Princeton beat Harvard 18–16 on Saturday in the Ivy League’s first-ever quintuple overtime game. This is the fourth year in a row that Princeton has claimed victory over Harvard, with the last loss for the Tigers coming in 2016 (23–20 OT).
Both teams entered the game undefeated at 5–0 and were ranked back-to-back on the FCS Coaches Poll, with Princeton one slot behind Harvard at No. 17 as of Oct. 18. The game was a largely defensive battle between the two highest-ranked rushing defenses in the FCS.
The neck-and-neck game ultimately came down to five overtime periods, with senior wide receiver Jacob Birmelin catching the ball in the end zone and senior defensive back Trevor Forbes breaking up a Harvard pass to seal the victory. The victory was also somewhat controversial, with the Ivy League later admitting to third-overtime officiating errors that may have changed the outcome of the game.
Over 10,000 fans were in attendance at the Homecoming game, many of whom stormed the field following the final whistle.
“I really just blacked out. I have no words,” said Birmelin. “I just remember looking into the stands and people were running out into the field.”
Overall, it was a difficult day for the Princeton offense. Coming off a record-breaking 92.6 percent completion percentage and four passing touchdowns against Brown in the week prior, senior quarterback Cole Smith completed half of his passes against the Crimson defense. He ended the game with four interceptions and zero touchdowns.
“It was a tough day. They’re a tough defense,” Head Coach Bob Surace ’90 told The Daily Princetonian in a post-game interview.
Surace added that despite Smith’s struggles, “it’s never [just] one person.” Other players stepped up in big moments, particularly within the defensive line.
The defensive effort was crucial in making up for the team’s slow offensive start. Surace praised the defensive line, calling their performance “unbelievable,” especially against “two of the best running backs the team has played against in 12 years.” In particular, senior linebackers Jeremiah Tyler and Daniel Beard led the team in 12 tackles and 10 tackles, respectively.
Special teams play also fueled the victory. After a slow first half, with both teams scoring two field goals apiece by halftime, Princeton’s only touchdown came from the punt return unit. Midway through the third quarter, sophomore linebacker Liam Johnson blocked a Harvard punt, and senior wide receiver Cash Goodhart picked up the ball in the end zone, bringing the score to 13–6.
Following several more unsuccessful drives, Harvard started the fourth quarter with a 17-yard pass, pulling the team within Princeton’s 10-yard line. Several plays later, running back Aaron Shampklin scored the Crimson’s sole touchdown of the day, evening the tally at 13.
With three minutes left, the Tigers found themselves within scoring position again, but a missed 37-yard field goal attempt from freshman kicker Jeffrey Sexton kept the game tied. Both teams failed to score in subsequent drives, sending the game into its first overtime.
Per NCAA regulation, the first two overtime periods consist of a two-possession series. Each team alternates offense and defense, with the offense starting at the 25-yard line. If the game is still tied after the second overtime, each team alternates two-point plays from the three-yard line until one team outscores the other.
Princeton started on offense for the first overtime period, with Sexton scoring a 37-yard field goal to put the Tigers up 16–13. Harvard quickly answered, tying the score again at 16.
In the second overtime, senior defensive back Trevor Forbes intercepted a pass by Harvard quarterback Jake Smith, putting the Tigers in a position to win with a field goal on the next possession. Sexton’s field goal attempt, however, was blocked by Harvard defensive lineman Anthony Nelson, bringing the Tigers to another overtime play.
The third overtime began with an incomplete pass by Cole Smith to Birmelin. Harvard then appeared to have scored what would have been the game-winning conversion, but it was eventually overturned as the field officials confirmed that Surace had called timeout before the snap occurred.
“I tried getting their attention so I literally just went on the field, thinking I could get the referee. I didn’t know what else to do,” Surace said after the game.
Harvard appeared to score again on its next attempt, but the score was discounted due to a pass interference call. This was ultimately followed by a failed attempt for the two-point conversion by Harvard from the 18-yard line, with Tyler breaking up the pass.
The Ivy League later released a statement, explaining that “the officiating crew made a procedural error” in overturning the initial call and calling back Harvard’s conversion. They note that the timeout was requested by Surace prior to the snap, though the play continued and was only later called back after Harvard appeared to have scored. However, according to NCAA regulations, a timeout can only be granted before the ball is snapped and cannot be reviewed. The release concludes that “the timeout should not have been granted and the play should have resulted in a successful two-point conversion,” which would have resulted in a win for Harvard, but that “the outcome of the game will stand as a win for Princeton.” According to the statement, “The league office will address the error with the officials.”
In the fourth overtime, Harvard’s Jake Smith threw an interception, putting Princeton in a position to win the game. Princeton ran a trick play, with senior wide receiver Dylan Classi throwing a pass intended for Birmelin that fell short and was ruled incomplete.
The game went into its fifth and final overtime, still tied at 16. The Tigers began the play with Cole Smith finding Birmelin at the corner of the end zone, scoring and putting Princeton ahead 18–16. Jake Smith attempted to push the game into a sixth overtime with a pass to tight end Haven Montefalco, but Forbes knocked away the pass, securing the win for the Tigers.
“We battled all game long. Everybody played well. We definitely have some things we need to fix, but we knew what this game was coming into [it],” Birmelin said. “It was a team win for sure.”
The Tigers are now undefeated 6–0 and stand alone at the top of the Ivy League rankings, having also beaten Columbia (24–7) and Brown (56–42) this season. They will play Cornell next Friday in Ithaca, N.Y. and Yale on Saturday, Nov. 13 at Powers Field.
Caroline Ji is a contributor to the ‘Prince’ sports section. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Kyle Tsai is a contributor to the ‘Prince’ sports and video sections. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @kyle.tsai_.
Emily Philippides is a Head Sports Editor at the 'Prince.' She can be reached at email@example.com.
Managing Editor Zachary Shevin contributed reporting.