Ray Lewis may be considered one of the greatest linebackers of all time, and Ed Reed may join him one day in the Hall of Fame. If either matches the performances of Jay McCareins '06 against Jim Harbaugh this Sunday, they'll be on their way to Super Bowl MVP honors.
Harbaugh, who will lead the San Francisco 49ers into the Super Bowl against a Baltimore Ravens team coached by his brother John (in case you hadn't heard), began his coaching career at the University of San Diego, where he guided the Toreros to an impressive record of 29-6 over three years. One third of his losses came against Princeton, and both had plenty to do with 2005 All-America honoree Jay McCareins.
In his first season as head coach, Harbaugh and the Toreros hosted Princeton in the Tigers' first ever game against a California school. Princeton led 14-0 early in the second quarter when San Diego quarterback Todd Mortensen was picked off by McCareins, who returned the interception 36 yards for the score. Those points would provide the winning margin in a 24-17 road win for the Tigers.
That would be a mere appetizer for McCareins.
San Diego came to Princeton the following season with a perfect record, thanks to a comeback win over Yale the previous weekend. It was a team bound for 11 wins and a Pioneer Conference title, and it was led by quarterback Josh Johnson, who would be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008.
Neither Harbaugh nor Johnson had an answer for McCareins, who picked off three passes and returned one 99 yards for a touchdown in a 20-17 home win on Sept. 24, 2005. He ended the game with 229 all-purpose yards (69 punt return, 47 kickoff return, 113 interception return) and seven passes defensed (three interceptions, four breakups).
No breakup was more exciting or meaningful than the final one, when San Diego had its eyes on the go-ahead score. On 3rd-and-8 at the Princeton 13 yard line and trailing 13-10, Johnson fired towards the front right corner of the end zone. The play seemed open, but McCareins stepped in front of the pass and sprinted down the Princeton sideline for a 99-yard touchdown.
Not only did Jim Harbaugh watch McCareins' game-clinching sprint to the end zone, but so did his guest on the sideline; big brother John, then the special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, was in Princeton Stadium for the game. Ironically, the Eagles were coming off a victory the previous weekend over the San Francisco 49ers.
McCareins would earn All-America honors in 2005, a feat matched this previous season by both Caraun Reid and Mike Catapano. His 99-yard interception for a touchdown had been Princeton's longest until Trocon Davis returned one 100 yards in a 29-7 victory at Yale this past season, and McCareins' memorable 93-yard kickoff return at Harvard later that season had been the team's longest until freshman Anthony Gaffney took one 94 yards in the 33-6 win at Columbia in the 2012 Ivy League opener.