BY JAY GREENBERG
NEW HAVEN—As badly as things had gone for Princeton in the first half, it was about to get much worse.
Quinn Epperly’s sideline pass had been intercepted by Collin Bibb at the Princeton 39, and Henry Furman, a listed wide receiver playing quarterback for a Yale team decimated at the game’s most critical position, had completed a third-and-12 pass to Austin Reuland to put the ball at the Princeton 5.
The badly undermanned Bulldogs, playing without Tyler Varga, arguably the best running back in the Ivy League, were about to take a 14-7 lead into the half. And Princeton’s turnaround year, threatening to be turned around for the worse by a third consecutive loss, was about to take one big kick in the backside. Fortunately Trocon Davis never left the backside when Furman handed off to Mordecai Cargill and ran to the end zone to wait for a throwback.
Among the first things any Princeton man is told is to never to trust anybody from Yale. Both Tim Kingsbury and Davis, normally a nickel back who had come into the game two plays earlier after Matt Arends had suffered a cut chin, refused to sell out to the trickery.
Cargill’s pass hung in the air seemingly almost as long as the Tigers have gone since they have had their last non-losing season. And Davis’s eyes grew almost as wide as would be his path down the sideline.
"I had backside responsibility and the ball just came to me,” he said. By the time he finished his 100-yard return, the longest in both Princeton and Yale Bowl’s ancient history, his closest pursuers were Tiger benchwarmers running with him along the opposite sideline, losing every inhibition that had seemed to dog—or Bulldog—Princeton through the first half.
The Tigers went to the half up 14-7, went nine plays and 65 yards for Quinn Epperly’s one-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the third quarter, and ultimately ground down their arch-rivals 29-7. After threatening self-immolation in the first half, the Tigers will get their first bonfire—for beating both Harvard and Yale—in six seasons and are assured of at least .500. Not what they are looking for, but nevertheless a big step up from consecutive 1-9 records.
Regardless of what happens on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium in next week’s finale against Dartmouth, nobody will be able to call the 2012 Tigers losers, only one of the reasons why Davis termed his play the “biggest one of my entire life.”
“It got our momentum back and we took it from there,” said Epperly, the sophomore quarterback who had as big a part in the finishing (91 yards rushing, 66 yards passing) as anyone. The designated goalline quarterback became the length-of-the-field quarterback after Connor Michelsen was hit on his throwing shoulder on the first play of the fourth quarter, never to return.
After Princeton had let the Bulldogs hang around within two scores far too long into the fourth quarter, Epperly ran and passed the Tigers 69 yards, the last nine on an outstanding leaping catch by Matt Costello, to put the game away and still leave the Tigers one loss by Penn at Cornell next week from having a chance to finish in a 3-way tie with Harvard and Penn.
It had started like it would be a struggle to the end, perhaps even a bitter end. The Tigers had prepared for Varga, a gametime scratch with a knee contusion, and were flummoxed for the first 30 minutes.
“They had us on our heels, we were having such a hard time catching up to what they were doing,” said Coach Bob Surace.
“Eight percent of our defense was focused on their wildcat stuff. Credit them, they executed and threw the ball better than I ever would have anticipated.”
Two Cargill first down runs and a Grant Wallace TD reception on a slant gave Yale a 7-0 lead the second time it had the ball. Princeton didn’t pick up a first down until its third possession and then, on that one, squandered away a first-and-goal at the nine on an offensive pass interference call on Roman Wilson and an interception of Michelsen.
On the next Tiger possession, Seth DeValve’s 22-yard reception on fourth-and-four set up Wilson’s one-yard touchdown and a 7-7 tie. Caraun Reid foiled Yale’s subsequent drive by forcing a Cargill fumble recovered by Anthony Gaffney, but Epperly telegraphed a sideline pass and Yale was back in business until Davis turned over the tables.
Yet, even after Epperly’s touchdown run and kicker Nolan Bieck’s two-point run necessitated by Jason Tiemeier’s bad snap, the game was far from put away, even against a 2-7 team with practically two hands tied behind its back. But the Tigers started to make the big plays on defense that had fueled their 4-game win streak.
Andrew Starks ran down Furman for a 6-yard loss on a third down forcing one punt and after Joe Cloud’s line drive was returned by Cameron Sandquist to the Princeton 34, Mandela Scheaffer punched the ball out of Cargill’s hands just short of the goalline, enabling Gaffney to fall on another one in the end zone to cancel one more threat.
“We executed a little better in the second half and finished,” said Surace.
Costello, who leaped high and got a foot down in the end zone to snag Epperly’s pass to seal it, was not still stretching when he said “it wasn’t pretty.” But assuredly it was a win by the better team staying the course, sending Princeton into the final week happily playing for more than it has since 2006.
“Obviously we are expecting to win every year and win an Ivy League championship and we still have a chance,” Will Powers, who ran for 55 valuable yards, said about going no worse than 5-5. “These seniors have been though a lot, so it’s nice to do this for them.
“That said, a 6-4 season is going to be a lot better than a 5-5 season.”
There was no immediate obvious structural tear diagnosed with Michelsen’s shoulder but it is his throwing one, and it was far too early to ascertain his availability for Dartmouth. . . Mark Hayes, who had a short practice week after injuring his shoulder against Penn, was back in the lineup.
Bieck should be ready for anything by now with all the point-after-touchdown misadventures, but the freshman kicker had the presence of mind not to panic on the bad snap he ran in. “I saw 55 (Tom Yetter) was open, but I figured that was an ineligible number,” said Bieck. “That was the first time I had ever had the ball in my hands.”
Decision on the date and time for the bonfire is still pending.