It was 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard-line, and more than a game was on the line. Dreams of a championship, born out of last season's devastating home loss to Yale, were on the line as well. Junior Rob Toresco realized he wasn't going to get to that line, but he made sure his teammates would. His pitch to Jeff Terrell led Princeton to the game-winning touchdown in a 31-30 double-overtime win over Penn Saturday at Princeton Stadium. Penn came back with a 25-yard strike to Matt Carre, but a botched snap on the extra-point attempt cost Penn its third straight overtime game and sent Princeton into that first-place showdown with Yale.
After watching a 14-point lead evaporate in a fourth quarter filled with big Penn plays, Princeton and Penn played a scoreless first overtime with a pair of failed field goal attempts. Penn tried first, but the snap was dropped by holder Matt Reinert and Pat McGrath made a drive-ending tackle to set Princeton up with a score-to-win opportunity. Following a first down by Toresco, Princeton was stopped on its next three plays, and sophomore Connor Louden's field goal attempt was blocked at the line of scrimmage.
That set up the wild second overtime, one which will long be remembered by the Princeton faithful. The Tigers started with an incomplete pass and a holding call, setting up a 2nd-and-20 at the 35-yard-line. Terrell responded with one of his prettiest passes of the year, a 32-yard deep corner that fell over the hands of a Penn defender and was secured by a diving Brian Brigham. Two rushes by Toresco, one which appeared to reach the goal line but was ruled short, and a third by Terrell got Princeton within inches of the end zone. Head coach Roger Hughes decided to forego the field goal attempt and called an inside run to Toresco, who was hit a yard behind the line of scrimmage. Toresco bounced and tried to keep moving, but another Penn defender appeared and seemed poised to bring the feisty runner down.
Toresco had other ideas. He heard Terrell yelling behind him and pitched the ball to the senior quarterback, who scored his fourth touchdown untouched by sprinting in the right corner of the end zone.
"The refs are going to be more leniant on the goal line," Toresco said afterwards. "I was still driving my legs when I heard Jeff. When you play football long enough, you learn that you just have to make the play."
"Playing in the backyard pays off," Terrell added.
The score and Louden's extra point gave Princeton a 31-24 lead, but a resilient Penn squad was primed for another big play. Quarterback Robert Irvin, who became the first 300-yard passer against Princeton in the span of 16 games, faked a short pass and found Matt Carre in the deep right corner of the end zone. It was another swing of the emotional pendulum, and it sent the Penn sideline into delirium.
Unfortunately for Penn, which has lost three straight overtime games on special teams miscues, there was a final swing to come. The snap was low and bounced to Reinert, who tried to run it in to the left corner of the end zone. He was swarmed at the 2-yard-line by McGrath, and a relieved Princeton squad celebrated its hard-earned win in a game neither team deserved to lose.
"To win this game against a team that has been the class of the Ivy League for so long, it says something about where our program is right now," said Roger Hughes after leading Princeton to its best start since 1995. "We had a team meeting before the spring game, and two things came out of it. First, we are a very close team. Second, all they talked about was the final 1:14 of the Yale game last year. They wanted another chance, and they fought for it. I'm very proud of their effort."
Princeton was led by Terrell, who completed 21 of 36 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those scores went to Brendan Circle, who caught nine passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He has caught five touchdown passes in the last five games, including four in the last three games at home. Toresco and R.C. Lagomarsino were their typical offensive weapons, but the offensive standout in the first half was Bill Foran. The reserve quarterback/special teams standout (and he stood out in special teams against Penn) was used in more sets in the first half and ran the ball six times for 84 yards, which included a 27-yard run in the first quarter and a 20-yard run on fourth down in the second quarter.
The Princeton defense was led by Brig Walker, who made 11 tackles, including two for loss and added a forced fumble and a sack. Tim Strickland added seven tackles and three pass breakups, and Kevin Kelleher recorded his third interception in the last three games.
Princeton jumped out to a 7-0 lead on a 25-yard pass from Terrell to Circle. The senior quarterback was flushed out of the pocket and rolled to the right, which allowed Circle to break free of the coverage and get open. Terrell threw across his body a bit, but he got enough on the pass to give Circle a chance, and the sure-handed wideout did the rest, bouncing off a hit and scoring 4:40 into the game.
A 1-yard touchdown run by Nick Cisler evened the score in the second quarter, but Princeton came back with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jake Staser and a half-ending 22-yard field goal by Louden to go up 17-7 at the break. Penn cut into the deficit with a 38-yard field goal by Braden Lepisto, but Princeton built it back up with a five-yard touchdown pass to Circle early in the fourth quarter.
The Quakers had been dealing with poor field position for much of the second half, thanks to the combined heroics of Foran and punter Colin McDonough. The three-time All-Ivy punter averaged 44.8 yards per punt, and it would have been more if he hadn't twice tried to hit a short punt to pin the Quakers inside their own 5-yard-line. Both of his efforts were successful because Foran, the reserve quarterback turned all-around performer, downed one at the 2-yard-line and the other at the 4-yard-line.
The Quakers fought back and made it 24-17 on a 10-play, 68-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Irvin ran it in from one yard out after completing a 4th-and-18 pass to Carre one play earlier. That strike went for 22 yards, and it wouldn't even be the longest fourth-down conversion of the quarter.
Princeton was stopped on its next possession, but got the ball back when Walker stripped Joe Sandberg late in the fourth quarter. Sandberg, who ran all over the Tiger defense for 173 yards, was hit from behind, and Doori Song recovered the fumble. Although Princeton was stopped in three plays, the Tigers forced Penn to spend its timeouts and ultimately forced the Quakers to drive 69 yards for a tying score.
That's exactly what Penn did. Following a pair of completions, Penn moved backwards with a holding call and a sack and faced a 4th-and-24 with 1:07 remaining. Irvin was hurried by Walker and threw a deep ball up for grabs. Billy May thrilled the Quaker sideline by outleaping his defender for the ball at the Princeton 28-yard-line. Two plays later, Walker hit Carre for a 16-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining. It could have turned into a fourth-down conversion that would forever be remembered in the Princeton football program.
But thanks to a little backyard football, it wasn't even the fourth-down conversion most remembered in the game.
Princeton is now 7-1 overall, 4-1 in the Ivy League and can claim at least a share of its 10th Ivy League title by winning its final two games. That road starts with the 129th meeting between Princeton and Yale, which will happen Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Yale Bowl. The Bulldogs have won four straight games against Princeton, including a stunning 21-14 comeback at Princeton Stadium last season - a loss that kept the Tigers from claiming a share of the Ivy title. The Class of 2007 has beaten every team it has played at least once, except for Yale. While a win would allow Princeton to play for at least a share of the Ivy League title at home on Nov. 18 against Dartmouth, a loss would eliminate Princeton from contention. The game can be heard live on WBUD 1260-AM.