On a beautiful fall Saturday, the Princeton (4–5 overall, 3–3 Ivy League) and Yale (6–3, 4–2) football teams met for the 145th time at Powers Field for another rivalry matchup.
“We’re so fortunate to be a part of this amazing rivalry,” Yale head coach Tony Reno told The Daily Princetonian. “Princeton’s got an amazing team … I have so much respect for him [head coach Bob Surace] and his staff. These games always come down to the last play, and we’re fortunate enough to have made the last play.”
With a bonfire on the line, the Princeton community showed up in numbers. On the other side, nearly 1,000 Bulldog fans made the trip down from New Haven, Conn., for the game. Both of these teams were eager to avoid elimination from the Ivy League championship, but only one emerged victorious from today’s matchup: Yale. The Bulldogs asserted their dominance over the Tigers on the field in double overtime with a final score of 36–28.
Prior to the game, the Tigers honored the 18 seniors from the Class of 2023. The senior class includes the likes of linebacker Ozzie Nicholas, linebacker Liam Johnson, quarterback Blake Stenstrom, and offensive lineman Jalen Travis.
“I’m super honored to have been a part of Princeton football for three years,” Stenstrom told the ‘Prince’ postgame. “I’m gonna miss the guys on this team, the relationships I’ve built with them. You can’t put into words how amazing my experience has been, it’s been a real honor, a blessing, and I’ll miss it for sure.”
The Bulldogs did not hesitate to demonstrate their offensive prowess early on. During the past five games, the Bulldogs offense — led by Offensive Coordinator Chris Ostrowsky and quarterback Nolan Grooms — was averaging 30 points per game.
“That’s probably the most talented team in the league,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace said. “They’re a veteran team, and they made some veteran plays. We made more errors today on defense.”
Grooms led the Bulldog offense down the field and scored the opening touchdown within seven minutes. A 24-yard run by Grooms gave the reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year his second rushing touchdown of the season.
After the Yale touchdown, the Princeton offense settled in. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their first drive ended rather quickly. Princeton punted the ball from about midfield, successfully pinning the Bulldogs inside their own 10.
The Princeton defense forced a quick three and out and a Yale punt on the following drive, giving the Princeton offense the ball on the Yale 35-yard line.
On this drive, Stenstrom completed a quick checkdown on second and 10, running the ball five more yards to keep the chains moving to the Yale 30. Two plays later, on another second and 10, Stenstrom snuck a narrow cross route into the hands of junior tight end Tyler Picinic, who secured the ball for a first down.
Shortly after, a screen to junior wide receiver AJ Barber had the Tigers on the precipice of the endzone. Junior running back John Volker clawed his way into the endzone, and the extra point tied the game at seven. Following the score, the Princeton special teams kicked the ball past the endzone, giving the Bulldog offense a fresh start on their own 25.
With a deceitful triple-option offense, Yale easily marched to the Princeton 31-yard line as the first quarter expired. The quarter break proved vital, as Princeton’s defense gathered the energy to trump the Yale drive. First-year defensive lineman London Robinson forced a crucial fumble that was recovered by captain and senior linebacker Liam Johnson.
Throughout the second quarter, both defenses limited the other side’s offense, forcing punts over and over again. On the Tigers’ second drive of the quarter, Volker stampeded 27 yards and drew a personal foul to add 15 more on the play, putting the Tigers on the outskirts of scoring position. Unfortunately for Princeton, their offensive momentum fizzled out with a punt.
Grooms and the Yale offense clawed themselves toward midfield, only to be halted and forced to punt on their next possession. Princeton received the ball on their own 24-yard line. Following the recent trends, the Princeton offense was forced to punt yet again.
On a Yale third down, captain and senior linebacker Ozzie Nicholas sacked Grooms to force yet another punt. Stenstrom and the offense set up shop on their 17-yard line with 2:57 to go in the half. Stenstrom completed a quick 10-yard pass and followed it up with a 22-yard completion caught by the hands of Picinic. The Tiger offense dissipated shortly after.
Perhaps the highlight of the second quarter was when first-year punter Brady Clark pinned the Bulldogs on the one-yard line to prevent a no-huddle offense attack. This marked the seventh straight offensive possession that ended in a punt. The Bulldogs forfeited their drive and decided to run the clock into halftime, with the two sides tied at seven.
The Tigers began the second half with the ball after choosing to defer the coin toss. Right out of the gates, the offense started strong with a Volker rush for a first down. On the next possession, Stenstrom got a completion to set up a second and four. A roughing the passer penalty on the second down would put Surace’s squad in Bulldog territory.
On third and four at the Yale 37, Volker ran 36 yards to the one-yard line. After an illegal substitution penalty, sophomore quarterback Blaine Hipa rushed the ball in for a Tiger touchdown. After the successful extra point by the Tigers, it was 14–7 Princeton.
Princeton 14, Yale 7 | 12:29 3rd— Princeton Football (@PrincetonFTBL) November 11, 2023
Good luck trying to tackle @JohnVolker3!
Volker's 36-yard run sets up the Tigers at the 1-yard line before @BlaineHipa's touchdown!
📺 - @ESPNU
💻 - https://t.co/93VZGad0gj#JUICE 🍊🥤 pic.twitter.com/HWum1D5HSO
Hipa — who was ranked as a three-star recruit by 247 Sports coming out of high school — scored his first collegiate touchdown. Hipa choosing the Tigers was a surprise to many considering he had interest from multiple Power Five schools and an offer from the Tennessee Volunteers. Hipa looks set to be the starting quarterback next season.
“I love Hipa, he’s a great player and he’s been so fun to play with these past two years,” Stenstrom said when asked about his backup quarterback. “He had some great plays today, and the future looks bright.”
His advice for Hipa was as follows: “Keep fighting, this game throws you a lot of punches and it can hit you in the head and knock you down, but you have to keep fighting.”
Grooms and the Yale offense received the ball after the Tiger touchdown but failed to get into opposing territory, punting the ball back to Princeton. With the ball back in their hands, the Tiger’s offensive efforts were derailed by a string of penalties. The offense would get an incompletion on a third and 27 inside their own 10, forcing a punt back to Yale with 8:30 left in the third quarter. The Bulldogs started the possession in Tiger territory after returning the punt 17 yards to the Princeton 48.
On second and nine at the Tiger 47, Grooms completed a 27-yard pass to wide receiver David Pantelis to put the Bulldogs in the red zone. On the following second down, Grooms found star wide receiver Mason Tipton to put his team inside the five. Running back Joshua Pitsenberger later bullied his way into the end zone to tie the game at 14 with 5:35 left in the third quarter.
On a second and eight from their own 41, Stenstrom was sacked by Yale defensive lineman Ezekiel Larry for a loss of seven yards. Unable to complete the third and long, the Tigers punted the ball for the seventh time during the contest.
Yale got things moving quickly after the failed Tiger possession. Grooms completed a pass to Tipton for 41 yards to put them inside Princeton’s territory. However, on third down, Johnson would sack Grooms and end any hopes of a Yale score, forcing a punt from the visitors.
With 15 minutes to go, nothing had separated the two sides, as both teams were trying to survive in the Ivy League title race. Stenstrom was sacked once again by Larry, and with just under 14 minutes remaining in the game, Clark punted the ball back to the Bulldogs.
This time around, Grooms made good use of the field position his defense had awarded him. After a gain of six yards, Grooms completed a pass to Tipton to put the Bulldogs inside the red zone. The following possession, it was Grooms once again to Tipton on a short route. On third down, Grooms spotted wide receiver Joey Felton for a touchdown to make it 21–14 Bulldogs. This marked Felton’s second career touchdown.
“Mason [Tipton] and Nolan [Grooms] have played a lot of football together. They really understand each other and where each other are and how to get open, when to get open. Those two guys have really developed an amazing relationship and have done an amazing job this season,” Reno told the ‘Prince.’
Stenstrom got the ball back at his own 25 and wreaked havoc on the Bulldog defense immediately. A flea-flicker led to a completion to junior wide receiver Luke Colella, resulting in a 75-yard touchdown for the Tigers. Colella has now scored in three straight games, but none were as big as this one against the Bulldogs.
“We’ve been in really tough games … I’m proud of the guys, our guys fought,” Stenstrom told the ‘Prince.’ “Yale’s a really good team, and they deserve the win today. We didn’t play disciplined today and made some mistakes that hurt us.”
Grooms remained composed, as a completion to Tipton followed by a run by Pitsenberger put the Bulldog offense inside the 30. In the following possession, Pitsenberger caught the ball off of a screen pass to put Yale in the red zone. On third and one at the 21, it was Pitsenberger once again who ran through the Princeton defense and into the end zone, making it 28–21 Yale.
Once again, Stenstrom got the offense off to a strong start. On the first play of the drive, Stenstrom completed a pass to sophomore running back Dareion Murphy to give the Tigers a position at midfield. On second down, Stenstrom avoided the sack and ran the ball on the outside corner to get a first down for Princeton.
After running the ball on two consecutive possessions and faced with a fourth down, Stenstrom found Colella for a first down inside the red zone. After getting sacked, the Tigers faced a third and 18 at the Bulldog 32. Stenstrom came out of the pocket and made a heroic completion to junior wide receiver Tamatoa Falatea, giving Princeton a first down.
At the Yale 13, the Tigers marched down to the four-yard line before being faced with yet another fourth down. With a fourth and one, the Tigers would get the extra yard and the first down with just under 35 seconds to go. On the first down, Surace turned to Hipa once more. Hipa delivered, as he completed a pass to Colella. The extra point tied the game at 28, and the game headed to overtime after Yale elected to run the clock down.
During overtime, Yale won the coin toss and chose to allow Princeton to start on offense. On a third and six, Stenstrom completed the pass to Colella to put the Tigers within 10 yards of a touchdown. After losing yardage, it was third and 13 at the 13-yard line. Stenstrom rushed for 11 yards, putting the Tigers in a difficult situation as they faced a fourth and two.
Surace opted to go for it on fourth down, but the Tigers failed to convert. The Bulldogs got the ball at the 25-yard line looking to score either a field goal or a touchdown to end the game. On a fourth down, it was kicker Jack Bosman who missed a potential game-winning 35-yard field goal, taking the storied rivalry into a second overtime period.
The Bulldogs started the second overtime period with the ball and made good use of their opportunity this time around. A quick two-minute drive ended in a touchdown by Pitsenberger again. The mandated two-point conversion was successful after a pass to Tipton.
Down 36–28, Princeton needed to score to keep their Ivy League title hopes alive. Hipa began the overtime period as quarterback and lead the Tigers inside the 10. On third and six, Volker tripped and set up a fourth and three for Princeton. A false start penalty pushed the Tigers back even further. The Yale defense came up big when it mattered most, stopping the Tigers and ending not only the game, but Princeton’s Ivy League title and bonfire hopes.
“We have a 24-hour rule,” Surace told the ‘Prince’ when asked about how the team will respond. “We’ve had some emotional wins and losses. You go to work the next day. We always correct mistakes the next day, and you move on to the opponent.”
Yale will have a chance to win a share of the Ivy League title when they host Harvard (8–1, 5–1) next Saturday in New Haven, Conn. The Crimson came away with an emotional 25–23 overtime victory against the Quakers (6–3, 3–3) today. If the Crimson win next weekend, they will have sole possession of the title. If the Bulldogs win, the league may have three teams (Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth) win a share of the title.
The Tigers, meanwhile, will close out their season in Pennsylvania against the Quakers next Saturday.
Stenstrom would end by saying, “Football is a game that comes down to really close moments. The reason you love it is because you get to play in these awesome games. The reason it hurts so much is because you love it so much.”
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
JP Ohl is a contributor to the Sports section of the ‘Prince.’
Please send corrections to corrections[at]princeton.edu.