Tigers take double overtime victory to stay in race
By: Justin Feil
Roger Hughes has been coaching the Princeton University football team for seven seasons, and been in coaching since 1982.
He could be in coaching for another 24 years and probably still not be in another game like Saturday’s 31-30 double overtime win over the University of Pennsylvania. Princeton receivers coach Scott Sallach thought as much as they stood on the sidelines watching the final plays unfold.
"He said, this is the most bizarre game I’ve ever been affiliated with," recalled Hughes after his team improved to 7-1 overall, 4-1 in the Ivy League. "It really is. You couldn’t have scripted it for a movie any better."
Princeton saw a 14-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, but found a way to stay one game behind Yale in the Ivy race. After a scoreless first overtime in which neither team could make a field goal, the Tigers started the second overtime with the ball. A holding penalty put them at the 35-yard line, but Brian Brigham made a leaping catch at the 3-yard line of Jeff Terrell’s pass to put the Tigers in scoring position. Three straight plays netted 2 yards.
On fourth down, Princeton elected to leave its offense on the field. Penn’s defense stopped Rob Toresco’s initial dive at the goal line, and a defender grabbed one of his feet. As he started to lunge again, Penn’s Scotty Williams started to pull Toresco’s upper body back. That’s when Toresco tossed the ball back 8 yards to Terrell who ran it around right end into the end zone. Connor Louden followed with the all-important extra point.
"I was just hoping he could hear me because I knew I had a free lane to the end zone," Terrell said. "And from my point of view, it didn’t look like Rob was going to get in there. There were about seven or eight guys on him. I just screamed to him and he made a good play and threw me the ball."
Added Toresco: "I heard him yell something,. I turned around and just let it go.
"You have to find a way to win. If you play football long enough, it’s a heads up play. You know it’s fourth down and the game’s on the line. You have to do something, find a way to get the ball in the end zone."
Penn instantly diffused the momentum with a 25-yard touchdown from Rob Irvin to Matt Carre, but on the ensuring extra point, Ted Rosenbaum had a bad snap and Matt Reinert was forced to run for the two-point conversion. He was pushed out of bounds on the left side by Pat McGrath after reaching the 2-yard line to set off a Tiger celebration at midfield.
"To be able to have two wins in a row against teams of Penn and Harvard’s quality," Hughes said. "I think said wonders for where our program’s come. We’ve changed the culture of the program and now we’re in position to play for the championship next week and the week following."
Princeton will play at Yale 12:30 p.m. Saturday for a share of the Ivy lead with the Bulldogs, who rallied for a 27-24 win at Brown on Saturday to go to 5-0 in Ivy play, and Harvard, a 24-7 winner at Columbia to keep pace with Princeton.
"We’re going to have great focus and great intensity," Hughes said. "My concern is that we’re not ready to play on Wednesday. We have to be ready to play Saturday. I think this group is going to be so pumped, we’re going to have to be calming them down a bit."
It will take a bit to forget about the drama of Saturday’s win over Penn, the Tigers’ first ever in Princeton Stadium and first home win over the Quakers since 1992. Penn set a Division I record by playing in its third consecutive overtime game, all three of which it has lost to slip to 4-4 overall, 2-3 in the Ivies. All three came in part because of kicking woes. Princeton had been in one overtime game this season, a 27-26 win at Colgate.
"We’d been in one overtime game and won it," Hughes said. "We feel if we get to overtime we have an advantage psychologically. I really wasn’t thinking about Penn, other than the fact that probably their strategy would be, go for it more on fourth down because they’d had so many problems with their kicker. At that point in time, you’re just thinking what you’re going to call down there to get the ball in the end zone."
After a Penn score with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter and subsequent extra point sent the game into overtime at 24-24, neither team scored in the first overtime. Penn’s 20-yard field goal never got off as Reinert dropped the snap and was tackled short of a first down. Princeton’s 34-yard field goal which could have won the game to end the first overtime was blocked by a host of Penn linemen.
"You have to spread it out over the whole game," Hughes said. "There were a number of plays that happened on both sides of the ball that clearly could have changed the outcome."
It was Princeton that made the majority of the plays early in regulation, Penn that made them late. The Tigers jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead. Princeton scored on its first possession of the game when Terrell hit Circle for a 25-yard score on third-and-12. It was the first of the day for Terrell, who went 21 for 36 for 227 yards and equaled his career high of three touchdowns set last year at Penn and tied this season against Lafayette.
Penn answered with a 1-yard run by Nick Cisler with 14:39 left in the second quarter. But Terrell led the Tigers 85 yards down the field for a 14-7 lead on another third-down completion to tight end Jake Staser. The drive was highlighted by Bill Foran’s 20-yard speed sweep on fourth-and-3. Foran earlier had a 14-yard carry on the drive, and had a 27-yard run on the Tigers’ second drive of the game. Foran, who lined up at quarterback for three plays Saturday, finished with six carries for a team-high 84 yards.
"Frankly, I had a sense it would be successful," Hughes said. "Bill came in and did some great things and made it even more successful than I dreamed of."
Foran also downed two punts inside the 5-yard line and made a solo tackle on kickoff.
"We have quarterbacks who are good athletes," Hughes said. "You see Kenny Gunter going down on special teams. You see Bill doing that as well. The last drive really was because Bill downed it at the 1-yard line and we held them down there and scored.
"The neat thing is Bill can make so many contributions, not just at quarterback, but on special teams, at wide receiver and having a versatile athlete of his caliber is a huge plus."
Princeton expanded its lead on the final play of the first half with a 22-yard field goal from Louden to end a 74-yard drive.
Penn pulled within a touchdown, 17-10, when Braden Lepisto kicked a 38-yard field goal for the only score of the third quarter. It snapped a streak of six straight missed field goals for the Quakers.
"Special teams, we preach them," Hughes said. "We talk about them a lot. Special teams made a huge difference."
Princeton was forced to punt on its next possession, and Foran pinned the Quakers deep when he knocked Colin McDonough’s punt out of bounds at the 2-yard line. Penn punted back to Princeton and they took over at the Penn 42. Eight plays later, Terrell found Brendan Circle for a 5-yard touchdown that seemed to give Princeton, which had not allowed a fourth-down touchdown dating back five Ivy League games, solid control with a 24-10 lead. But 14:55 remained and Penn was able to claw back.
Penn scored on a 1-yard sneak by Irvin with still 11:07 remaining. The score was set up by a diving 22-yard catch by Carre on fourth-and-18. Princeton again appeared in control when after Foran downed a McDonough punt at the Penn 4 and then Doori Song recovered Joe Sandberg’s fumble of a long screen pass reception. It was the lone mistake for Sandberg, who rushed for 173 yards, the most the Tigers have given up to any running back this season.
"I’m not happy with that," Hughes said. "Clearly we have to play better run defense. That’s something we pride ourselves on. And going forward with a running back like (Mike) McCleod at Yale, we’re going to have to tighten that up."
The Tigers had to punt the ball back to Penn with 2:19 left. Two straight completions to Hun School graduate Billy May put the ball in Princeton territory. A penalty moved them back and soon the Quakers faced 4th-and-24 from their own 43. Irvin lofted a high pass that May came down with for a 29-yard completion and three plays later, Irvin hit Carre for a touchdown to send the game into overtime.
"We’ve had to depend on our defense all year," Toresco said. "I think this is one time the defense counted on us to make a play. At times, when you’re in there watching them make big plays, fourth-and-18, fourth-and-23, you kind of get frustrated. I told a lot of guys around me, defense has had our back all year. We have to go in and answer.
"It’s confidence. It’s calm. It’s the approach we go into with every game, whether it goes into overtime or not."
And sometimes, there is nothing that can totally prepare you for an ending like Saturday’s. No one, save for a screenwriter, could have come up with this ending.
"If you don’t believe in God, I’ll send you the tape," Hughes said. "There was definitely some Divine Intervention."