With less than 30 seconds left to play in Saturday’s football game, the undefeated Harvard Crimson was closing in on sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly. Princeton was down 34-32, sophomore starting quarterback Connor Michelsen was injured, the homecoming crowd of 10,823 was on its feet, and Epperly was on the wrong foot as he hurled the ball toward the end zone.
The ball fell into the arms of junior receiver Roman Wilson. He held on as he hit the ground. The Crimson looked on in disbelief as the Tigers roared.
Seconds later, Princeton’s defense prevented Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple from adding to his total of 448 yards on the final play of the game, completing a stunning comeback. Fans stormed Powers Field, waving orange flags as the scoreboard showed the final score: Princeton 39, Harvard 34. The Tigers had scored 29 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat the defending league champion.
“I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet,” Wilson said about 20 minutes after his historic catch. “It’s just an incredible feeling looking up and seeing all the fans, all the alumni.”
His stunned feeling was shared by everyone in attendance. The Crimson came in having won a Division I-best 14 straight games and not having lost to the Tigers since 2006. They led the Ivy League in points per game thanks to the phenomenal talent of Chapple, who had his second career five-touchdown game in the loss. Tight end Kyle Juszczyk defied Tiger defenders and PA announcers alike, hauling in 15 catches — the second most in Crimson history — for 192 yards.
Harvard head coach Tim Murphy was stoic as he summed up what happened.
“Princeton deserved to win,” he said. “They became a team they’d not been.”
Princeton came in with confidence, building momentum with three straight wins. Its defense came in having only allowed six points in its last two games, but the offense, led by two young quarterbacks and a rotation of equally inexperienced running backs, was not expected to do much against a team that seemed on track to dominate the league for a second straight year.
The first half played out just like most people expected. Chapple came out firing and picked apart the Tigers’ secondary, scoring three times and racking up 310 yards in the first two quarters. When he was not showing off his uncanny ability to hit a receiver in stride from a great distance, he was showing off his legs, rushing for 43 yards in the first half and eluding the defense every time a sack seemed imminent.
Running back Treavor Scales ran for 62 yards in the half against one of the nation’s best rushing defenses. After senior Joe Cloud’s punt was blocked late in the first quarter, the Crimson quickly capitalized, scoring its second of three touchdowns in the half.
While the Crimson was having a field day, neither Michelsen nor Epperly could get anything going. Aside from a diving 24-yard catch from senior receiver Shane Wilkinson, the offense had a miserable first 30 minutes.
Perhaps the only true bright spot of the half came when senior defensive lineman Caraun Reid, whom Murphy called “an NFL player,” blocked Harvard’s third extra point attempt. Thanks to the block and two turnovers forced by the Tigers’ defense, the score was only 20-0 in Harvard’s favor at halftime.
Head coach Bob Surace ’90 said there have been times in his career when he has felt his team was not playing hard, but Saturday’s first half was not one of them. “I thought we were playing hard, we just weren’t executing,” he said.
Michelsen finally got some time in the pocket on the opening drive of the second half, and he used it to hit Wilson, freshman running back Will Powers and Wilkinson for first downs that brought the Tigers into Crimson territory for the first time. With the ball inside the Crimson 5-yard line, Epperly took several Tim Tebow-style quarterback dives that resulted in a quick touchdown for the home team.
Kick returner Paul Stanton fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and sophomore Jakobi Johnson recovered the ball at the Crimson 5-yard line. Despite a defensive holding penalty that wiped away a third-down incompletion, Epperly and the Tigers could not break the plane of the goal line, and the Tigers settled for a chip shot from freshman kicker Nolan Bieck to make the score 20-10.
Still, Chapple remained a force to be reckoned with. Defying the Tigers’ momentum, he made another drive look easy, capping it off with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Juszczyk to keep the hosts at arm’s length. On the next drive, Chapple found tight end Cameron Brate, who had 109 receiving yards on the day, for his fifth and final touchdown, making the score 34-10 with 12 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game.
Cue one of the biggest comebacks in Princeton history. Freshman Anthony Gaffney made Harvard regret a penalty that forced it to re-do the kickoff, returning the second kick to the Harvard 34-yard line. Moments later, a short screen pass led to freshman running back Dre Nelson’s first career score, and a well-designed two-point conversion pass from Michelsen to senior wide receiver Tom Moak made it a 16-point game.
The Tigers’ defense finally dug in. Sophomore linebacker Mike Zeuli and junior linebacker Alex Polofsky halted Harvard’s next drive by stopping Chapple in his tracks on third down. After blocking the punt, Princeton took over at the Harvard 48. The Tigers, not usually a quick-strike offense, scored in just 55 seconds — after moving the chains with a bullet to Wilson, Michelsen found sophomore receiver Matt Costello for a 29-yard touchdown down the right sideline.
Epperly capped off the drive with a short pass to Wilkinson for the conversion. The Tigers had cut the lead to 34-26.
Looking heroic, Chapple led his team down the field in short order. The Crimson marched to the Tigers’ 5-yard line but could not move further. After freshman defensive back Matt Arends pushed Scales out of bounds on third down, junior defensive lineman Greg Sotoreanos broke up what would have been an easy field-goal attempt, and the Tigers, down 34-26, took over at their own 21-yard line.
On third down from his own 36-yard line, Michelsen connected with Wilson, who broke free and brought the Tigers to the Crimson’s 38. Michelsen zipped the ball to senior tight end Mark Hayes, found Costello along the sideline and then rushed for 5 yards to the 20-yard line. On the next pass, sophomore wide receiver Seth DeValve got wide open in the end zone and planted himself under a lob from Michelsen for a touchdown.
The Tigers could have tied the game with a successful two-point conversion, but Michelsen’s pass was broken up by Harvard’s Alexander Norman, and Princeton kicked off with a two-point deficit and 2:27 to play.
Harvard tried to run out the clock but failed to get a first down on the next drive, thanks to Zeuli’s tackle of Juszczyk 1 yard shy of the mark. After bluffing a play but failing to draw the hosts offsides, the Crimson punted.
“Other games we’ve lost because that fourth-and-1 ended up being a first down at the end,” Surace said. “This time, we were able to keep them 1 yard shy.”
Starting from his own 10-yard line, Michelsen moved the ball out of his own red zone with a pass to Wilkinson. After taking a hard hit on an incomplete pass, Costello left the field with an injury.
Michelsen completed a short pass to Powers and ran for another first down, but with seconds ticking away, Michelsen took a sack on the next play, injuring his hand on the play.
Harvard was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for a celebration of the sack, however, costing the Crimson 15 yards and stopping the clock. Epperly came in as Michelsen was assisted off the field.
“[I] just had to have the confidence that I can step in and pull it off, too,” Epperly said.
After picking up one first down, Epperly nearly threw a game-ending interception, but it was dropped by Chris Splinter. With the clock running, Epperly chucked his fateful pass to Roman Wilson, who caught the ball despite being closely defended with 13 seconds remaining.
“Roman’s a great matchup, and we needed to get the ball down the field, so I took a shot and Roman made an excellent play for me,” Epperly said.
The Tigers had used the same play earlier in the season against Lafayette and Columbia.
“Quinn threw a great ball, I had the leverage on the safety, and I just had to go up there and make a play,” Wilson said.
As Bieck’s extra point sailed through the uprights, Princeton Stadium was louder than it has been in recent memory. Moments later, the biggest win of Surace’s career became official. After two one-win seasons, the Tigers are now 4-2 and alone in first place in the league. Perhaps because everyone knew how much the win meant to the program, Surace stressed that at the end of the day it was just one more win.
“It doesn’t mean we’re back,” he said. “It means we’re good enough today.”
Surace repeatedly gave credit to the Crimson, which had 634 offensive yards. He stressed that the defense had a lot of problems to fix — though this was certainly its biggest test of the season — and that the Tigers had to catch a lot of breaks in order to pull off the upset.
He also mentioned the impressive work of his two quarterbacks, who combined for 287 passing yards and four touchdowns.
“Nobody wants to play two or three quarterbacks, but they really have significant areas where they’re really good, and they’re getting better at the other areas,” he said. “The thing I’m so proud of is that they’re handling it so maturely. I see them now watching video together and talking, communicating and helping each other out.”
Saturday’s victory shook up the standings in the Ivy League considerably, putting last year’s last-place finisher on top and giving them an excellent shot at the championship. After knocking off their toughest Ivy League opponent, the Tigers have Cornell, Penn, Yale and Dartmouth left on their schedule. Winning three of those games would assure them a share of the title — a possibility Surace doesn’t want his team to consider just yet.
“If our guys are looking at the standings, they’re doing the wrong thing,” he said. “They’re looking at the Cornell video.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/20/31590/