Despite a brilliant 154-yard rushing effort by junior Jordan Culbreath, the Princeton football team failed to capitalize on several opportunities and watched a late lead slip away in a 24-20 home loss to defending Ivy League champion Harvard Saturday on Powers Field. Gino Gordon's last touchdown run gave the Crimson its winning margin with 3:34 to go and left Princeton 2-4 overall, 1-2 in the Ivy League.
Princeton, which led by as much as 14-3 in the first half, grabbed a 20-17 lead with 7:16 remaining when Ben Bologna converted on a 28-yard field goal. The 16-play, 87-yard drive gave the Tigers a late lead, but it also gave Harvard plenty of time to score and go ahead. The Crimson converted on a 4th-and-1 midway through the drive on a short pass from Chris Pizzotti to Jason Miller, and followed it up with a 35-yard pass to Matt Luft, who got the ball to the Princeton 6. Two plays later, Gordon went up the middle for the winning points.
The Tigers' final opportunity started off well, as Meko McCray returned the kickoff 31 yards to the Princeton 42. A five-yard pass from Brian Anderson to Will Thanheiser gave Princeton 2nd-and-5, but an incompletion and a sack left the Tigers with a tough 4th-and-18 situation. Flushed out, Anderon hit fullback Matt Zimmerman well short of the marker; Zimmerman tried to pitch the ball to Culbreath, but the two couldn't connect and Harvard took over at the Princeton 32. One first down later, Harvard was celebrating its second straight win over the Tigers.
That celebration came at the expense of another terrific performance by Culbreath, who came in as the Ivy League leader in rushing and posted his second 150-yard day of the season. The career-best total of 154 yards included touchdown runs of 1 and 10 yards, giving Culbreath six touchdowns in as many games and his second two-touchdown performance in three Ivy League games. He helped Princeton to a 177-88 advantage in team rushing and a 353-335 advantage in total offense, but the Crimson came up with another big passing day. Pizzotti completed 17 of 26 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, and he added a 33-yard touchdown run early in the second half to give the Crimson its first lead of the day.
Princeton head coach Roger Hughes employed a two-headed passing attack for much of the day. Starter Brian Anderson, who missed half of last week's Brown game with a non-throwing shoulder injury, alternated with Dan Kopolovich and combined to complete 15 of 29 passes for 176 yards. Anderson was 12 for 24 and nearly had a touchdown at the end of the first half, but his short pass to Will Thanheiser deflected off the receivers' hands and into the hands of Harvard defensive back Matthew Hanson; the play turned a potential of seven points and the likelihood of three points into an empty trip into the red zone, and in a close game like this one, it was another failed opportunity that came back to hurt the Tigers.
"Good teams find a way to make the big play," Hughes said afterwards. "We need to learn how to do it. I was proud of the effort, but clearly we need to execute better in key spots."
Thanheiser did post his third 100-yard receiving day of the season, catching eight passes for 114 yards, while senior Adam Berry added four catches for 40 yards. Berry, whose twin brother Andrew is a starting defensive back for the Crimson, will end his career with a 2-2 all-time record against his brother.
Scott Britton led the Princeton defense with nine tackles, while both Barry Newell, Steve Cody and Pete Ploszek each recorded six stops apiece. Brad Stetler recorded Princeton's first multiple-sack game with a pair of sacks and five tackles, while Pete Buchignani added five tackles and a sack.
The game started off on a positive note for Princeton, as Meko McCray recovered Andrew Berry's muffed punt early in the first quarter and set Princeton up on the Crimson 20. A 14-yard Culbreath run moved Princeton to the 6, and a Kopolovich run eventually set up a 3rd and goal at the 1; what had been something of a dead zone for the Tigers last week would be no problem for Culbreath, who went up the right side of the line for the score.
Harvard battled back for a field goal, but Princeton immediately marched back down the field on a 12-play, 80-yard drive to gain a 14-3 lead. A 15-yard pass to Thanheiser and a 21-yard run by Culbreath keyed the drive, and Culbreath found room off the right side of the line to go in untouched from 10 yards out. That lead held until Pizzotti hit Chris Lorditch from 15 yards out to cut the deficit to 14-10, which stayed that way through the half thanks to Hanson's late interception.
Pizzotti's touchdown run gave Harvard a 17-14 lead, but Bologna, in his second week replacing injured starter Connor Louden, capped a 14-play, 73-yard drive with a 23-yard field goal. The game remained 17-17 through the end of the third quarter, which concluded on a Harvard punt to the Tiger 2. Princeton moved it from its own 2 to the Harvard 4 over the span of 16 plays, but a third down pass that went off Trey Peacock's hands left Princeton to kick the field goal and gave the Crimson an opportunity it would ultimately capitalize on to win the game.
Princeton will head to Cornell next weekend to resume its wild rivalry with the Big Red. The home team has won five straight in the series, which included last year's 34-31 Princeton win on ESPNU; that game featured a 145-yard, two-touchdown performance by Culbreath in his first breakout performance.