During the Oct. 20 football game against Harvard, 10,823 Princeton fans learned how wide a range of emotions they could feel in a three-and-a-half-hour span. Before the start of the game, orange flags were flying and excitement was high on campus — the Tigers were 2–0 in the Ivy League for the first time since 2006, on a three-win streak and entering their biggest game in several seasons.
And then the game started, and that optimism quickly was laid to waste. Princeton’s defense was no match for Harvard’s third-ranked offense, which stalled in Princeton territory on its first series before scoring touchdowns on its second, third, and fourth drives. Meanwhile, the Tigers could not solve Harvard’s defensive front, punting on all six of their first-half possessions. Harvard was up 20–0 at halftime, and though the Tigers surged momentarily in the third quarter, the Crimson rebounded to go up 34–10 early in the fourth, looking like a team that had won its last 14 games, the longest active winning streak in Division I.
Twelve minutes and 45 seconds of game time later, those struggles were forgotten. Roman Wilson ’14 caught a prayer of a pass from Quinn Epperly ’15 for a 36-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left, completing a four-touchdown comeback and giving the Tigers a shocking 39–34 victory. The mood inside Princeton Stadium had gone from agony back to ecstasy. Fans stormed the field after the final whistle to celebrate the sole leaders in the league.
“It’s an incredible feeling, looking up and seeing all the fans, seeing all the alumni, seeing all my teammates,” Wilson said after the game. “I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet.”
One online calculator says that, even after a 59-yard kick return by Anthony Gaffney ’16 gave Princeton great field position down 34–10, the Tigers had only a 2 percent chance of coming back to win. In reality, their odds were probably even lower — those calculations assume the teams are of equal strength, while Princeton and Harvard sure didn’t look evenly matched for three quarters on Saturday. “I’m glad we don’t play a seven-game series, to be honest with you, because they’re senior-led and they’re that good,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said after his team was outgained by more than 200 yards. “We were lucky to have one more play today.”
To overcome the deficit, Princeton had to score at least 24 points in the final quarter — something it hadn’t done in a period since Nov. 23, 2002 — and do so against the league’s second-best defense. Meanwhile, the Tigers had to get quick stops against a Harvard offense that had advanced into Princeton territory in all nine of its drives.
Quite a few crazy things had to happen for the Tigers to complete their comeback. Princeton’s offense, not usually a quick-strike unit, scored three times on drives lasting less than two minutes. The Tigers deflected a punt on one Harvard drive and blocked a field goal on the next (which might not have been all that improbable, given Princeton’s history of blocking kicks).
After a two-point conversion was stopped at 34–32 and Harvard got the ball back with 2:27 to play, things still seemed dire for the home fans. But the Tigers’ defense, which had not forced a three-and-out all game, got one when it needed it most. Harvard coach Tim Murphy didn’t trust his offense to get one yard on a fourth down after it already had gained 634, punting and giving Princeton one last chance as they started from their own 10-yard line.
In the most important two-minute drill of their lives, the Tigers once again seemed out of luck when quarterback Connor Michelsen ’15 was sacked with a minute left, holding his left hand in pain as his teammates rushed back to the line of scrimmage. But Princeton got a game-changing lifeline when the refs whistled Harvard for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, giving the Tigers 15 yards and, more importantly, stopping the clock.
It was up to Epperly — whose legs, not his arms, more often had been featured in the Tigers’ offense — to finish the job. Princeton fans’ hearts were almost broken again when a lazy first-down pass went right to Harvard safety Chris Splinter — but it bounced off his chest, giving the Tigers another reprieve. Two plays later, the 5-foot 11-inch Wilson out-jumped Splinter in tight coverage in the end zone for his historic touchdown, an unbelievable end to an unbelievable comeback.
“Quinn threw a great ball, I had the leverage on the safety, and I just had to go up there and make a play,” Wilson said. “It’s something we do every week in practice, and all the guys believed that it was going to work.”
For the first time in six years, Princeton students could entertain thoughts of a Big Three bonfire, especially with Yale struggling for most of the season. And as the only team left undefeated in the Ivy League after three league games, the Tigers could set their sights even higher. A team that has finished in last place for two years running now needed only three wins in its last four games to earn at least a share of the conference title.