Hail Mary Heartbreak; Football Team Stunned On Final Play Against Columbia
Oct. 4, 2003
PRINCETON, N.J. - The Hail Mary giveth. The Hail Mary taketh away. One season after riding a 50-yard bomb on the final play of the first half to a 35-32 win at Columbia, the Princeton football team fell victim to a 49-yard touchdown pass on the final play of a crushing 33-27 loss to the Lions in the Ivy League opener for both teams. In the middle of a group of players on the right side of the end zone, Wade Fletcher found the game-winning pass from Jeff Otis, inciting a wild celebration from the Columbia sideline.
For Columbia, it was the first win at Princeton since 1945. The Tigers, who had a 23-0-1 record at home over Columbia since a 32-7 loss that season, looked like they would cruise to a win after the first quarter. Princeton held a 20-0 lead after one quarter, but wouldn't score again until there were 26 seconds remaining in the contest. A one-yard touchdown run by Branden Benson ended a 27-0 run by Columbia, but the Lions made the most of their final 26 seconds. Prosper Nwokocha returned the kickoff to the Columbia 33-yard line to start the drive. Following an incompletion, Otis found Pete Chromiak at the Princeton 49-yard-line with five seconds left. Following a timeout, Otis took the next snap, eluded a three-man rush and stepped up before heaving a long pass into the end zone. The pass was never tipped, and unfortunately for Princeton, it also never hit the ground. Fletcher caught it two yards inside the back line to complete the miraculous victory.
Princeton's rushing attack had its strongest game of the season, running for 208 yards on 43 carries. Branden Benson gained 102 yards on 17 rushes and scored twice for the first multiple-touchdown game of his career. Jon Veach added 99 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown. Columbia's passing attack was stronger, though, passing for 326 yards and one backbreaking touchdown.
In a game full of surprises, the first of the game came on Princeton's first turn at defense. On third-and-long, senior co-captain and 2002 starting quarterback Dave Splithoff made his long-awaited return, except it was in the defensive backfield. After missing half of last season and most of the 2003 preseason with a shoulder injury, the Tigers brought the athletic Glendale, Ill., native in to bolster a young secondary that played without senior All-Ivy cornerback, who missed the game after suffering an ankle injury the week earlier at Lafayette.
Princeton gained its first lead of the season on its second possession. Following a pair of penalties that forced Princeton into a 3rd-and-17, Verbit scrambled away from a rush and hit a deep out pattern to junior wideout B.J. Szymanski, who was in single coverage. Szymanski broke one tackle attempt and sprinted up the right sidelines for the game-opening touchdown. It was Szymanski's third straight touchdown reception of at least 70 yards (73 against Colgate last season and 75 against Lehigh in the 2003 opener).
After stopping Columbia on its next possession, Princeton drove the ball 58 yards to score a second straight touchdown. Following an 11-yard pass to Eric Walz to open the drive, the Tigers turned to junior Branden Benson to lead them to the end zone.The bruising runner carried the ball five times in the next eight plays, the last of which was a two-yard sweep into the end zone. The Tigers, which had yet to make two consecutive extra points in any game this season, continued that tradition by botching the snap and failing the attempt.
After forcing its third straight three-and-out, the Princeton defense went on the move again. This time, it was junior Jon Veach taking over, rushing five times for 41 yards on a touchdown drive, Veach scored on a five-yard run up the middle to score the third touchdown of the quarter. While Veach had most of the plays, the biggest play of the drive came on a 42-yard play-action pass to Szymanski. In the first quarter, Szymanski outgained Columbia 113-30.
Columbia got its offense in gear and drove 60 yards in 13 plays to get on the scoreboard. After a sack by Tim Kirby stalled Columbia's attempt at the end zone, Columbia kicker Nick Rudd converted on a 31-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 20-3. The Lions proceeded to stop Princeton's next drive, and got the ball back with eight minutes remaining in the half. The Lions went on another long drive, this time 14 plays, but once again, the Princeton defense refused to allow Columbia into the end zone. Splithoff covered tight end Mike Pezley on a third-and-goal attempt, and Columbia settled for a 25-yard field goal by Rudd.
With momentum on its side, the Columbia defense again stuffed Princeton on its first set of downs. Jeff Roether's third sack of the season forced Princeton to punt, and that worked out just fine for the Lions. Travis Chmelka grabbed the punt on the first bounce and sprinted up the middle of the Princeton coverage. After going untouched past the first 10 Tigers, it was a race down the sidelines with only punter Colin McDonough to beat. While McDonough did make a touchdown-delaying tackle on Chmelka, Ayo Oluwole broke through the line for a two-yard touchdown run to cut the score to 20-13.
With 1:30 remaining in the half, Princeton called a draw play for Benson to open the drive, and the junior took it down the left sideline 34 yards to the Columbia 31-yard line. A middle screen to Benson for the ball to the 19-yard line, where Princeton called timeout with 1:02 remaining. A sack and a short rush kept Princeton from the end zone, and Derek Javarone hooked a 37-yard field goal attempt to end the first half.
Columbia looked to tie the score on its first drive of the second half, and was well on its way after converting on a pair of third downs. On both conversions, quarterback Jeff Otis picked up the linebacker blitz and found an open receiver on a quick slant. Inside the red zone, Princeton would again blitz on third down, but the result would be significantly different. This time, it was Splithoff on the blitz, and Otis threw it up for grabs into the end zone right before the hit. Senior Sam Snyder jumped the route and picked off the pass in the end zone, giving Princeton its first takeaway of the season. The Tigers were unable to convert on the turnover, despite driving 58 yards, mostly due to the strong running of Benson. On 4th-and-1 at the Columbia 22-yard-line, the Lions contained a Benson sweep to take over on downs.
Otis led Columbia back down the field, and nearly evened the score on a pass intended for Fletcher in the end zone. Linebacker Rob Holuba stabbed at the pass and knocked it away at the last second. Rudd made sure the drive would yield points, hitting on a 38-yard field goal to cut the deficit to four points.
Princeton's next possession lasted 27 seconds before the Lions took over on a punt. Once again, the Lions drove inside the red zone, but was left to kick a 20-yard field after Tim Strickland broke up a touchdown attempt on 3rd-and-goal at the 3-yard-line. Rudd's fourth field goal tied a single-game record for Columbia for converted field goals in a game. It was Columbia's fifth time inside the red zone, and the fourth time that it couldn't score a touchdown.
While Princeton dearly needed something positive to happen on offense, it got the exact opposite. After a failed rush and a failed pass, Verbit was blitzed on third-and-10 and hit hard by Keenan Shaw. He lost the ball, his fourth fumble of the season, and Chris Sullivan recovered at the Princeton 28-yard-line. Otis got Columbia down to 1-yard line on a 13-yard keeper, and then scored on a broken play to give Columbia its first lead of the game. Otis found Pezley on the two-point conversion to open a 27-20 lead.
Finally, the Tigers found its offense, especially its running game, on the ensuing drive. The Tigers ran the ball 12 times on a 16-play drive, including a fourth-down conversion by Verbit on an option. Veach did the majority of the work on the drive, but on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, the Tigers called Benson's number. He was hit first before the goal line, but second effort and a block by senior Mike Chiusano got Benson into the end zone.
Princeton stays home next week to take on the Colgate Raiders in the Tigers' final nonleague game of the season (1 p.m., Patriot Media TV, Moneytalk 1350, WPRB 103.3 FM, GoPrincetonTigers.com). Princeton scored on a 73-yard touchdown pass from Splithoff to Szymanski in the final three minutes to rally past the Raiders 14-10 last season.