November 22, 2023

Opportunistic Princeton Football Forces 7 Turnovers To Defeat Penn 31-24 in Season Finale, End Fall at 5-5

WIZARD OF OZ: Princeton University linebacker Ozzie Nicholas celebrates after a big play in a game earlier this fall. Last Saturday, senior star Nicholas ended his Princeton career on a high note, making eight tackles and recovering a fumble to help the Tigers defeat Penn 31-24 at Franklin Field in Philadelphia in the season finale. Princeton ended the season at 5-5 overall and 4-3 Ivy League. Nicholas, for his part, led the Tigers and the league with 104 tackles. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

After the Princeton University football team suffered a heartbreaking 36-28 double overtime loss to Yale in its home finale on November 11 to get eliminated from the Ivy League title race, it could have gone through the motions as it ended the fall at Penn last Saturday.

But in the wake of the defeat to Yale, Princeton senior quarterback Blake Stenstrom vowed that the Tigers would go out in 2023 with a bang, not a whimper, as they faced the Quakers at venerable Franklin Field in Philadelphia.

“If this team is the team I believe it to be we are going to come out and we are going to attack practice regardless of what awaits us,” said Stenstrom. “Guys are going to fight and go out on a high note. There were a lot of tough ones this season and at the end of last season, and guys have never quit.”

Tiger head coach Bob Surace was confident that his players would keep fighting to the final whistle.

“We always correct mistakes the next day and then you move on to the opponent,” said Surace.

“Our guys will practice great this week, I guarantee you they will practice great. Penn has played well all year. They are a very good team and if we don’t, it will be embarrassing.”

Writing a fitting final chapter to one of the wackiest Ivy League seasons ever, Princeton certainly didn’t embarrass itself as it pulled out an improbable 31-24 win over Penn in a game that saw the Tigers get outgained 500 yards to 277 but force seven turnovers to subdue the Quakers.

The Tigers ended the fall at 5-5 overall and 4-3 Ivy with two of their league losses coming in overtime (28-27 to Brown on October 14 along with the Yale loss) and the other by two points (23-21 at Dartmouth on November 3) in a tense campaign that saw most Ivy games end in one-score results.

Reflecting the parity that exemplified the 2023 campaign, the Ivy title raced ended in a three-way tie between Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth as they all ended up 5-2 in league play after a dramatic final Saturday which saw Yale defeat Harvard 23-18 and Dartmouth top Brown 38-13 to create the logjam atop the standings.

In the clash at Penn, Princeton fell behind 7-0 late in the first quarter but then started cashing in on turnovers to build a 10-7 lead by halftime.

The Tigers got on the board in the second quarter with a 45-yard field goal by Jeffrey Sexton that culminated a 44-yard scoring march set up by Tahj Owens interception. Princeton forged ahead 10-7 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Stenstrom to Connor Hulstein with 55 seconds left in the half.

After Penn took a 14-10 lead early in the third quarter, the Tigers converted another turnover into points. An interception by Nasir Hill gave Princeton the ball at the Quaker 35-yard line and the Tigers got a 3-yard TD run from Jiggie Carr as they went ahead 17-14.

Later in the quarter, Princeton defensive lineman Collin Taylor snatched a deflected pass for another Tiger interception. Two plays later, Stenstrom hit AJ Barber for a 27-yard TD pass as Princeton increased its lead to 24-14.

Penn got a field goal from Graham Gotlieb early in the fourth quarter to make it 24-17. On their next possession, the Quakers got bit by the turnover bug again as defensive lineman Ryan Savage scooped up a Penn fumble. Getting the ball at the Penn 7, Dareion Murphy scored on a five-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers up 31-17.

Not surprisingly, given the drama that exemplified the Ivy campaign, Penn scored a TD with 44 seconds left to draw within 31-24. The Quakers then recovered an onside kick to get the ball at the Princeton 48. The opportunistic Tiger defense, though, came up big one last time as Hill made an interception to snuff out the Penn threat and close the deal for Princeton.

On the day, the Tigers grabbed four interceptions and recovered three fumbles and converted the seven turnovers into 24 points.

Surace had hoped that his squad would take advantage of its last opportunity to get a win but even in this topsy-turvy campaign, he could have hardly imagined that the Tigers would ride seven takeaways to victory.

“I told them you get 10 swings and we have taken nine hard ones and we are going to go up to the plate one more time,” said Surace, whose team came into Saturday with 13 turnovers in nine games. “The process for the most part has been really good, but the outcomes haven’t.”

On Saturday, the outcome was really sweet for a Tiger squad that never stopped battling this fall.