Princeton 51, Harvard 48
Harvard Stadium was in twilight when Saturday’s triple-overtime tie-breaker came to its crushing end, on a scoring pass from Princeton quarterback Quinn Epperly to Roman Wilson.
At Princeton Stadium a year ago, a scoring pass from Epperly to Wilson topped off the 29-point rally that gave the Tigers a 39-34 upset victory over Harvard in the final seconds of play.
That devastating defeat dropped the Crimson from the unbeaten ranks, broke a 15-game winning streak, and reconfigured the race for the Ivy League championship.
The Crimson played with heart and tenacity on Saturday, but lost out in a 51-48 battle royal that may well have swung this year’s Ivy title race.
Princeton (5-1, 3-0 Ivy) could now win the title outright, for the first time since 1996, by defeating Cornell, Pennsylvania, Yale, and Dartmouth in its last four games.
Harvard (5-1, 2-1 Ivy) might still gain a share of the title if Princeton should lose to one of those teams. The Crimson would need to win all its remaining games—against Dartmouth, Columbia, Penn, and Yale—and would have to do it without two of its key offensive players. Senior center David Leopard broke his right ankle late in the third quarter on Saturday, while sophomore Andrew Fischer, a star receiver and kick returner, left the game with a hamstring tear.
Princeton’s most singular asset is Epperly, a brilliant and versatile quarterback who had a record-setting day against Harvard. He threw six scoring passes, completed 37 of 50 pass attempts for 321 yards, and rushed for 86 yards on 19 carries. “He was flawless at times,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy after the game. “Just a tremendous football player.”
Epperly’s opposite number, junior Conner Hempel, did not benefit from the kind of protection that the Tiger offensive line gave its quarterback. He was sacked seven times and often had to scramble when designed plays broke down. (“He’s a magician,” Princeton coach Bob Surace said of Hempel’s elusiveness.)
Hempel had missed the team’s last two games because of a hyperextended knee. He appeared fully recovered on Saturday, completing 25 of 47 pass attempts for 307 yards and four touchdowns. He was intercepted twice.
After a slow start—characteristic of this year's team—the Crimson kept the game close until the final series of downs.
“We struggled at times on both sides of the ball, and it wasn’t a work of art,” said coach Murphy at his postgame press conference. “But our kids played so hard that we willed the thing into overtime. In the end, [Princeton] just made one more play than we did.”
Here’s how the action unfolded.
First quarter: Harvard appeared overmatched as Princeton scored on the opening drive of the game, adding a second score late in the quarter to take a 13-0 lead. The Tiger touchdowns came on short-yardage passes from Epperly to receivers Connor Kelley and Des Smith.
Second quarter: The Crimson struck back with 21 points. Harvard’s first score came on a 33-yard pass from Hempel to receiver Ricky Zorn, who snagged the ball at the goal line after it glanced off the shoulder of Tiger cornerback John Hill. Harvard then took a 14-13 lead with a 60-yard breakaway by sophomore halfback Paul Stanton Jr. After another short-yardage touchdown pass from Epperly to Kelley, Stanton scored once more on a two-yard dash.
The game was tied, 21-21, at halftime.
Third quarter: A 10-yard scoring pass from Epperly to receiver Matt Costello put Princeton ahead, 28-21. But Harvard mounted a late drive and tied the score with a 23-yard pass from Hempel to tight end Tyler Ott.
Fourth quarter: Harvard had seemed poised to score again after Epperly fumbled the ball away on his own 38-yard line, but the Tiger defense forced a fumble by Hempel just four plays later. Epperly threw his fifth touchdown pass of the day on Princeton’s next drive, giving the Tigers a 35-28 lead. With just over four minutes to play, Harvard cornerback Brian Owusu forced a fumble at midfield by Tiger halfback DiAndre Atwater, and safety Jaron Wilson returned the ball to the Princeton 19. Harvard scored three plays later, on a 10-yard pass from Hempel to Ott.
With the game tied, 35-35, Harvard got the ball back with almost two minutes left on the clock. A 45-yard pass from Hempel to Zorn put the Crimson inside Princeton’s 30-yard line, but two false-start penalties and a pair of incomplete passes stalled the drive. With 12 seconds remaining, reserve place-kicker Andrew Flesher came on to attempt a 50-yard field goal. He had the wind at his back, but the kick went wide.
On to overtime.
First overtime: Harvard scored on a five-yard pass from Hempel to Ott, set up by receiver Seitu Smith II’s 20-yard end-around. Princeton got the equalizer with a double-reverse handoff to Roman Wilson.
Second overtime: Strong defensive play forced Princeton to call in its place-kicker, Nolan Bieck, for a 31-yard field goal. Unable to connect on passes to tight end Cameron Brate, Harvard had to take the same route. Flesher—replacing regular kicker David Mothander, who was sidelined by a leg injury—made good on a 38-yard kick. The score was now 45-45.
Third overtime: Harvard drove to the Princeton six-yard line, but again had to settle for a field goal by Flesher. When Princeton’s turn came, Epperly found Wilson in the far right corner of the end zone, and the senior receiver made a leaping catch that won it for the Tigers.
The triple-overtime game was Harvard's second of the season. In week three, the Crimson needed three overtime sessions to overcome Holy Cross, 41-35. Harvard’s only previous overtime loss came in September 1996, when Columbia took a 20-13 decision.
Framed as a showdown between the Ivy League’s top-ranked offenses, the game lived up to its billing. The two teams jointly accounted for almost 1,000 yards in total offense. Princeton had 321 passing yards and 199 rushing yards, while Harvard had 307 yards passing and 143 yards rushing.
Paul Stanton was the Crimson’s number one rusher, with 91 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. With eight catches for 168 yards and a touchdown, Ricky Zorn was the team's leading receiver.
Princeton had rolled over two earlier Ivy rivals, routing Columbia, 53-7, and outpointing Brown, 39-17. The Tigers had been edged by Lehigh, 29-28, in their opening game.
Princeton had not allowed a second-half score in either of its previous Ivy contests.
Harvard hadn't lost an Ivy game at the Stadium since 2009, and had compiled a 15-game home winning streak going into the game. Princeton hadn’t won at the Stadium since 2005.
Princeton and Penn, both unbeaten in Ivy play, are now tied for the league lead, with Harvard a game behind.
In other Ivy games: Pennsylvania defeated Yale, 28-17, Brown held off Cornell, 42-35, and Dartmouth shut out Columbia, 56-0.
Next weekend: Dartmouth comes to the Stadium for an evening game, kicking off at 5 p.m. With wins over Yale and Columbia and a four-overtime loss to Penn, the Green is 2-1 in Ivy League play and 3-3 overall. Harvard has come out on top in 15 of the teams’ last 16 meetings.
The Harvard-Princeton scoring:
Princeton 13 8 7 7 7 3 6 — 51
Harvard 0 21 7 7 7 3 3 — 48
The season so far:
Harvard 42, San Diego 20
Harvard 41, Brown 23
Harvard 41, Holy Cross 35
Harvard 34, Cornell 24
Harvard 35, Lafayette 16
Princeton 51, Harvard 48