Over the last decade, Cornell-Princeton games have typically been decided at the wire, and Saturday's 31-26 Princeton victory at Schoellkopf Field was no exception. Princeton avoided disaster at both the beginning and end of the game and controlled enough of the middle to end a three-game losing streak.
Despite being outgained 555-390 and allowing Cornell to score the first 13 points, Princeton rallied midway through the second quarter and eventually found itself with a 24-19 lead with less than two minutes remaining at the 20. Facing a 4th and 1 situation, everybody in Schoellkopf Field expected Ivy League leading rusher Jordan Culbreath to get the ball; after all, he had rushed for a career-high 169 yards and averaged seven yards per carry. Princeton head coach Roger Hughes had other plans and called a bootleg, which let senior quarterback Brian Anderson roll untouched to the right side of the field as Culbreath drew the other 20 guys to the left. Anderson scored easily and gave Princeton a 31-19 lead with 1:40 left.
In other rivalries, that might have been the end of the drama. In this one, it was just the beginning. Cornell's quick-strike passing attack, which gained 431 yards on the day, drove 58 yards on five plays and scored on a four-yard pass from Nathan Ford to Horat Blackman. The Big Red, which was out of timeouts, lined up for the onsides kick; the second bounce stayed low and went off Chance Cross, and Cornell's Jesse Baker grabbed it with 39 seconds remaining. All of the sudden, a mostly-disspirited crowd of 7,122 got very excited.
Ford hit a 4th and short pass to Zac Canty for nine yards, and following an incompletion, hit Canty on a 31-yard pass to the 15. A false start on a fake spike sent the Big Red back to the 20, where Ford spiked the ball with five seconds left. Four weeks after Cornell beat Lehigh on the final play on a touchdown pass to Jesse Baker, Big Red head coach Jim Knowles called almost the exact same play. Canty lined up on the near side, opposite Cart Kelly, who had one of the defensive plays of the season with an interception in the end zone during the third quarter. Baker sprinted to the goal line and cut to the sideline, and Kelly stayed with him. Forced to throw into a tight area, Ford's pass was too wide and a relieved Princeton team celebrated its win.
"I told the guys that this was a very tough place to win, and I'm really proud of the effort today," Hughes said afterwards. "We made some plays on both sides of the ball to get it done, and I'm really pleased we're leaving with the win."
While Culbreath posted Princeton's biggest numbers with 169 yards and his seventh touchdown of the season, he was far from the only player who posted big numbers for the Tigers. Anderson completed 13 of 17 passes for 160 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Will Thanheiser, who caught six passes for 75 yards. The defense was led by Steven Cody's 11 tackles and one sack and Kelly's nine tackles and one interception. Senior tri-captain Matt Koch was also dominant, making seven tackles from the nose tackle position and knocking down two passes. Princeton ended up with four sacks on the day, including 1.5 from junior Scott Britton.
The game wasn't pretty for Princeton over the first 22 minutes, as the Tigers punted on their first four possessions and didn't get a first down on three of them. Fortunately, the defense forced field goals on two of the Big Red's red-zone trips, which left the score at a manageable 13-0. Princeton found the end zone when Culbreath found the sideline on a 23-yard run midway through the quarter; the junior tailback busted through the line, picked up a block from fullback Ryan Smith and ran past the defense down the sideline for the score.
Following a stop, Anderson hit Smith on a 22-yard seam pattern to get Princeton to the 7-yard-line. A bobbled snap kept the Tigers from giving Culbreath a final shot at the end zone, but Ben Bologna hit an 18-yarder to send the Tigers into halftime down 13-10. The Princeton defense bent but did not break early in the third quarter and forced a punt near midfield, leaving Anderson an opportunity to drive for the go-ahead points. A 28-yard Culbreath run and a 33-yard pass to Joe Magro helped the Tigers get into the red zone, and Anderson finished the drive with a seven-yard bullet to an uncovered Thanheiser in the back left corner of the end zone.
Princeton built the lead to 24-13 early in the fourth quarter. On 3rd and 12, Anderson made an inside cut on an option, forcing an extra defender to him, and then made a late pitch to Culbreath. With more open room than he typically saw, he sprinted down the left sideline for 52 yards. A touchdown-saving tackle by Tim Bax kept Princeton out of the end zone temporarily, but Anderson hit Thanheiser on a wheel route on the very next play for a 20-yard score.
Cornell finally found the end zone again when Ford hit Bryan Walters for a 43-yard touchdown pass 36 seconds after Thanheiser's touchdown. The two-point attempt, a pass over the middle, would fail, which ended up being a key play late in the game. Both teams failed on their next two possessions, including a Cornell attempt at its own 29 with less than three minutes remaining. Three runs by Culbreath forced Cornell to use its timeouts and set up the 4th and 1; into a slight wind, Hughes passed up on the potential 37-yard field goal and called the bootleg that put Princeton back up 12 points with less than two minutes remaining.
This was the second straight game Princeton held off a late rally attempt by Cornell; last season, in a game played on ESPNU, Princeton got 145 yards on the ground and two touchdowns from Culbreath in a 34-31 win over the Big Red. Princeton will return to ESPNU this Friday night when it welcomes Penn to Powers Field at Princeton Stadium at 7 p.m. This will be the 100th meeting in the historic rivalry; the last two have been among the most and least exciting contests between the local foes. In 2006, during Princeton's championship season, Princeton won 31-30 in double overtime in the game that will be forever remembered for the fourth down pitchback from Rob Toresco to Jeff Terrell in overtime (see it here). Last season, both teams combined for one lonely touchdown in a 7-0 Quaker victory.