PU suffers first Ivy football loss

Tigers’ final rally falls into arms of Harvard

By: Justin Feil
In winning its last four games before hosting Harvard on Saturday, the Princeton University football team had made a habit of coming up with all the big plays.
    Turnovers enabled the Crimson to build a 24-10 lead, and for the first time in five weeks, the Tigers couldn’t respond with any fourth-quarter heroics in its biggest game to date.
    Defending Ivy League champion Harvard won, 24-17, to stay unbeaten in the league at 3-0, 4-2 overall, while Princeton slipped to 2-1 in league play, 4-2 overall, in front of 15,015 at Princeton Stadium.
    "One of the things I felt Harvard had an advantage coming into the game because they’ve played in games like this before," said Princeton head coach Roger Hughes. "They played for the championship last year so the kids have had that kind of atmosphere. And our program is still trying to get to that point."
    Princeton turned the ball over five times – the last a Matt Verbit pass that was intercepted by Brian Garcia with 51 seconds left in the game after Verbit had engineered an 89-yard drive to bring the Tigers within a score the possession before – to fall out of the driver’s seat in the Ivy race with four games to go.
    "The league race is still open, I feel," said Hughes, whose team travels to Cornell for a 1 p.m. kickoff next Saturday. "We still control our own destiny. All we can do is take care of the games we have. I told the team after this game that it hurts, it stings, but setbacks make great comebacks. We have to bounce back. We have four games left. We have Cornell next week who we have traditionally not played well against. We have our work cut out for us.
    "I think the league is so competitive, it’s going to be hard to go undefeated in the league."
    Princeton found that out the hard way Saturday in losing its seventh in a row to the Crimson. Harvard won its 10th consecutive Ivy League game, a streak dating back to last year’s unbeaten Ivy season.
    Harvard scored its all 17 of its first-half points off of Tiger turnovers. They weren’t the only mistakes in the game. The teams combined for 22 penalties and six turnovers.
    "Two first-place teams shouldn’t have that many penalties," Hughes said. "That shouldn’t happen. You’re expected to bring your ‘A’ game and you can’t have the penalties and can’t have the turnovers especially when you’re playing in a championship caliber game."
    Princeton’s first turnover came after it had driven into Harvard territory when Cameron Atkinson, who was held to just 34 yards on 10 carries after four consecutive 100-yard rushing games, fumbled and the Crimson recovered at midfield.
    The Crimson’s Nick Palazzo scored the first of his three touchdowns, this one from one yard out to cap an eight-play, 50-yard drive and give Harvard a 7-0 lead with 7:19 left in the first quarter.
    The Tigers tied the game with 11:17 to play in the second quarter on a 13-yard lateral to Atkinson around the right side. The key play to continue the drive was a 19-yard completion from David Splithoff to Chisom Opara on third-and-16. Atkinson then followed with an 18-yard run to move into scoring position.
    Princeton missed a chance to take the lead when Tim Kirby recovered a Harvard fumble at the Crimson 23. After three failed plays, Derek Javarone’s 38-yard attempt was wide left.
    On the Tigers’ next possession, Harvard’s Juano Queen intercepted Splithoff, and nine plays later, Palazzo went up the middle again, this time for a 2-yard touchdown run to make it 14-7 with 2:45 left before the half.
    Verbit rotated in for Splithoff on the next series, but his first pass attempt of the game went right to Chris Raftery at the Tigers own 49. Harvard drove to the Princeton 11 before Jim Morocco nailed a 29-yard field goal to give the visitors a 17-7 lead with three seconds left in the second quarter.
    That lead swelled to 24-7 when Harvard took the second-half kickoff and punched it in from the Princeton 1 on another Palazzo touchdown. Palazzo carried 12 times for 45 yards and the three scores.
    The Tigers needed a drive to answer, but on fourth-and-3 from the Harvard 5, intended receiver Joel Mancl was knocked down. By the time the Tigers got on the scoreboard, it was already the fourth quarter. Javarone was perfect on a 30-yard field goal with 13:55 to play in the game.
    With Splithoff out with a dislocated shoulder, Verbit took over the quarterbacking duties. On his first possession of the second half, Atkinson collided with him and he fumbled and the Crimson recovered at their own 49.
    But Verbit gave the Tigers life with an impressive eight-play, 89-yard drive late in the fourth quarter. On the drive, he scrambled for 17 yards on one play, found Nate Lindell for a 23-yard completion and Pat Schottel for another 16-yard completion that set up a 16-yard strike to Opara to cut the Crimson lead to 24-17 with 3:42 left in the game.
    "I come away really heartened because our kids didn’t lay down," Hughes said. "When they took the ball up the first drive of the second half, we had a chance to pull within 10. We never gave up. There was never an attitude on the sidelines that we were out of the game. When we scored that last touchdown, we felt we’d get the ball back with a chance to win the game."
    But Princeton’s onside kick was recovered by the Crimson, who did not punt the ball back to the Tigers until there was 1:05 left on the clock.
    "We were in the same position two years ago at Dartmouth," Hughes said of the decision to go for the onside kick. "At that time, I elected to kick deep and we never got the ball back. There was no hesitation. In practice the onsides looked great. The ball didn’t bounce up as we plan it to do. As the case went, we still got the ball back with plenty of time to move it downfield. I still think the onsides kick was the right call."
    The Tigers took over at their own 25 with just over a minute, but Verbit was intercepted on what he called "a bad throw" to end Princeton’s hopes for a comeback.
    "I’m disappointed," Hughes said afterward. "I felt like defensively we played extremely well with some bad field position. You can’t win a game when you turn the ball over five times. We talked to the kids about that. We talked about that in our media luncheon Wednesday. We’ve been pretty good at our takeaway-giveaway ratio. Today we weren’t. And certainly that is a major problem against a good team like Harvard.
    "I credit Harvard. I thought they had nice schemes, did nice things. But I kind of feel like we gave the game away to them."
    Splithoff, along with starting receiver B.J. Szymanski, who also left the game with a shoulder injury after a diving attempt, were to be further evaluated Saturday.