In the 2018 season, Princeton football (10–0, 7–0 Ivy) won home games and road games, narrow thrillers and blowouts, offensive shootouts, and defensive struggles. The constant? It won games. On Nov. 17, the team won for the 10th time in 10 games, defeating Penn (6–4, 3–4) 42–14 to win the Ivy League title outright and claim its first undefeated season since 1964.
The last time Princeton finished undefeated, none of the players on this year’s roster were alive. Neither was its head coach, Bob Surace ’90. As historic as this achievement was, it may not have sunk in completely with the players yet.
“I don’t think I fully grasp it,” said senior wide receiver Jesper Horsted. “We didn’t do it for history, we just did it because that was our goal and that was the way we could be the best we could be.”
Prior to the game, Princeton honored its senior class, one of the most successful in team history. During the game, may of those seniors shined on the field. Horsted, a legitimate NFL prospect, was foremost among them, recording 165 yards receiving and four total touchdowns. Along the way, he caught his 194th career reception, breaking the Princeton record.
His quarterback, senior John Lovett, was once again stellar, throwing for 255 yards and three touchdowns, and rushing for another 125 yards and one score.
“[Horsted] is an incredible talent, and I’m lucky enough to play with him,” Lovett said. “It’s a pleasure to be able to play with these guys.”
As they did so often this season, Princeton leaped out to a commanding lead early in the game. Despite failing to score on its opening drive for the first time all year after sophomore kicker Nico Ramos missed a short field goal, Princeton scored three touchdowns early in the first half, all courtesy of Horsted, to make the score 21–0.
To its credit, Penn refused to roll over. Junior quarterback Nick Robinson replaced starter Ryan Glover in the second quarter for the Quakers and engineered a series of impressive drives. A long touchdown pass from Robinson to Tyler Herrick early in the third quarter cut the deficit to 21–14 and gave the Quakers a fighting chance.
From there, Princeton would revert to its dominant self. The Princeton defense got a critical stop, and the offense responded with a methodical nine-play, 80-yard drive down the field, culminating in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Lovett to Horsted to make the score 28–14.
“I said to [offensive coordinator] Sean [Gleeson], that’s the best drive I’ve ever been around,” Surace said. “It was one run play after another…. That was a gut-check drive.”
In the fourth quarter, Princeton’s defense remained stout, and the offense began to run down the clock with running backs Charlie Volker and Colin Eaddy fighting for tough yards. Princeton added two more scores to bring the lead to 42–14 before the clock ran down to zero and a raucous celebration began on the field.
With the win, Princeton secured its first outright Ivy League title since 1995. The team last won the Ivy League title in 2016, sharing it with Penn. All involved would agree that having it to yourself feels sweeter.
“When you share a title, it leaves an empty spot,” said senior safety Ben Ellis, a member of that 2016 team. “Now going 10–0 you know without a doubt you're the best in the league.”
Despite finishing the season as a top-10 team in the FCS, Princeton will not get a chance to fight for a national championship due to the Ivy League’s policy of not allowing its teams to qualify for the FCS playoffs.
“We’re all frustrated by it,” said Lovett. “I don’t understand why we’re not able to play; we’ve certainly beaten teams that have had good playoff runs over my five years here”
“It’s an empty feeling,” Surace said. “Tuesday at 4:45, we’re going to feel sick to our stomachs since we don’t get to practice and bond…. We want to go keep playing.”
As bitter as the lack of an opportunity to prove itself among the best teams in the FCS may be, the 2018 Princeton football team has much to be proud about. In a league full of talented teams, the Tigers emerged unbeaten in what can only be characterized as a once-in-a-lifetime kind of achievement.
“[Going 10–0] was our largest goal,” said Horsted. “That said, it was a game-by-game way we were approaching things, and we never really looked beyond the next Saturday.”
Surace was asked before the season whether this Princeton team had the potential to be one of the best he had ever coached. He didn’t give a direct answer to that question then, but the answer seems obvious now.
“This is the easiest team I’ve ever had to coach,” he said. “It’s not just because they won. [It’s] how they do everything, every day.”