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Trailing 17-0 under the lights of a fired up Brown Stadium and in front of a nationally televised audience that watched it struggle through a mistake-plagued start, the Princeton football team showed a resolve that has grown leaps and bounds over the last two seasons. And then it showed something else — a seriously high level of football.
Princeton moved to 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the Ivy League, by scoring the final 39 points of a stunning 39-17 victory over Brown in a Saturday night showdown at Brown Stadium. Junior Quinn Epperly continued his brilliant offensive season by rushing for 95 yards and three touchdowns, while the Tiger defense dominated the final three quarters of the game, especially on third downs.
The win moves the Tigers into a three-way tie for first place in the Ivy League. Princeton, Penn and Harvard are all 2-0 in the league, and the Tigers will head to Boston next weekend for a nationally televised 1 pm showdown with the Crimson.
The thought of that game being between two league unbeatens was optimistic at best when Brown's Michael Walsh returned a blocked punt 17 yards for a touchdown just nine seconds into the second quarter. Brown, bolstered by a 71-yard touchdown run by John Spooney in the first quarter, led 17-0 at that point and seemed poised to put itself back in the league race.
Princeton had other ideas, and they began to execute them immediately.
The defense took over from there, keeping Brown off the scoreboard for the final 44:51 and holding the Bears to only two third-down conversions in 12 attempts. Freshman Dorian Williams had a team-best eight tackles, and his forced fumble in the third quarter ended Brown's best offensive possession of the final three quarters.
The Tiger defense kept buying time for an offense that leads the Ivy League in scoring, and that finally began to pay off late in the second quarter. Senior Brian Mills scored on an eight-yard touchdown run to complete a 15-play, 88-yard drive. That possession was kept alive when Epperly found Connor Kelley for a 24-yard completion on 3rd and 18 at the Princeton 4.
Princeton had some momentum at halftime. Then it played its best quarter of the season.
The Tigers gained 267 yards of total offense in the third quarter and scored on every possession, including touchdowns runs of 18 and 2 yards by Epperly, who has now rushed for 11 touchdowns and thrown for nine more on the season. Only one other Princeton player, Ron Landeck, has both rushed and thrown for 10 touchdowns in the same season, and Epperly has gotten to 11 and 9 through five games.
The middle touchdown came on a perfect strike from junior Connor Michelsen to Des Smith, who beat a confused defensive backfield for an uncovered 28-yard lob into the front right corner of the end zone. That pass gave Princeton its first lead of the game, and the defense made sure it stood up.
Epperly's two-yard touchdown run gave Princeton a 25-17 lead (a high snap and two failed two-point conversions kept the score at 25), and Brown started to move down the field on the ensuing drive looking to tie the score. Brown quarterback Patrick Donnelly found his top receiver, Tellef Lundevall, inside the Princeton 30, but his attempt to gain extra yards gave Williams a free shot at the ball. Arends (five tackles) made the recovery to keep momentum squarely on Princeton's side.
That was the highlight play of another balanced performance by the defense. While nobody had more than 10 tackles, six players had at least five stops, including Garrit Leicht, who had seven tackles, including one for a loss. Both Mike Zeuli and Jason Ray had six stops apiece, while safeties Arends and Phillip Bhaya had five apiece.
While the defense was strong on the first two downs, it raised its game on third down for the fourth straight game. The Tigers led the Ivy League with a 30.5 opponent conversion rate on third downs, and that number will drop after allowing only two on 12 attempts, including only one in the second half.
The Tigers put the game away with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a spectacular 39-yard run by Epperly, who avoided a tackle in the backfield, cut back against the defense and found plenty of running room down the middle of the field. A nine-yard run by Will Powers finished off the scoring for Princeton, which has scored more points through half of the 2013 season than it did in all of 2009, 2010 or 2011.
Sophomore DiAndre Atwater rushed 15 times for 63 yards, while Mills added eight carries for 63 yards. Senior Roman Wilson had a team-high six catches for 63 yards, while junior Matt Costello added nine catches for 95 yards, including a 44-yard grab that set up the touchdown to Des Smith, who had a career-high three catches for 47 yards.