PRINCETON, N.J. – It wasn’t easy, but what was during this most magical 2006 Ivy League championship season? It wasn’t a blowout win, but none of them were. No, it wasn’t anything but a win. But it was Princeton’s ninth win of the season, its sixth win in the Ivy League and its first win to clinch an Ivy League title in 11 years.
All things considered, that’s not bad for a team that was picked to finish sixth in the league.
The unbelievable journey that culminated Saturday in a share of the Ivy League championship with Yale, which Princeton rallied to defeat 34-31 last weekend, began 10 weeks ago with a 14-10 comeback win over Lehigh. It was during that halftime, when Princeton trailed 10-0, that head coach Roger Hughes gave his team a simple message.
“We’re alright,” running back Rob Toresco said after his two-touchdown day. “We just had to relax, go back out and play.”
Ten weeks of playing later, the Princeton football team was far more than alright. It was the ninth Ivy League championship team in program history. It was the first nine-win team since 1964, and it was led by a senior class that is the only group in Ivy League history to win two more games per season every year in their careers.
“I’m just so proud of the players,” head coach Roger Hughes said after claiming his first Ivy League championship. “Everyone wrote them off, but they came together before the season. Chemistry-wise, this team is better than any I have ever been with.”
The only team Hughes could compare this to was the 1994 Dartmouth team, when he served as offensive coordinator and had a senior quarterback, Jay Fiedler, who is still in the midst of a solid NFL career. His current quarterback, Jeff Terrell, might not have the same NFL resume one day, but his performance this season is the stuff of legend, and he completed it in style.
Terrell completed 29 of 46 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown, and he added nine rushes for 30 yards in the win. His 1-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to Jordan Munde gave Princeton an early lead, and his pitch to Toresco on a late option put the championship away. Toresco scored two touchdowns on the ground, while R.C. Lagomarsino led Princeton with 13 rushes for 70 yards, many of which came on the game-clinching touchdown drive late in the game.
Terrell completed his first nine passes of the game, which combined with his last seven completions against Yale, gave him a Princeton record of 16 straight completions. That topped the previous record of 14 straight completions by Dave Splithoff. Terrell also became the fourth Princeton quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 career passing yards; he ends his two-year stint as a starter, a stretch that saw him go 16-4, with 4,166 passing yards. His 2,445 passing yards in 2006 is the fifth-best in Princeton history.
Brian Brigham led Princeton with seven catches for 77 yards, while Toresco added seven catches for 47 yards. Brendan Circle added six catches for 76 yards and will end the season with the most receptions and receiving yards in the league. Circle ends the season with 56 catches, ninth-best in Princeton history for a single season, and he will enter 2007 with 78 career receptions, which already ties him for 12th most in team history.
Senior Rob Anderson led the defense with seven tackles, while classmate Tim Strickland added six tackles, three pass breakups and a forced fumble in the win. Doori Song had six tackles and a fumble recovery, while Kevin Kelleher had five tackles and an interception return. Senior Brig Walker also had five tackles, including an impressive four for losses.
Princeton opened the game with a dominant 11-play, 68-yard drive, that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Munde. Terrell went 6-for-6 on the drive, including an impressive sideline completion to Brian Brigham following a false start. An end around by Bill Foran and a Terrell scramble to the 1-yard-line set up the play-action pass to Munde, who was alone in the left side of the end zone when he caught the lofted pass.
The Princeton defense, inspired by its second-half shutdown of Yale last week, held Dartmouth scoreless for the remainder of the quarter. The Big Green's best offensive chance came following an interception off a Terrell tipped pass. Mike Fritz hit Eric Paul for a pass down the left sideline, but speedy linebacker Brig Walker caught him from behind and stripped the ball. It bounced along the sideline but refused to go out of bounds, and linebacker Doori Song was happy to corral it for the Tigers to regain possession.
Princeton eventually made it 14-0 on another 10-play drive. Again distributing his passes amongst his weapons, Terrell guided the offense inside the red zone. A tight pass to Brigham put the ball at the 1-yard-line, and Toresco took an option pitch into the end zone on the next play. Connor Louden's extra point opened a 14-0 lead, matching Princeton's biggest lead of the entire season to that point.
Dartmouth got on the board with a 21-yard field goal by Andrew Kempler, completing a 14-play, 62-yard drive during the second quarter. Dartmouth was inside the 10-yard-line, but the Princeton defense wouldn't allow a trip to the end zone. The final chance came on a fade route that was tipped away by Tim Strickland, who recorded his Princeton-record 40th straight start.
Connor Louden put Princeton back up 14 points with a 29-yard field goal to complete the ensuing 13-play, 45-yard drive. Starting with a strong return from Pete Ploszek on the kickoff, Terrell methodically led Princeton down the field with timely third-down conversions. The Big Green secondary buckled down inside its own red zone, but Louden sent his kick inside the right uprite for the 17-3 lead.
Dartmouth cut the deficit in half, thanks to a pair of big plays on its last drive of the half. Fritz threw a 45-yard pass to Brian Evans, who wrestled the ball away from Strickland in mid-air and came down with the completion. Ivy League-leading receiver Ryan Fuselier then caught a fade in the front left corner of the end zone to cut the deficit to 17-10 at halftime.
Princeton stopped Dartmouth in three plays coming out of halftime, and Brian Shields brought the punt return into Dartmouth territory. A pass to Circle over the middle and an option to Toresco helped Princeton get the ball inside the red zone, but Louden's 27-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Cullen Gilchrist. Since the ball wasn't downed before the play was blown dead, the ball was returned to the 20-yrd-line for Dartmouth's ensuing possession.
Dartmouth would finally get back even with Princeton on a 1-yard touchdown run by Fritz, which completed an 11-play, 61-yard drive midway through the third quarter. Fritz used an array of short passes to get the ball inside the 2-yard-line, but Princeton held Dartmouth to one yard on three rushes. Facing fourth-and-inches, Fritz kept and used a second surge to get over the goal line and even the score.
Using a Lagomarsino run at the end of the third quarter to get to the Dartmouth 40-yard-line, the Tiger offense started its final quarter of the season with momentum. Terrell found Circle down the left sideline to get inside the red zone, and reserve kicker Matt Lichtenstein, attempting the first field goal of his collegiate career, drilled a 25-yarder to give Princeton a 20-17 lead with 12:58 remaining.
Fritz tried another long pass to get Dartmouth down the field, but Kevin Kelleher came up with another huge interception. After two fourth-quarter interceptions led Princeton to a 31-28 win over Harvard, Kelleher stepped in front of Brett Lowe and picked off Fritz. A holding call negated a decent runback, but Princeton was able to get the ball back into Dartmouth territory before being stopped on a fourth down.
Dartmouth got one first down on its ensuing possession, but a sack by Brig Walker halted any momentum and forced a punt to the Princeton 33-yard-line. With a chance to put both the game and the Ivy League championship away, Terrell engineered a 12-play, 67-yard drive that took 5:32 off the clock. He threw passes to three different receivers and watched as R.C. Lagomarsino cut through the Big Green defense for key yards. Facing third-and-goal at the 3, Terrell ran the option right, drew the final defender on the play and pitched to Toresco, who went in untouched to clinch the sought-after championship.
“As soon as I pitched it, I knew he would score,” Terrell said. “That was their last defender, so I didn’t mind the hit. I stayed down on the ground for an extra second just to soak it all in.”
He, and the remainder of this gutsy championship team, will probably be soaking it in for a long time to come.