The football team (4-3 overall, 3-1 Ivy League) saw its hopes for an undefeated season of Ivy League play come to an end on Saturday after a 37-35 shootout loss at Cornell (4-3, 2-2). The Tigers appeared a lot more like the team that started the season off 0-2 rather than the team that had won its past four games, as they played well but fell just short of what they had to do to win. The loss dropped Princeton to 3-1 in the Ivy League and made achieving lone possession of the Ivy League title very unlikely. Star Big Red quarterback Jeff Mathews, who leads the league in passing yardage, had 525 yards through the air on the day while leading Cornell to the close victory.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Tigers were down 34-28, needing just one touchdown to take the lead after Big Red kicker John Wells missed the extra point on Cornell’s last touchdown. Princeton did exactly that with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly hit senior tight end Mark Hayes for a 6-yard touchdown pass.
Mathews had two consecutive passes of at least 20 yards to start off their ensuing drive, but the Tigers defense then locked down the Big Red’s passing game and forced a turnover on downs. Princeton was in a good position as it drove into Cornell territory, running down the clock when freshman tailback Dre Nelson fumbled the ball on third-and-2 while spinning forward to gain enough for the first down.
The turnover was costly as Mathews led Big Red all the way to the Tigers’ 5-yard line, from which Wells kicked the 23-yard field goal to take a two-point lead with just 50 seconds to go.
Princeton began what it hoped would be a game winning drive at its own 33 after the kickoff return, similar to the end of last week’s game against Harvard. In some ways, the situation was more hopeful for the Tigers as the offense looked the best it has all season behind sophomore quarterback Connor Michelsen’s career-high 390 passing yards. However, on the very first play of the drive, Michelsen was intercepted, and Princeton’s hopes for a second consecutive game-winning drive were dashed.
“Turnovers definitely killed us," Michelsen said. "You can’t win football games turning the ball over four times, and that’s on me. I threw two interceptions and I can’t do that if we want to win football games. It’s tough whenever you have turnovers like that.”
The second half did not start off well for the Tigers, as freshman cornerback Anthony Gaffney did not make it far out of the end zone after the kickoff. Coupled with a block on the back penalty on Princeton, the return saw the Tigers start the drive at their own 3-yard line. Michelsen’s pass on the ensuing third down was then slightly behind junior wide receiver Roman Wilson, who tipped the ball up in the air, giving Cornell safety Andrew Nelson enough time to pick the ball off. Starting at the Princeton 3-yard line, the Big Red had little problem scoring when Mathews earned his third score of the day with passing touchdown to Tasker.
Michlesen made up for the interception on the following drive while leading the Tigers to the Big Red’s six-yard line, where sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly was able to punch it in for his second rushing touchdown of the game.
Mathews continued to demonstrate his status as the most prolific quarterback in the league, as Cornell passed on all seven plays of its next drive, which resulted in yet another Big Red touchdown with a 23-yard pass to running back Luke Hagy.
Michelsen continued doing his best to match Mathews on the next drive with a 72-yard touchdown pass to Wilson to tie the game. Unfortunately for Princeton, its defense continued to struggle against Mathews who led the team down the field again before Big Red running back Silas Nacita ran the ball in for another score from two yards out, putting Cornell up 34-28 after Wells missed the extra point, setting up the fourth quarter and Princeton’s close loss.
The first quarter went well for the Tigers’ defense, which had been roughed up against the Crimson while allowing 34 points. It appeared to be back to its dominant form after it held the Big Red and Mathews scoreless throughout the first quarter.
Princeton then was able to piece together a 92-yard drive in the second quarter that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Wilson. Cornell finally figured out the opposing defense starting on its following drive, however, as the Big Red drove near half field and then scored on a 54-yard pass from Mathews to wide receiver Luke Tusker.
Wilson had another standout game after last week’s heroic contest in which he caught the game-winning pass against Harvard. He finished the game with one touchdown and 167 yards through the air in addition to his rushing touchdown.
The Tigers were unable to score on their following drive, primarily due to penalties, and were forced to punt after reaching half-field. The Big Red continued what they had done their previous drive, as Mathews tossed another long touchdown from his own side of the field, this time a 72-yarder to wide receiver Grant Gellatly. Princeton responded with a long 75-yard drive of its own capped off by a 2-yard touchdown run by Epperly.
On area of concern after the game for the Tigers is the defense, which has allowed 71 points in its last two encounters after only allowing 58 through the first five games of the season. However, Princeton just faced the two most offenses it will face this season, and can be encouraged by four sacks of Matthews. If the Tigers hope to win the Ivy League, it is clear that the defense has to return its form of the first half of the season. The Tigers’ offense has trended in the opposite direction, and after putting up 74 points over the last two games, it appears to be one of the more dangerous offenses in the league, especially if Michelsen can continue his passing performance and the ground game can deliver in the red zone.
"Coach [James] Perry called a very good game. We were on the same page and I was seeing exactly what he was seeing," Michelsen said of the Tigers' offensive coordinator. "Our offensive line did a very good job, I didn’t take any sacks. Our receivers also did a very good job getting open and all I had to do was get them the ball.”
Despite the loss, the Tigers still have complete control over their destiny as wins in their last three games would most likely tie the team with Harvard and give them a share of the Ivy League title. Princeton will now take on Penn in a must-win game next Saturday, as the Quakers are tied at the top of the Ivy standings after having beaten Brown 20-17.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/27/31645/