In Saturday’s showdown between No. 9 Princeton and No. 13 Dartmouth at Yankee Stadium, it was clear that neither team could afford many mistakes. With both teams entering the game unbeaten, boasting two of the top three defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) by points allowed, and having a combined 32-0 record over the last two seasons when not playing each other, there would be little margin for error.
Indeed, the game came down to a few critical miscues early on — and uncharacteristically, they were the Tigers’, which Dartmouth took advantage of for a 27-10 win.
The defeat snapped a 17-game win streak for the Tigers (7-1 overall, 4-1 Ivy League), who no longer control their own destiny to repeat as Ancient Eight champions. Dartmouth (8-0, 5-0) avenged last year’s 14-9 loss at Princeton Stadium, its only blemish en route to a second-place finish in 2018.
“Credit Dartmouth — they played better than we did,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said. “You have to be so precise against them, and we obviously weren’t.”
Princeton entered the game having committed the fewest turnovers in the nation, having lost possession only four times in seven games. Against Dartmouth, however, the Tigers nearly doubled that in the first half alone. On the team’s second drive, quarterback Kevin Davidson ’20 threw a screen pass right into the arms of Dartmouth defensive end Niko Lalos, who jogged into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. (Surace said after the game that an offensive lineman failed to properly cut-block Lalos, allowing him to make the interception.)
Davidson and the Tigers’ offense bounced back on their next possession, marching 68 yards with runs and short passes. But after receiving a pass at the six-yard line, tight end Carson Bobo ’22 fumbled just before hitting the ground — which was only called after a long replay review — costing Princeton at least three points and quite possibly seven.
On third-and-short early in the second quarter, Davidson challenged Dartmouth cornerback Isiah Swann, the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, in one-on-one coverage. Swann picked off the pass in Princeton territory. Seven plays later, Big Green quarterback Jared Gerbino found the end zone, giving Dartmouth a two-possession lead it would never relinquish.
The game drew 21,500 fans to Yankee Stadium, which was converted to a football field with one end zone near home plate and the other in left-center field. The occasion commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first college football game, which was played by Princeton and Rutgers on Nov. 6, 1869.
“Obviously this place is iconic,” Davidson said. “We tried to get out all the nerves and take it all in yesterday and focus today on just winning the game, and unfortunately we turned the ball over a little bit too much.”Dartmouth made a couple costly mistakes of its own — a false-start penalty on its first series turned a third-and-short in the red zone into a third-and-long that led to a missed field goal; a fumble late in the first half led to Princeton’s first touchdown, a three-yard reception by Graham Adomitis ’20, giving the Tigers some life. But the Big Green played a cleaner game overall, and their team is built to play with a lead. Their defense prevented big plays: Davidson didn’t attempt a pass more than 10 yards downfield until seconds before halftime, and Princeton never broke a run longer than 13 yards. And Dartmouth’s run-first offense killed the clock: The Tigers had only three possessions in the second half, cutting short their chances at a comeback.
As a team, the Big Green ran for 4.3 yards per carry, more than double Princeton’s 1.8. Gerbino — who left the second quarter of his last game at Harvard with injury and wasn’t certain to play for much of the week — ran for a game-high 97 yards.
Princeton faces another tough test next week when it hosts 4-1 Yale before finishing the season at 2-3 Penn. Even if the Tigers win out, however, they will only finish atop the league if Dartmouth is upset by 1-4 Cornell or 0-5 Brown. (The Big Green nearly lost last week, but they came from behind to beat Harvard with a 43-yard Hail Mary as time expired.)
“Some of the guys in that locker room, the freshmen and sophomores, they’ve never lost a game,” Surace said. “Now it happened, and the better team today won.”