PRINCETON, N.J. - Esteemed sportswriter Grantland Rice, who termed the 1922 Princeton football squad the "Team of Destiny," once wrote that "a team that won't be beaten can't be beaten." In front of a raucous home crowd Saturday afternoon, the 2006 Tigers, ranked 21st nationally, took on the No. 15 Harvard Crimson in the first undefeated showdown between the two legendary programs since 1922. Despite trailing in the fourth quarter, Princeton decided that it, also, would not be beaten on this day. And for the sixth straight time this magical season, the Tigers were right.
A 20-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Terrell to Brendan Circle and a pair of interceptions by Kevin Kelleher highlighted a tense, Princeton-dominated final five minutes in a 31-28 victory over the Crimson. Princeton rallied from a second-half deficit to win for the fourth time this season, but there was definitely something special about this one. The Tigers defeated Harvard for the first time ever at Princeton Stadium and now share first place in the Ivy League with Yale, which topped Penn 17-14 in overtime.
While the offense scored the winning points, it was the team defensive effort against longtime Princeton killer Clifton Dawson that gave the Tigers a chance to win. Dawson, who did score three touchdowns in the win and surpassed the Ivy League career record for rushing touchdowns, came into the game averaging more than 195 yards per game against the Tigers, but he rushed for only 64 yards on Saturday. Backup quarterback Liam O'Hagan did most of the Harvard damage both on the ground and through the air; he rushed for 89 yards and threw for 168 yards, including a touchdown.
But for the second straight season, O'Hagan's counterpart left the game with the win. Terrell, who is now 13-3 as a starter and has led Princeton to nine wins in its last 10 games, threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns, and he added 32 yards rushing and another touchdown. Once again, Circle was Terrell's favorite target; the junior wideout caught six passes for 114 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
Princeton picked off four passes in the win (two for Kelleher, one apiece for Luke Steckel and Tom Hurley). J.J. Artis had a team-high eight tackles, including five solo stops, while Mike Meehan added six stops, two pass breakups and one tackle for loss. The defensive line recorded several tipped passes, including the final one of the day for O'Hagan, which ended in Kelleher's hands to conclude Harvard's final scoring attempt.
"I'm really proud of the character of this team," head coach Roger Hughes said after leading Princeton to its first 6-0 start since 1995. "We have a lot of respect for the Harvard offense and Clifton Dawson, who will probably be the leading rusher in Ivy League history. We did a good job running to the ball and finding him."
Harvard opened a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game. Following a three-and-out from the Harvard defense, Michael Berg came right up the middle and blocked Colin McDonough's punt, which was recovered by the Crimson on the 20-yard-line. It was the first time any opponent has ever blocked a McDonough punt, and the Crimson didn't waste any time taking advantage. Starting quarterback Chris Pizzotti found Dawson on a center screen, and the All-America candidate did the rest, following his blockers and driving a last defender into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Princeton showed the same resiliency it has demonstrated all season on the following drive. Terrell engineered a 9-play, 76-yard drive and capped it with a 29-yard touchdown run of his own. His own 3rd-and-1 surge earlier kept the drive going, and following a 3rd-and-9 completion to Adam Berry, he kept on an option with Toresco and sprinted down the middle of the field. Daniel Tanner had an arm on the Tiger quarterback, but Terrell refused to be pulled down and carried his last man into the end zone.
The defense built on that momentum in two plays. Following a short Dawson run, Tom Methvin tipped a Pizzotti pass that sophomore cornerback Tom Hurley was able to run down. His sliding grab gave Princeton its first short field of the game, the Harvard 29-yard-line. A first down by Pete Ploszek and another completion to Rob Toresco put the ball at the 5-yard-line, and Connor Louden drilled a 22-yard field goal to give Princeton a 10-7 lead with 3:36 remaining in the first quarter.
Harvard drove to midfield before JJ Artis knocked down a third-down pass thrown to Corey Mazza. The Crimson called a fake punt, but the snap was delivered well over the head of upback Matt Curtis. Linebacker Collin McCarthy recovered the fumble all the way back on the Crimson 12-yard-line. On third down, Terrell found Jake Staser in the front right corner of the end zone for a 17-7 lead. Staser was able to shield Tanner off the ball and brought in the pass for his second touchdown of the season.
Following a pair of defensive stands, Harvard got good field position on another special teams miscue. This time, a short punt that took a Harvard bounce came to a stop on the Princeton 29-yard-line. A penalty gave the Crimson a first-and-goal at the 5-yard-line, and Dawson took it around the right side of the line for a touchdown. Harvard held a lead at that point, but it was also the last time the Crimson would get any help from the three-time All-Ivy punter. McDonough averaged 48.5 yards per punt in the game and recorded punts of 64, 61 and 59 yards.
Princeton received quite a scare on its next possession, as Terrell was hit in the head on a scramble and stayed on the field for a couple minutes. The trainers kept him out the remainder of the first half, but he was fine to start the second half. His time on the bench gave backup and special teams standout Bill Foran a chance to engineer a scoring drive of his own. Following a defensive stand and a short Harvard punt, Foran took the offense at midfield and led the Tigers on a 10-play scoring drive. On a 4th-and-6 at the 25, Hughes called for Foran to handle the play, and the sprinter got the first down by eluding a rush to his left and sprinting down the left sideline for the first down. He kept on the next play, and sensing over-pursuit to Foran by the Crimson defense, Hughes called a misdirection run to Lagomarsino. He found room on the right side of the line and used his shifty speed to find the end zone. That gave Princeton a 24-14 lead at halftime.
After both teams traded third-half punts, Harvard put together an impressive 93-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to three points. Harvard gambled early on a 4th-and-inches quarterback sneak inside the Crimson red zone, but O'Hagan picked up the first down, then moved the offense into the Princeton half of the field with a quarterback keeper. A controversial catch by Mazza on a deep out moved the ball into the red zone, and Dawson scored his third touchdown of the game to cut the deficit to 24-21.
Princeton used a play that scored a touchdown one week earlier to move into Crimson territory. Terrell found Circle on a slant, and Circle spun out of the tackle and found the left sideline for a 62-yard completion. A holding call moved the Tigers back 10 yards, and on a 4th-and-long, Terrell's attempt was picked off by Andrew Berry and returned to the Harvard 48-yard-line. O'Hagan moved them down the field and threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Corey Mazza in the front right corner of the end zone.
Princeton would be stopped on its next three drives, but each time the defense would come up with a stand of its own. One was made by Steckel, who intercepted wide receiver Chris Sanders' pass out of a reverse. That put the ball at the Princeton 39-yard-line with 7:40 remaining. On third-and-13, Terrell hit Brian Brigham on a deep post for 19 yards, and following a six-yard run by Terrell, Princeton gained a first down on a Harvard penalty. Two plays later, Terrell found Circle on a crossing pattern at the 5-yard-line, and Circle would not be denied the score. It was another tough grab for Circle, who seems to thrive in the middle of the field.
"It was something my high school coach told me," Circle said after the game. "He told me that you're going to get hit, so you might as well catch it. We were moving down the field all game, but stupid things were stopping us. We knew sooner or later, we'd get it in."
It might have been later, but it wasn't too late. The Louden PAT gave Princeton a 31-28 lead, and Harvard's first drive ended in three plays, as Kelleher stepped in front of an O'Hagan pass and returned it to the Crimson 21-yard-line. A resilient Harvard defense stopped Princeton and blocked Louden's field goal attempt, but with only one timeout remaining at that point, the Crimson had to move down the field quickly. A fourth-down pass to Mazza moved the ball to the Harvard 42-yard-line, but the next pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Jake Marshall and grabbed out of the air by Kelleher.
"I didn't see the ball when it was tipped, but I saw it in midair," Kelleher said after recording Princeton's third multiple-interception game of the season. "I let my receiver go at that point and just made a break at the ball. I caught it and went straight down afterwards."
That play set off another wild celebration from Princeton's strong fanbase, which included a loud and passionate student section.
"It was great to have that roar from the crowd on all those third and fourth down plays," Kelleher said.
"There is definitely a buzz around campus for this team, and it's a credit to Coach Hughes and his staff for building this," Circle added. "But it's also a credit to (co-captains) Jeff Terrell and Luke Steckel, who lead us every week. It was a great crowd, and hopefully we have another couple of them this season."
Before its next home game Nov. 4 against Penn, Princeton will travel to Ithaca, N.Y., for a 1 p.m. showdown with Cornell next Saturday, Oct. 28. Cornell has won five of the last six home games against the Tigers, including 2004 and 2000 games that were won with blocked extra points. While Princeton has won six straight road games, dating back to last season, Cornell has won two straight impressive home contests against Albany and Colgate. The game can be heard locally on WBUD 1260 AM and on the internet at GoPrincetonTigers.com.