers stuck together and came up big in the wake of the suffering their first loss of the season.

“We truly love each other, it is a true brotherhood here,” said Classi. “We had 41 seniors today which is unusual. Our love for each other is what separates us from the rest.”

Another senior, defensive back Christian Brown, noted that Tigers were staying in the present no matter what.

“I think that goes into the day, we didn’t focus on yesterday or what is going to happen next week or tomorrow,” said Brown.

“Today is all that we know. We play like there is no tomorrow and just do what the guy next to you needs you to.”

Brown made one of the big plays of the contest, picking off a Nolan Grooms pass in the third quarter and taking the ball down 11 yards down to the Yale five. Four plays later, Niko Vangarelli bulled into the end zone on a one-yard plunge as Princeton increased its lead to 35-17.

“We are in place and then when it comes your time, you can capitalize on that moment,” said Brown, reflecting on his interception.

“In that moment, I was just doing what the coach told me. I was in my place. The ball came my way and it was just go back to Little League football, catch the ball and I caught the ball.”

As Princeton prepared last week for the showdown with Yale, Brown sensed that the Tigers were in a good place.

“All of these guys came back and they didn’t yell, they didn’t pound anybody, they just came back with leadership and love,” said Brown.

“They said we are going to come back and do what we always do. We put in the work, we were ready for it, we came out and showed what we can do.”

Princeton head coach Bob Surace liked what he saw from his players as they girded for the Bulldogs.

“We had an incredible week of practice, it was a normal week” said Surace.

“Those back-to-back Friday games throw you off schedule. To practice Tuesday and Wednesday with real practices, it just felt right. We were just flying around. I told the scout team guys that was the best week they have had. It was just a fun week of practice.”

Surace acknowledged that the Senior Day emotions could have thrown off his players a little bit.

“Senior Day is hard, you have got people who are walking you out, it may be the second to last game you will ever play and they took you to your first Little League practice,” said Surace.

“Your mom, your dad, your whoever, they are walking you out, that is emotional. There is nothing I can say to take that emotion away other than when the ball gets kicked off, let’s just play football. We practiced well, let’s take deep breaths and try to focus as best we can. I thought we did it.”

The Tigers kept their focus through the weather delay. “I told them to relax, take their shoulder pads off and make sure they stay hydrated because this might be a half hour,” said Surace. “It might be an hour and a half like it was.”

In Surace’s view, the drive in the last minute of the second quarter helped turn the tide for Princeton.

“I said to the offensive staff because the wind was back and forth being a factor, I said what do you think, can we get a couple of safe throws and drive starters and get this thing going,” said Surace.

“You are kind of hoping to just get a field goal. We had 51 seconds and then we hit that long one to Dylan and then we get it down there close enough to take that shot into the end zone.”

Surace credited Classi with getting things going for the Tigers. “That TD catch he made at the beginning, I can’t wait to watch it on film, I was on the other side,” said Surace.

“The corner route he ran, the throw and catch from him and Cole in the third quarter, it was right in front of me. I usually don’t try to show emotion, but I put my arms up. That play was the beauty of ‘you practice this over and over all summer.’”

After the emotional win, Surace wanted his players to refocus as they look to clinch an Ivy crown in the season finale at Penn (3-6 overall, 1-5 Ivy) on November 20.

“I told them, let’s come out tomorrow refreshed, get your sleep tonight,” said Surace.

“This was an incredibly emotional game. When you win this one, it signifies a bonfire. The bonfire is for the community and the supporters. We had a great crowd today, you could feel the energy. But you win next week, you have something that you take the rest of your life. Winning the Big 3 is huge. That is a nice step but when you can also win the league to go with that, that is where we come out refreshed. We have a lot of corrections obviously and hopeful we can make them.”

Classi isn’t about to deviate from his routine despite what is at stake next Saturday in Philadelphia. 

“I am going to treat every week like it is the same; when you get to a point like this, it is not time to stray from what you have been doing,” said Classi.

“You fall back on your habits and the things that got you here. It is another game to us, we are going to come out, have a great week of practice, and execute.”