Despite unideal weather conditions and multiple game delays, the Princeton Tigers — with their homecoming victory against Harvard already secured — strode onto Powers Field this Saturday, ready to lead Princeton to its second bonfire in the last five years.
Coming into the game, the Tigers, Bulldogs, and Dartmouth Big Green were all tied atop of the Ivy League with 4–1 conference records.
One of the most anticipated games of the year was delayed by 90 minutes due to lightning.
“I told them [the players] to relax, take their shoulder pads off, and stay hydrated,” head coach Bob Surace told The Daily Princetonian in an interview. “Whenever they allow us, we’re going to have a chance to warm up and get ourselves ready.”
For Princeton fans, however, the game was worth the wait. Princeton secured the important win with a final score of 35–20, maintaining its top spot in the conference alongside Dartmouth.
The Tigers marched down the field on the first drive of the game, with freshman running back John Volker leading the drive with 24 rushing yards and a huge 13-yard fourth down conversion. With a fourth and three on Yale’s three-yard line and expectation to put up the game’s first points, however, the Tigers' field goal attempt was blocked.
Yale started its first possession on its own 20-yard line, but was quickly forced into a three and out, punting the ball right back to Princeton. Yale’s defense matched Princeton’s on the next drive, forcing the Tigers into a punt after five plays.
Princeton’s defense remained strong, getting the ball back in great field position to get the first score of the game. With two minutes left in the quarter, senior quarterback Cole Smith threw a touchdown pass to senior receiver Dylan Classi, putting the Tigers up 7–0.
“It was a big touchdown to get on the board,” Classi told the ‘Prince’ in a post-game interview. “I was happy to get on the board early and keep it going throughout the game.”
The second quarter was an intense, high-scoring showdown between the two offenses. After two failed drives by both teams, Yale’s quarterback Nolan Grooms rushed for a six-yard touchdown, evening the score to 7–7.
Shortly after Princeton got the ball back, Smith was intercepted by Yale’s John Dean, positioning the Bulldogs to score again. They seized the opportunity, scoring a second rushing touchdown and putting the Bulldogs up 14–7.
The Tigers quickly answered on a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive when freshman running back John Volker tore away from the Bulldog defense on a huge 64-yard catch, tying the game at 14–14.
After trading two more failed drives, Yale’s kicker made a 43-yard field goal, bringing their lead to 17–14 with 51 seconds left in the first half.
With such little time left in the half, it seemed as if the Bulldogs would be going into the second half with a three-point lead. Head coach Bob Surace, however, decided to play aggressive, and it paid off.
With two huge pass completions to Dylan Classi (44 yards and 13 yards, respectively), the Tigers were quickly in Yale’s territory. Shortly after, Cole Smith threw a touchdown pass to senior receiver Jacob Birmelin, pushing the Tigers ahead 21–17 with three seconds left in the half.
Despite a tight score in the first half, Princeton pulled away from Yale in the third quarter.
Minutes into the second half, senior running back Trey Gray outsprinted Yale’s defensive back for a 27-yard gain and slid into the endzone for Princeton’s fourth touchdown of the game.
Senior defensive back Christian Brown continued Princeton’s momentum with a big-time interception.
“Princeton bred me to do my job, trust the guys around me, communicate with the guys next to me, and, when it comes my way, to just capitalize,” Brown said upon reflecting on his huge play.
The offense was able to build on Brown’s interception, with freshman quarterback Niko Vangarelli closing out the next drive with a one-yard rushing touchdown.
Princeton’s defense also ramped up in the third quarter, shutting off Yale’s many attempts to answer Princeton’s touchdowns. Halfway through the quarter, junior defensive back Michael Ruttlen Jr. stopped what could have potentially been a huge play for Yale — an impressive defense effort that was followed by a big tackle by senior defensive back Trevor Forbes.
Their defensive efforts were not enough to stop Yale from scoring entirely, however, as Yale scored a field goal with four minutes left. Going into the final quarter, the score was 35–20.
Both teams elevated their defense in the final quarter, making for a scoreless fourth quarter. With six minutes left in the quarter, Forbes broke up a third-down pass, riling up the crowd. Seconds later, senior defensive back Winston Matthew nearly sacked Harvard’s quarterback.
Despite a missed field goal attempt by senior punter George Triplett, two interceptions by Ruttlen Jr. and senior linebacker Daniel Beard cemented the Tigers’ victory.
“Fourth quarters are usually the most important quarters of the game. It’s good to come out and get ahead early, but the fourth quarter is where you finish — we have a finisher’s mentality,” Classi said.
With a record of 8–1, the Princeton Tigers are tied with Dartmouth for the number one seed in the conference and will seek to secure their spot at the top of the Ivy League in next week’s game. Both Princeton and Dartmouth are heavily favored in their final matchups, facing off against Penn and Brown, respectively. The Quakers and Bears share the bottom seed in the conference, both 2–7 overall and 1–5 in Ivy League play this season. If both the Tigers and Big Green win, they will share the championship.
In addition to helping the team hold its top seed, this victory was especially meaningful for many of the players. On the last home game of the season, senior players — along with their families — were honored for their career achievements in a celebration known as Senior Day.
“Senior day is hard. You’ve got people who are walking you out in maybe your second-to-last game you’ll ever play — and they took you to your first Little League game,” Surace said. “That’s emotional and there’s nothing I can say to take that emotion away other than ‘When the ball gets kicked off, take deep breaths and try to focus as best as you can.’”
This victory also held a larger significance to the greater Princeton community. When Princeton football defeats both Harvard and Yale in the same season, the campus community celebrates with a large bonfire on Cannon Green. The last bonfire occurred in 2018, many seniors’ first year on campus.
“Tonight was an incredibly emotional game,” Surace said. “When [we] win this one, it signifies a bonfire for the community and the supporters, [which is] for everyone else to celebrate.”
This year’s bonfire is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m., a day after the Tigers will hope to lock up the Ivy League title against Penn. So buckle up, Tigers — it’s bonfire time!
Caroline Ji is a contributor to the ‘Prince’ sports section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kyle Tsai is a contributor to the ‘Prince’ sports and video sections. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram at @kyle.tsai_.