Last year's script was borderline unrealistic. This one took it to a new level. One year after Quinn Epperly hit Roman Wilson for a 34-yard touchdown pass to push Princeton past Harvard, the two did it again Saturday to finish off an incredible, and record-setting, 51-48 triple-overtime win at Harvard Stadium.
Facing 2nd-and-goal at the Crimson 6 and trailing 48-45, Epperly faked a handoff and threw a lob towards the back right corner of the end zone. Wilson, one of the nation's leading receivers, found space, made the grab and tapped both feet inside the sideline to ignite a wild celebration for the sideline of a Princeton team that shares first place in the Ivy League with Penn.
The final pass in an epic performance by Epperly set a pair of single-game records. The junior quarterback completed 37 passes for 321 yards and six touchdowns; the completions and touchdown passes are both records for Epperly, who now has 15 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing touchdowns on the season. No Princeton player has ever both thrown and rushed for 11 touchdowns in one season; Epperly has done it in six games.
The touchdown ended one of most dramatic games in program history, as well as the longest game in Princeton history. The Tigers had never played a triple-overtime game, and for those in attendance, they'll never forget the first one.
Despite leading for much of the game, it was Harvard who seemed poised for victory both late in regulation and in the first overtime. Tied at 35-35 and facing a 3rd-and-14, Harvard quarterback Connor Hempel lofted a 45-yard pass down the home sideline to Ricky Zorn to set up a potential game-winning kick. The Princeton defense stiffened from there, and Andrew Flescher missed a 50-yard kick wide left to force overtime.
The Crimson scored a touchdown in the opening session, and a Princeton offense that sputtered in the fourth quarter faced a must-score situation. Sophomore DiAndre Atwater converted a 3rd-and-2, but a short run and an incompletion set up a 3rd-and-6 at the Crimson 9. Epperly handed off to Atwater running a sweep, but he reversed it to Wilson, who followed blocks by both Epperly and Spenser Huston and scored from nine yards out.
Kicker Nolan Bieck hit an extra point to force a second overtime, then connected from 31 yards out to open a 45-42 lead. Harvard managed only four yards on its drive, but a 39-yard field goal (coming off a terrific effort by the holder) forced a third overtime.
Harvard got a first down to the 13, but three runs left the Crimson with a 4th-and-2 at the 5, and Flesher hit from 23 to give Harvard a 48-45 lead.
Epperly took Princeton back on the field and hit a sideline pass to Matt Costello at the Harvard 7 on the first play. Epperly ran off the right side for one yard, and then found Wilson for the winning score. Both officials came together right off the catch and simultaneously signaled the touchdown.
Wilson, who came into the game leading the Ivy League in receiving yards, caught nine passes for 76 yards and the winning touchdown, while Costello caught nine passes for 63 yards and a score. Junior Connor Kelley caught six passes for 50 yards and two scores, while both Seth DeValve and Des Smith caught one touchdown apiece.
The Harvard rush defense kept the Tiger running backs in check, but Epperly managed 19 rushes for 86 yards. Atwater added 14 carries for 47 yards, while Wilson ran the ball four times for 20 yards, including his nine-yard touchdown.
The Princeton defense may have given up a season-high 48 points, but it kept holding off the Harvard during the fourth quarter and didn't allow a scoring drive of more than 25 yards during the fourth quarter or overtime. Junior Mike Zeuli, who had 12 tackles in the 2012 win over Harvard, led the Tigers with 13 tackles and two sacks. Senior Jason Ray, who was part of a ferocious effort up front, had a career-high 12 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and added 1.5 sacks.
Both Phillip Bhaya and John Hill recorded interceptions, while Greg Sotereanos, Matt Landry and Garrit Leicht each had at least one sack. Princeton had 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks against the Crimson, and it forced another turnover when Matt Landry stripped Hempel and Chris Pondo came up with the recovery.
Both Leicht and Matt Arends had six stops and two pass breakups apiece, including a key one from Arends during overtime. Robin and Caraun Reid both had a pair of quarterback hurries.
Princeton scored on its opening drive, going 75 yards on nine plays and getting a five-yard pass from Epperly to Kelley, who was alone heading into the left corner of the end zone. Epperly completed all seven passes on the drive, though a two-point pass from DeValve fell incomplete.
Harvard held Princeton out of the end zone on its next drive, though the Tigers left Harvard with the ball just outside its own end zone. Princeton opened the lead to 13-0 when Smith made a leaping grab on a six-yard pass in the center of the end zone off a pass from Epperly.
The Crimson got right back in the game on the strength of two big plays. On a 4th-and-8 at its own 33, Hempel launched a high pass down the right side of the field that bounced off Hill and ended in the hands of Zorn, who fell into the end zone for the score.
A false start penalty hurt the Tigers on the ensuing drive, and the Crimson forced a punt. Four plays later, Stanton found a hole and then blockers en route to a 60-yard rushing touchdown.
Princeton was able to reclaim the lead when Epperly connected with Kelley on another five-yard touchdown pass with 3:04 remaining in the half. Epperly rolled left and threw a laser to a well-guarded Kelley, who secured the catch and fell backwards into the end zone. Epperly followed with a slant to Smith on the two-point conversion to extend the lead to 21-14.
The Tigers hoped that lead would hold until halftime, but a 44-yard kickoff return by Andrew Fischer on the ensuing drive gave the Crimson terrific field position. The home team responded with a 56-yard drive which ended with Stanton taking an option pitch along the right side for a two-yard score. Stanton was hit short of the end zone, and with no timeouts remaining, it may have kept Harvard from attempting a field goal. Stanton fought through the tackle, though, and his score kept the game even at the half.
Princeton came out strong in the third quarter, forcing a 3-and-out and then going 51 yards on 11 plays and converting on a well-defended third-down 10-yard strike from Epperly to Costello, who found a soft spot in the zone and came down with his first touchdown catch of the season.
Princeton got a fourth-down stop on the next drive, and appeared to have a touchdown pass to Dré Nelson, but it was called back on a chopblock penalty. Those yards proved especially costly, as Nolan Bieck barely missed a 44-yard field goal.
Harvard tied the game on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Hempel to Tyler Ott, who found plenty of open room in the middle of the field and went in with 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Princeton regained the lead when Epperly found DeValve for a 12-yard score, and the defense shut the Crimson offense down on its next four drives. Harvard got one more chance when Atwater was stripped going for a first down, and Hempel hit Ott for a 10-yard score to even the game at 35-35.
Princeton is now 5-1 overall, 3-0 in the Ivy League, and shares first place with reigning Ivy champion Penn, which went on the road and defeated Yale Saturday.
The Tigers will host Cornell next Saturday at 1 pm (ESPN3, 103.3 FM WPRB). The Big Red has won three straight over Princeton and will bring in the Ivy League all-time passing leader in Jeff Mathews, who broke the record previously held by Tigers offensive coordinator James Perry.