A play, a second, a yard is all that separated the Princeton football team from its first repeat Ivy League championship since 1964.
Three plays after Liam Johnson ’24 burst through the middle of the Penn offensive line to tackle running back Trey Flowers for a 4-yard loss, Flowers caught a 5-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left on fourth down to give Penn a stinging 20-19 win over the defending Ivy champ Tigers Saturday at Princeton Stadium.
“Going out on a loss, especially for the seniors, is always a tough thing,” said Johnson, who had 11 tackles, two for losses. “I think this culture is strong, the foundation is strong. I know me and other leaders on this team are going to go after the little things this offseason because when it came down to the ending, it was all about the little things. We’re going to move forward from this.”
The Tigers (8-2 overall, 5-2 Ivy) finished second in the Ivy race behind Yale. The Bulldogs (8-2 overall, 6-1 Ivy) beat Harvard, 19-14, Saturday after edging Princeton last week, 24-20.
Princeton burst out to a 12-0 lead in the first 16 minutes, on scores by Andrei Iosivas ’23 and Ryan Butler ‘26, but generated only 78 yards of offense and four first downs in the second half. Their only second-half points came on Johnson’s 92-yard return following a fumble recovery. Princeton gave Penn a chance to rally with a blocked punt, and the Tigers missed an extra point, missed a two-point conversion, and allowed Penn to convert three fourth downs on its final drive.
“Football is a game of inches, it’s a game of one play, it’s a game of seconds,” said quarterback Blake Stenstrom ’24. “It’s a brutal part of this game. It definitely comes down to the margins.”
Stenstrom completed 25 of 34 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown. Dylan Classi ’23 had eight catches for 108 yards to move into a seventh-place tie with Judd Garrett ’90 with 137 career receptions. A.J. Barber ’25 had six receptions for 74 yards. Led by 15 tackles from Ozzie Nicholas ’24 and an interception from C.J. Wall ’23, the Tigers defense delivered a pair of huge stops inside their red zone, but it’s the one stop that they didn’t get that was on their minds in the postgame.
“We lost the big-play battle, and that’s what it comes down to,” Johnson said. “You can be winning the whole game, but a blocked punt, interceptions, letting up those fourth downs for us on the defense, it comes to those big plays. When you don’t make those big plays, you lose the game.”
Adding further hurt to the Tigers was the way the final Penn score happened. Princeton head coach Bob Surace ’90 saw the play clock hit :00 before the ball was snapped. Television replays did not look conclusive either way and it played into the message he shared with his team after the game.
“It’s life’s not fair,” Surace said. “Disappointment is a part of life. So are the celebrations. You deal with disappointment the best you can. You show up tomorrow as a team, and you’re brothers, and one play one way or another doesn’t change who they are or who we are.”
After Princeton took its 12-0 first-half lead, Penn finally got on the scoreboard when Francesco Barone blocked a punt and Jordan Niles recovered it in the end zone to make it 12-7 going into halftime despite Princeton holding a 231-69 edge in total offensive yards.
“We had chances to take advantage and have a bigger lead early and didn’t,” Surace said. “It came back to haunt us.”
The second half began with Penn driving deep into the red zone before the Tigers got a huge momentum-changing play that seemed to break the game open. Penn’s Rory Starkey made a catch at the Tigers’ 23, but Nicholas forced a fumble that Johnson scooped and returned for a long touchdown. An extra point by Jeffrey Sexton ’25 gave Princeton a 19-7 lead.
Princeton’s defense denied Penn again when Jonathan Pittman ’25 tripped up Penn quarterback Aidan Sayin on a read option on fourth-down-and-2 from the Princeton 33. But Penn got the ball back when a Stenstrom pass was deflected and intercepted. Penn inched within 19-14 with a resulting 15-play drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run with 10:37 left.
Princeton turned the ball back to Penn with 5:16 left after a fourth-down completion to Iosivas left them six yards short. Penn used 17 plays and converted its third fourth-down of the drive for a 5-yard touchdown reception by Flowers with five ticks left on the clock.
“It’s tough for sure,” Stenstrom said. “It’s probably the toughest moment in my career so far. And the biggest thing is the seniors on the team, guys who put their life on hold to come back for a fifth year. You’re one play away, one point away. It’s really tough.”
The loss concludes a run for the Class of 2023 in which it went 35-5 over the last four seasons. It’s the best stretch over four seasons for Princeton since a 36-win stretch from 1903-06. It sets the standard for the returning players.
“This is the best possible motivation you could have to come back and keep it going,” Johnson said. “Keeping this in mind, in the back of your head when you’re doing those extra reps, when you’re pushing yourself to the limit, I know I’m going to come back a different player and I know a lot of kids on this team are going to come back different players.”