Sophomore Jordan Culbreath first announced his presence late in a 48-27 loss to Hampton, but it was barely noticed. That would be no such problem Friday night, as the sophomore tailback set a rainy Princeton Stadium ablaze during a 34-31 victory over Cornell on ESPNU. Culbreath rushed for a career-high 145 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a 58-yard burst in the fourth quarter that provided the winning margin. That touchdown would be shown as SportsCenter's "Top Play," marking the second straight season a Tiger player has earned that distinction.
Culbreath, the No. 2 tailback following an injury to Kenny Gunter, excelled in the opportunity. He became Princeton's first 100-yard rusher in 16 games, since Rob Toresco gained 130 in a 30-0 win at Dartmouth in the 2005 season finale, and he gained more yards than any Princeton rusher since Jon Veach ran for 205 yards in a 2003 game at Harvard.
"I think we have recruited more athletic players in the last couple years, and we're starting to see the results," head coach Roger Hughes said after Princeton ended its three-game losing streak and improved to 2-0 all-time on ESPNU. "In past years, maybe we only had one tailback. Injuries happen, but when you have two or three guys, you can survive. Jordan got a chance to play tonight, and he made the most of it."
Culbreath was the driving force, but he was far from the only Tiger to succeed in the running game. Despite missing rushing leader Bill Foran, who was injured at Harvard, Princeton ran for 283 yards and scored four touchdowns on the ground. Starting quarterback Greg Mroz ran the ball eight times for 64 yards and a touchdown, while Rob Toresco added seven rushes for 26 yards. Senior wide receiver Brendan Circle, who became the seventh Princeton player to record at least 100 career receptions, added a 22-yard touchdown run on a fake field goal.
Mroz' passing numbers may not turn heads, but he led an efficient offense all night. He completed 10 passes, including a touchdown strike to Toresco, and was picked off only after a pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Circle caught five of the passes for 62 yards, while Toresco added three more and is now only 10 away from the 100-catch mark.
Junior Collin McCarthy led the defense with a career-high 14 tackles, while sophomore Joel Karacozoff continued his strong play with 10 tackles, including two for loss, and a sack. Sophomore John Callahan recorded nine tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and Cart Kelly, Dan Kopolovich and Wilson Cates all recorded interceptions. Princeton, which has been killed in turnover margin over the last three weeks, was +5 on the day.
Cornell did have a chance to force overtime following Culbreath's 59-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but kicker Peter Zell's 47-yard field goal attempt was wide right with nine seconds remaining in regulation.
The first spark the players received came 22 minutes before kickoff. Following pregame warmups, the Tigers returned to the locker room to find new orange jerseys hanging in their lockers.
"I had this planned since last year, and I didn't tell a single player or coach about it," Hughes said. "This is a tough week, with mid-terms, and I just felt the players could use a spark, something to loosen them up. They were really ready to play, and I think that gave them a little extra boost."
It worked, as Princeton scored first for only the second time this season. The Tigers' first scoring drive came after a blitzing Callahan seperated Cornell quarterback Nathan Ford from the ball, which was recovered by nose tackle Matt Koch. The recovery, his second in three weeks, set the Princeton offense up at the 27-yard line. It took Mroz four plays to drive Princeton into the end zone, half of which were 12-yard runs by the quarterback. The last one gave Princeton a 7-0 lead with 9:36 remaining in the quarter.
Cornell evened the score at 7 on the final play of the first quarter, and it completed a methodical 10-play, 56-yard drive that featured a 6-for-6 pass attempt performance by Ford. The final completion was a brilliant touch pass into the front left corner of the end zone, where Zac Canty outleaped a Princeton defender and stayed inbounds for the score.
Princeton went ahead 14-7 on the first touchdown in Culbreath's career, a 49-yard sprint down the right sideline. He took an option pitch from Mroz, slipped a tackle attempt from Mark Longo, avoided another diving attempt and made his way down the side. The final would-be tackler was taken care of by Circle, who drove a defender back into the end zone to allow a clear path for the sophomore runner.
Ford had a Cornell-record string of 19 straight completions end on the ensuing drive, when Dan Kopolovich knocked away a pass intended for Horatio Blackman. The tip bounced into the waiting hands of sophomore Wilson Cates, who recorded his first career interception on the play.
Princeton could do nothing on the ensuing drive, and Ryan Coyle's punt attempt was blocked by Jesse Baker, who came up the middle and got a hand on the kick. The ball was recovered by Blackman, who advanced it to the Tiger 12-yard-line. One play later, Ford and Canty hooked up again for a 12-yard touchdown. This one came on a crossing route, which gave the Cornell junior an untouched path into the end zone.
Princeton went back ahead following another turnover forced by the Tiger defense. Sophomore Joel Karacozoff, who impressed the Tiger faithful at Harvard following an injury to Aaron Carter, tipped Ford's pass at the line of scrimmage. Cart Kelly picked it off and returned it 35 yards to the Cornell 13-yard-line. On third and 4, Mroz rolled away from a rush and found Toresco along the right sideline; the senior fullback, who trails only Judd Garrett in career receptions by a running back, took the pass back to the middle of the field and dove into the end zone. The extra point was unsuccessful following a high snap, and Princeton held a 20-14 lead with slightly under four minutes remaining.
Cornell regained the lead with a nine-play, 65-yard drive that ended on a five-yard touchdown run by Barbour. Princeton appeared to gain another interception midway through the drive, but Kevin Kelleher's diving grab was ruled out of bounds. Ford took advantage of the second chance and moved the Big Red effectively into the lead.
The offensive onslaught didn't end there, though, as Princeton took a final shot at the lead before intermission. A 22-yard run by Culbreath following a good Pete Ploszek kickoff return gave Connor Louden a chance at a 39-yard field goal. At least, that's what everybody thought. Instead, it turned into a 22-yard touchdown run by Circle, who took the snap, broke to the left and picked up a block from Matt Reynolds en route to the end zone. The play followed two Cornell timeouts, both in hopes of icing the kicker. The same strategy would benefit Princeton later in the evening.
Cornell tacked on a field goal to open a 31-27 lead and was on the move again before Kelleher knocked the ball out of Baker's hands, and the ball was recovered by Dan Kopolovich. Cornell regained the ball immediately, as Frank Kunis tipped a Mroz pass, which was intercepted by Gus Krimm and returned to the Princeton 14-yard-line. A sack by Karacozoff on third down force a 39-yard field goal attempt by Zell, who pulled his attempt left of the goalpost.
After two defensive stands, Culbreath made his highlight run. Following a holding call, Culbreath took an option pitch from Mroz, followed clearing blocks by Toresco and Berry and found the left sidelines. Instead of getting boxed in, he made a brilliant cutback into the middle of the field, then found the sideline again to avoid the oncoming safety. He sprinted into the end zone for a 34-31 lead.
Cornell attempted to get it all back on the next drive, but Ford's bomb attempt was picked off by a diving Kopolovich at the 24-yard-line. Princeton moved the ball down the field and ate up most of the clock, but a fourth-down stop gave the Big Red one last chance. A composed Ford moved Cornell to the 30-yard-line with nine seconds remaining, and Zell came in to attempt a 47-yarder. His first kick was good by plenty, but it came following a timeout by Hughes. His second kick also had the distance, but it was wide right.
Princeton will travel to Penn next weekend for a noon showdown on Comcast channel CN8. Princeton has won two straight over Penn, including last year's memorable 31-30 double-overtime win at Princeton Stadium, which featured the 4th-and-goal pitch back from Rob Toresco to Jeff Terrell that ESPN listed as its "Play of the Day."