Football: Tigers earn bonfire with 29-7 victory at Yale
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — For the first time in six years, the football team has brought a bonfire to Princeton. As per tradition, after the Tigers' 29-7 victory over Yale on Saturday — which followed a 39-34 win over Harvard last month — the school will celebrate with a bonfire, which will be held on Saturday at 7 p.m. on Cannon Green.
The Tigers (5-4 overall, 4-2 Ivy League) went three-and-out on their first two possessions of the game, finding little success on the ground and getting little time from their offensive line to establish an effective passing game. The Princeton defense did not look much better, seemingly confused by Yale’s injury-ridden offense, which forced the Bulldogs to start Henry Furman — listed as a wide receiver — under center. The Tigers' defense started out on the same flat note as the offense, missing tackles and allowing Yale the first score of the game with a touchdown on its second possession.
“We’ve had our struggles in the first quarter,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 admitted. “They threw the ball better than I would ever have anticipated. We struggled with our footing ... We were having such a hard time catching up with the speed of what they were doing, and they really put one on us.”
As the pace picked up, so too did Princeton’s offensive productivity. A pass from sophomore quarterback Connor Michelsen to senior receiver Tom Moak finally gave the Tigers a first down on their third drive, and they drew energy from the gradually filling crowd of orange T-shirts behind their sideline. Princeton's running backs, led by senior Akil Sharp and sophomore Will Powers, began to click as well after gaining only one net yard for the entire first quarter. But they were unable to put points on the board after sophomore Quinn Epperly’s touchdown pass to junior Roman Wilson was called back for offensive pass interference, and the next play resulted in an interception.
The visitors' defense stepped up to hold Yale within in its own territory, giving Princeton another opportunity to even up the score, which it did on the next drive. Sophomore receiver Seth DeValve had his first of four receptions to take the Tigers across midfield and then teamed with Epperly again for a 23-yard completion to the Yale four-yard line, where four defensive backs were required to take him down. A one-yard touchdown run from Wilson evened the score at 7-7.
From there, Princeton caught some breaks that hadn't seemed to be there in recent losses to Cornell and Penn. After a Yale fumble was recovered by freshman cornerback Anthony Gaffney, his first of two recoveries on the day, the tide looked to be turning the Tigers’ way. Princeton's offense squandered that opportunity when Epperly threw an interception, but the Tigers caught another break when a Yale touchdown was negated by a holding penalty.
Then came the big turning point of the game, as on the next play, junior cornerback Trocon Davis intercepted a trick halfback pass in the end zone and returned it all the way back for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 14-7 lead going into halftime.
“That’s the biggest play of my entire life, so it means a lot to me,” Davis said. “People were giving me a lot of stuff for pulling up a little bit [on the return], looking a little slow ... but I wasn’t trying to get caught.”
Davis’s return, recorded at 100 yards, is the longest in Princeton football history and the second-longest in the Ivy League record book.
“That really got our momentum going, and then we kind of just took it from there,” Epperly added.
The Tigers started the second half strong with an Epperly touchdown run on the opening drive, followed by a two-point conversion when freshman kicker Nolan Bieck ran to the goal line after a bad snap on the kick attempt.
“That was actually the first time in my career the ball has ever been in my hands,” Bieck said, eliciting laughter in the postgame press conference. “So I just picked the ball up, and I started running to one side and I saw that he was open, but I figured No. 55 [sophomore lineman Tom Yetter] probably wasn’t eligible. So I just tucked it and kept running with it, and luckily I got in.”
The breaks kept coming for the Tigers. After allowing Yale to get great field position on a long punt return, senior defensive back Mandela Sheaffer forced Yale’s Mordecai Cargill, who had dominated the Tigers' defense for much of the game, to fumble at the one-yard line. The ball was recovered in the end zone by Gaffney, giving the Tigers possession with a comfortable 22-7 lead.
The Bulldogs attempted one last attempt at a comeback, electing to fake a punt from the Princeton 38-yard line, but they failed to connect on the pass, giving Princeton the ball and good field position. Two possessions later, the Tigers scored their last touchdown of the day on a great catch by sophomore wide receiver Matt Costello in the back corner of the end zone, making the final score 29-7.
As Epperly took a knee to end the game, clinching the Tigers' first winning season in Ivy play since 2006, Princeton fans began to rush the field and celebrate.
“We’ve struggled finishing some games, and we finished this game really well,” Surace said.
After a slow start, Princeton rose to the occasion and its fans’ expectations of a bonfire, battling back to overcome another deficit in a Big Three game. After finding no success early, Powers and Epperly combined for 145 yards rushing, while DeValve had the most productive day for the receiving core, catching four passes for 70 yards.
The Tiger defense also came together as the game progressed, welcoming back senior defensive lineman Caraun Reid, who had five tackles. Freshman cornerback Matt Arends led the team with eight takedowns, and senior linebacker Tim Kingsbury added seven more, including two for loss.
“We made the adjustment ... and we were able to hang in there,” Surace said.
With Penn beating Harvard, the Tigers still have a realistic chance to tie for first place in the Ivy League, which will be possible with a Penn loss to Cornell next week. Princeton will try to keep that hope alive with a win in its final game of the season at home against Dartmouth.