Throngs of fans clad in orange and black marched into Princeton Stadium on Saturday afternoon, hoping to cap off the university’s homecoming festivities with a win. As such, the crowd of 10,003 was treated to a thriller that spanned more than four hours and five overtimes. At the end, those Tigers fans ended up on Powers Field, jubilant in the face of opposing fans’ heartbreak as No. 17/22 Princeton (6-0, 3-0 Ivy) outlasted No. 16/RV Harvard (5-1, 2-1 Ivy) in an emotional and controversial defensive battle, 18-16.
Harvard’s defense, which had already intercepted seven passes entering the contest, stepped up early. Tigers quarterback Cole Smith’s second pass from scrimmage sailed over the head of his intended receiver and straight into the arms of senior cornerback Khalid Thomas, who returned the interception to Princeton’s 13-yard line, giving the Crimson excellent field position to take an early lead. Three plays later, it did just that. Although junior running back Aaron Shampklin fell down short of the line to gain, Harvard was able to get on the board anyway. Junior kicker Jonah Lipel, who converted three field goals and three extra points en route to being named Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week on Oct. 16 against Lafayette, booted it straight through the uprights from 24 yards to give the Crimson the early lead.
However, the Tigers immediately struck back. Cole Smith led his offense on a slow and methodical drive down the length of Powers Field, using 15 plays to travel 53 yards and chewing more than seven minutes off the clock. Along the way, the Princeton offense converted a few crucial third downs, including a third and two near midfield in which running back Collin Eaddy barely snuck over the line to gain on a rush up the middle. Harvard’s third down defense had been elite thus far this season, allowing a conversion rate of 25.6 percent, good for the sixth stingiest rate in the country.
Ultimately, Scott Larkee’s unit would come up with the stop it needed. With the Tigers facing third and six just 14 yards away from taking the early lead, Washington broke through to combine for the most crucial of the Crimson’s seven sacks with sophomore defensive lineman Nate Leskovec. Their efforts knocked Princeton’s offense back eight yards and forced them into a field goal attempt. Although Jeffrey Sexton converted the 40-yarder, Harvard was able to keep the score knotted.
Later in the quarter, the country’s fourth-ranked red zone defense stepped up again. In ten previous trips to the red zone, Harvard opponents had come away with just three touchdowns and three field goals. Although Princeton advanced the ball into the red zone on three of its first four possessions of the game, it came away with just six points, being forced to settle for a field goal attempt on each of its drives. On his second drive into the Crimson red zone, Cole Smith’s pass to the left side of the end zone led wide receiver Dylan Classi just a little too much, for the receiver came down out of bounds. Then, Harvard received some special teams help when Sexton pushed his 22-yard kick wide right.
The final play of the first quarter proved to be a crucial one for the Crimson. Facing third and ten from his own 20-yard line, sophomore quarterback Charlie Dean scrambled up the middle. He slid after a gain of five yards, but was hit late by a Tigers defender, giving the Crimson a fresh set of downs. It would also be Dean’s last snap of the game, for Murphy opted to turn to senior quarterback Jake Smith at the start of the second quarter.
Princeton managed to tack on another three points after forcing a Jake Smith overthrow on fourth and two from the Tigers’ 36-yard line. Harvard looked to have stalled out the drive’s momentum after junior defensive lineman Jacob Sykes got through for a sack, but Cole Smith and his offense converted a 3rd and 12 with a completion to wide receiver Carson Bobo that just got past the chains. The next play, Cole Smith threw a deep pass down the right hash marks that wide receiver Andrei Iosivas hauled in for a 30-yard completion. Although the Crimson were able to keep Princeton out of the end zone, Sexton converted a 28-yard field goal attempt.
After the teams traded three-and-outs, Harvard finally managed to get some offensive momentum going, embarking on an 11-play, 70-yard drive that culminated in another Lipel field goal. Offensive coordinator Mickey Fein leaned more on his aerial attack than he had during earlier drives, and Jake Smith delivered, completing strike after strike to junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly. Shampklin contributed, too, taking two consecutive short passes for a combined 29 yards to earn two first downs. Although senior tight end Adam West failed to come down with a jump ball in the right corner of the end zone, the Crimson were able to knot up the score at 6-6.
Although the Tigers got the ball back with less than a minute remaining in the half, the Crimson would end up having one more chance to add another score before halftime. On the first play of Princeton’s drive, senior linebacker Jack McGowan got in front of Cole Smith’s pass, earning Harvard another possession on the edge of field goal range at the Tigers’ 26-yard line. Three plays later, though, Lipel pulled his 37-yard field goal attempt wide left. Entering the game, he had been a perfect six for six on field goal attempts and had missed only one extra point.
Jake Smith was unable to get any momentum going on the first drive after halftime after facing constant pressure from Princeton’s front seven. However, the Crimson defense answered back, with senior defensive lineman Nasir Darnell and junior defensive lineman Anthony Nelson combining for a sack and forcing the Tigers to punt. On Harvard’s ensuing possession, Jake Smith was unable to avoid Cole Aubrey’s pressure.
On came junior punter Jon Sot, a two-time All-Ivy selection who had earned the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week award for his performance against Holy Cross on Oct. 2. Princeton defenders swarmed his punt, blocking it and scooping up the loose ball in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. Sexton tacked on the extra point to extend the Princeton lead to seven, 13-6.
The Tigers’ defense held serve on the Crimson’s next possession, with Samuel Wright and Uche Ndukwe beating Harvard’s offensive line and dropping Jake Smith for a loss of eight yards. Entering the game, the Crimson had protected its quarterbacks well, yielding just six sacks in five games. However, the Princeton defensive line, which had racked up 20 sacks in its first five games, tied with Harvard for the second-highest rate in the nation, got through for three sacks on Saturday.
On the second play of Princeton’s ensuing possession, sophomore cornerback Alex Washington jumped Cole Smith’s pass, making a diving interception near the right sideline and giving Harvard possession at midfield. However,, the Crimson offense was unable to take advantage of the solid field possession. Although a sixteen-yard reception by first-year tight end Tyler Neville brought it to the edge of field goal range at the Tigers’ 33-yard line, Harvard was immediately set back by a ten-yard sack, forcing Sot to punt.
After the defense forced yet another Princeton three-and-out, Jake Smith and the offense trotted out to the Crimson’s 47-yard line. Down to its final fifteen minutes to save its unblemished season, Harvard delivered with an impressive drive. Presenting a multi-dimensional offense by mixing Shampklin runs with four completed passes to four different receivers, the Crimson was able to find the end zone while only facing third down once. On that third down play, it did not immediately look as if Shampklin would score, because the Tigers had successfully bottled up the inside, but he bounced around the edge and reached the pylon just before any defender. Lipel calmly converted the extra point to tie the game at 13-13.
For the rest of the regulation, the teams traded punts and missed opportunities. Harvard had the chance to strike first, when sophomore safety Victor Tademy came down with an overthrown first down deep ball for the team’s fourth interception of the game. Entering the contest, Cole Smith had completed nearly 70% of his passes and thrown 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions, but the Crimson defense did an excellent job keeping him in check, limiting him to just 20 completions on 40 attempts for 206 yards in addition to the four picks. However, Harvard failed to get any momentum after Tademy’s interception, punting without earning a first down.
Later, Princeton would drive down to the Crimson 20-yard line after an aggressive play call by offensive coordinator Mike Willis. Faced with 4th and 4 on Harvard’s 37, Willis opted to keep his offense on the field and drew up a screen pass towards the right sideline. Wide receiver Jacob Bermelin hauled it in and turned up the sideline, beating Crimson defenders around the corner and racing into the end zone, much to the delight of the crowd. After a few minutes of pandemonium, however, officials ruled that Bermelin had stepped out of bounds at the 22-yard line. His efforts were enough to pick up the first down and maintain possession for the Tigers. However, Harvard’s special teams unit got a fingertip on Sexton’s 37-yard field goal attempt, pushing it wide right and keeping the game tied at 13-13.
When the Crimson got the ball back, its coaching staff seemed content to play for overtime. With just under three minutes remaining in the game and facing a third and 10 at its own 20-yard line, Fein called for a handoff to Shampklin instead of asking Jake Smith to take a shot downfield. The running back lost three yards on the play, ending Harvard’s last real chance of winning the game in regulation. Princeton’s ensuing drive produced just one first down and failed to reach the Crimson side of the field.
Thus, the two teams entered overtime in front of the anxious crowd, whose energy had been increasing throughout the fourth quarter. In college football, unlike the National Football League (NFL), each team has a shot at possession, regardless of the results of the first team’s drive. The teams trade off possessions until one offense produces a score that its counterpart cannot match. Princeton had the ball first at Harvard’s 25-yard line, seeking to produce a touchdown and put pressure on the Crimson offense to respond.
Continuing a day-long trend, Harvard’s defense stepped up to the occasion, with two solo tackles from Leskovec holding the Tigers to a field goal attempt. Sexton stepped up again from the same distance from which he had missed near the end of regulation, although on the opposite end of the field. While Crimson fans were desperately hoping for another miss and Princeton supporters held their collective breath in nervous anticipation, he booted it through to give the Tigers a 16-13 advantage.
Harvard’s offense then controlled its own destiny. If it scored a touchdown, it would win the game and return home in excellent position to eventually claim the Ivy League championship, especially with previously 5-0 Dartmouth falling in a 19-0 affair to Columbia earlier in the day. For a moment, it looked as if Crimson fans would get what they had hoped for; sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco came up with a diving catch in tight coverage to pick up a critical conversion on 3rdand 4. However, its offense stalled on the Tigers’ 16-yard line, forcing Lipel to line up for a 33-yard field goal. He had missed his previous attempt, just before halftime, but history did not repeat itself: he stepped up and nailed the kick.
Harvard then got the ball again for the start of the second overtime period, where it would again get one possession from Princeton’s 25-yard line. This time, however, Jake Smith’s deep ball down the left sideline sailed over Neville’s head and wound up in the arms of Tigers defensive back Trevor Forbes. The interception meant that Princeton would only have to score three points on its next drive to win the game.
Thanks to a Herculean effort by the Crimson defense, the Tigers offense came up short. Leskovec combined with junior defensive lineman Chris Smith to deny Eaddy just shy of the line to gain on 3rd and 3. Then, Harvard’s special teams unit stuffed Sexton’s 34-yard game-winning field goal attempt, its second critical block of the game. The Crimson student section roared with glee and the sideline emptied in celebration, having thwarted the most dire threat it had faced yet.
This year, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) passed a rule stipulating that in the event of a tied game after two overtime drives per team, starting in the third overtime, the offenses would trade plays from the three-yard line. If one team was able to score on a two-point conversion attempt and its opponent was unable to match it, that team would win the game.
Princeton trotted out to the three-yard line first, Willis having dialed up a pass play. However, McGowan broke up Cole Smith’s quick slant attempt, giving Harvard the opportunity to end the game with a conversion. Jake Smith fired towards the back of the end zone and Wimberly came down with it. The Crimson had won the game…or so it thought.
With thousands of stunned Princeton fans and a small contingent of Harvard fans giddy, officials trotted out on the field to announce that Wimberly’s game-winning conversion was under review. Crimson players, who had stormed the field in celebration and mobbed the offense, retreated back to their sideline. Eventually, after a few minutes of confusion, the officiating team ruled that Tigers head coach Bob Surace had called a timeout just before the snap, nullifying Wimberly’s score.
After taking the thirty-second timeout to regroup after Wimberly’s would-be winner, Harvard’s offense trotted back out onto the field for its second try. Jake Smith dropped back and, after some time in the pocket, found senior wide receiver BJ Watson in the back of the end zone. Watson came down with the football and, again, the Crimson bench erupted and charged onto the field, thinking it had won. But officials deemed that Watson had pushed off and called off the play, backing Harvard up 15 yards on the penalty. On his third attempt, Jake Smith’s pass to Montefalco was broken up by Princeton linebacker Jeremiah Tyler.
“We played our hearts out,” Murphy lamented after the game. “We couldn’t have played any harder. Offense, defense, special teams: we played as hard as we possibly could play. And when it got down to overtime, we executed well on both sides of the ball. Had it won once…had it won twice…still, the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Harvard’s offense had to regroup immediately, starting with the ball in the fourth overtime period. However, Jake Smith’s pass found Tigers linebacker Daniel Beard for an interception, giving his offense possession with another chance for a score to win the game. This time, Willis turned to a trick play, with Classi taking a handoff from Cole Smith before rolling to his right and throwing towards Birmelin in the back of the end zone. However, Classi’s throw was too low and harmlessly hit the turf.
On its fifth drive, and third two-point conversion attempt, Princeton finally stepped up. Cole Smith rolled to his right, continuing to buy time and eventually firing a high ball towards the back right corner. The Crimson had the play well-covered, but the 5’9” Birmelin high-pointed the ball, out-leaping the defender and coming down in bounds for a crucial conversion to reclaim the lead at 18-16.
Harvard’s offense stepped up to the line of scrimmage, knowing that if it wanted to keep itself atop the Ancient Eight, failure would not be an option. Jake Smith again targeted Montefalco, but his pass was broken up by Forbes. As it fell to the ground, thousands of Tigers fans began to roar and storm onto the field, hopping over the low wall at the base of the stands. As the Princeton contingent began to celebrate, Crimson players retreated towards their bench in disbelief.
On Sunday morning, the Ivy League released an official statement, announcing that it had reviewed the actions of the referees towards the end of the game. In particular, the conference noted that while Princeton had indeed called a timeout prior to the snap on Wimberly’s game-winning conversion, timeouts must be noticed and granted by a referee before the snap and are not reviewable. The conference then conceded that while Harvard should have won the game on the play in question, the result would officially stand as a Tigers victory.
Harvard will not have much time to dwell on the heartbreaking defeat, because it hosts another formidable opponent next Saturday at Harvard Stadium. Although RV/No. 25 Dartmouth lost to fall to 5-1, it still represents a major challenge for the Crimson in its quest to climb back into the Ivy League title race. On Nov. 6, it will face another potential rival for the conference championship, a surprising Columbia Lions team that, after defeating Dartmouth, improved to 5-1. However, despite the loss, Murphy was confident that his team would bounce back quickly and play hard against the Big Green.
“Our kids are going to bring a locked-in, 100 percent, all-in unbelievable effort,” the coach asserted. “That’s what you’re going to see against Dartmouth. That’s the only thing they know. That’s the only thing we do.”
— Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at email@example.com.