Oct. 5, 2002
NEW YORK, N.Y. - A game that featured everything from a blocked punt to a Hail Mary to a 19-play touchdown drive ended the only way Princeton cared - a win. A pair of touchdown passes by David Splithoff, including a 50-yard bomb to end the first half, helped the Tigers earn a thrilling 35-32 win over Columbia Saturday in front of 9,103 fans at Wien Stadium.
The win was Princeton's fifth straight over Columbia, and it marked the third time in as many years under head coach Roger Hughes that Princeton won its league opener. It also marked the first time in Hughes' tenure that the Tigers' stood at the .500 mark. The Tigers are tied with Harvard, Penn and Yale atop the league standings.
And it took quite an effort to get there. Splithoff ended the day 14-for-19 with 202 yards and the two touchdowns. He was sacked five times and was hit a number of other times by the tough Columbia defensive line. Cameron Atkinson earned his sixth career 100-yard rushing game and scored once, but it was backup Jon Veach's second-half running that helped Princeton pull away. Veach had two touchdowns, including a 17-yard run in the fourth quarter that finally gave the Tigers a two-score lead.
"I knew Columbia was going to be tough," Hughes said. "They played very hard. If you told me we'd have [three] turnovers, have a punt blocked for a safety... I'd have thought we'd lose by 30. I'm very proud of my team. We found a way to win when the game was on the line."
The Tigers' defense made an early impact, forcing a fumble that was jumped on by defensive back Blake Perry. Columbia's defense rose to the challenge, though, sacking Splithoff on a third down to force a 47-yard field goal attempt by Ivy League Rookie of the Week Derek Javarone. The kick had enough distance but sailed wide left.
Special teams issues continued a few minutes later, as a Columbia punt bounced towards return man Andy Bryant. The senior attempted to catch it as it moved deeper into Princeton territory, but it bounced out of his hands and was recovered by Vinnie Mascari. Columbia took advantage, moving 32 yards down the field and scoring on an eight-yard pass from Steve Hunsberger to Steve Cargile.
Princeton took its ensuing possession into the red zone, but a fumble by Branden Benson kept the Tigers off the scoreboard. Princeton held Columbia on three downs and began its next possession on the 35-yard line after an interference penalty on the punt. Princeton evened the score with an eight-yard run by Atkinson on the first play of the second quarter.
Princeton's best offensive drive in the second quarter ended when linebacker Chuck Britton broke free on a blitz and tipped a Splithoff pass high into the air. The only player close to it was Columbia's middle linebacker, Chris Carey. The junior made the pick and returned it three yards. The Princeton defense, which spent most of the first knocking Hunsberger to the turf, again stopped Columbia on three downs, but a fake punt worked to perfection, and punter Nick Rudd broke down the right sideline for 29 yards. Columbia ended up scoring on a two-yard run by Derek Smith with 37 seconds remaining. The Lions were aided by a pass interference call in the end zone on a failed third-down conversion attempt.
Any momentum Columbia might have taken into halftime was destroyed in a thrilling final 10 seconds. Following a short pass to Atkinson near midfield, Splithoff broke free from a tackle attempt and sprinted out of bounds at the 50-yard line. With five seconds remaining, Splithoff rolled right, received a major block from fullback Joel Mancl and hurled a perfect spiral directly into the waiting hands of wide receiver Patrick Schottel. The score sent the Princeton sideline into a frenzy and sent the team into halftime with a 14-14 tie.
Princeton opened its first lead of the game when Jon Veach leaped over the line for a one-yard score with 5:55 remaining in the quarter. The sophomore runner carried the ball the final five times on the drive for 33 yards. Princeton got the ball following a Columbia turnover in Tiger territory. Kevin Kongslie recovered a fumble after Paul Simbi stripped Travis Chmelka of the ball.
Columbia cut the deficit to 21-16 with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter. Following a three-and-out, linebacker Chuck Britton got through the line and blocked Joe Nardello's punt into the back of the end zone. It could have been worse for the Tigers had the ball remained in the end zone, but the block sent the ball clear over the back line. It was the first time Princeton had a punt blocked since Brendan Buchanan did it for Brown last season.
Following a defensive stand, Columbia retook the lead on another short run by Smith. Hunsberger had two long runs on the drive, both of which converted first downs. His second run came on third and 10 from the 19-yard line, and ended up giving Columbia first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Hunsberger added the two-point conversion on a quarterback keeper. Columbia held a 24-21 lead with 13:50 remaining in regulation.
Princeton wasted little time reclaiming the lead. Following a 25-yard run by Atkinson, Veach broke a tackle in the middle of the line, found the right sidelines and carried one final Columbia tackler over the goal line for a 17-yard run.
Following two defensive stands, Princeton finally gave itself some breathing room. With 4:30 remaining in the game, Splithoff took the snap and rolled right, where he had thre receivers. The defense lost track of tight end Randy Bly, who drifted alone to the left sideline. Before taking a hit, Splithoff lofted a pass to his sophomore tight end, who was never challenged on the way to his first career touchdown.
Since nothing ever comes easy for this team, Columbia made sure to make the final minute count by going on a 19-play drive to answer the Bly score. The scoring play was a four-yard pass that Steve Cargile leapt high above the competition to bring down. To make it even more dramatic, Smith caught a deflection on the two-point conversion.
Princeton put the game away when Brendan Dillon recovered the onsides kick.
Princeton will play its final game outside of the Ivy League next weekend when it hosts Colgate at 1 p.m. It will be the first of three consecutive contests at Princeton Stadium.