In as dominant a team performance as Princeton has seen in several years, the Tiger football team opened its 2012 Ivy League series in impressive fashion with a 33-6 road victory at Columbia Saturday afternoon.
The win is Princeton's first on the road since the finale of the 2009 season, and its first overall since the Columbia game last season. The 27-point margin of victory is Princeton's largest in a span of 63 games, since the 2005 season finale at Dartmouth (30-0).
Most importantly, the win put Princeton exactly where it wanted to be in the Ivy League standings. The Tigers join Cornell, Harvard and Penn atop the Ivy standings; Princeton will return to league action in two weeks when it hosts Brown Oct. 13 at noon on the NBC Sports Network.
Princeton dominated every phase of the game, especially on special teams. Besides the kickoff return for a touchdown by Anthony Gaffney, the Tigers got a touchdown pass on a botched field goal attempt for the second time in as many weeks; this time, Tom Moak found Des Smith in the end zone for a 14-yard field goal.
Freshman Nolan Bieck also bounced back from a tough game against Georgetown with a four-field goal effort. After hitting from 34 yards late in the first half, Bieck connected on kicks of 20, 29 and 24 yards in the second half to keep building the Tiger lead.
The defense limited an opposition without a touchdown for the first time since Week 5 of the 2006 season, a 17-3 victory over Brown. Besides returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Gaffney recorded a pair of interceptions; it was the first time a Princeton player recorded two picks since Kevin Kelleher did so against Columbia in the 2007 season.
Tackles were spread out among the defensive players, with senior Tim Kingsbury recording a team-best seven. Classmate Mandela Sheaffer added six, while lineman Mike Catapano had five, including 1.5 sacks. Elijah Mitchell added two of Princeton's season-best five sacks, while six different players had at least one pass breakup.
Both quarterbacks Connor Michelsen and Quinn Epperly threw for over 100 yards; Michelsen started the game and had a team-best 109 yards passing, while Epperly put the game away with a 44-yard touchdown pass to Roman Wilson in the fourth quarter. Wilson got behind the defensive backs and, following an Epperly scramble and throw, easily trotted into the end zone to build the lead to 27-6.
Wilson had three catches for 73 yards and his first career touchdown, while Connor Kelley added three catches for 44 yards. Freshman Di Andre Atwater ran 13 times for 51 yards, while Epperly and Will Powers combined for 82 yards on 19 carries.
It was the ideal start for Princeton, which opened a 7-0 lead 11 seconds into the game. Gaffney took the kickoff at the Tiger 6 and followed a trio of blockers toward the Columbia sideline. After the first set of blocks, Gaffney did the rest, sprinting down the home sideline for a 94-yard score.
It was Princeton’s first kickoff return since Ivan Charbonneau did it on opening day last season, and it gave the Tigers an early shot of confidence in the Ivy League opener.
The two defenses held up well for most of the first half, but a good Tiger drive early in the second quarter set up the amazing Moak touchdown pass. Another high snap left the Tigers in a precarious spot, but the tight ends did another good job of finding an opening. One week after Mark Hayes caught the touchdown in the right side of the end zone, Moak hit Smith in the left corner for a 14-yard score.
Columbia’s lone scoring drive in the first half could be considered a win for the Princeton defense, which held the Lions on 3rd-and-1 inside the 10. The Tiger offense, led by Quinn Epperly for the first time in the game, drove back and set up a 34-yard field goal by Bieck; it was the freshman’s first career field goal.
Columbia got on the board first in the second half with a 41-yard field goal, but a dropped snap on a punt put Princeton in position for a 20-yard field goal by Bieck. The defense got a quick stop, and Epperly led the Tigers on a six-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in the Wilson touchdown.
Princeton will play its final non-league game of the season next Saturday night when it heads to Fisher Stadium in Easton, Pa., to take on the Lafayette Leopards. Lafayette, which plays Saturday night at Robert Morris, is unbeaten on the season, including a victory over Penn.