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The Call that Changed a Season: Football v. Princeton, Heartbreak of the Year

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As the Ivy League contributed much to the birth of modern football, it only stands to reason that some of the most memorable games in NCAA history would also have their roots in this storied league. This past year’s Harvard-Princeton matchup is no exception. However, for the Crimson faithful, it is remembered not for the heroism and playmaking on display, but for the heartbreak suffered by the Harvard team and its supporters.

On Oct. 23, Princeton and Harvard, the Ivy League’s two undefeated teams, met at Princeton Stadium in front of thousands of fans to decide who would emerge as first in the conference.

Despite the athletic talent on display for more than 60 minutes by two top-ranked Football Championship Subdivision schools, at the end of the game, it was not the players who stole the show. During the third overtime, Crimson junior wide receiver Kym Wimberly was able to capitalize on the Tigers’ man-to-man coverage, getting open for a pass from senior quarterback Jake Smith. However, right before the play, Princeton head coach Bob Surace had signaled to call a timeout. During the review of the catch, the referees noticed Surace’s call and retroactively granted the timeout — despite the NCAA rule that timeouts are non-reviewable and must be granted by the referees before a snap.

After an offensive pass interference penalty on senior wide receiver B.J. Watson, who made a catch on the ensuing play, Harvard failed to score from the 18-yard line. Thus, the game continued until the fifth overtime, when Princeton capitalized on its opportunity then knocked away a short slant pass by Smith just outside of the end zone to win the game.

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The pain of the loss would only increase for the Crimson, as the next day, the Ivy League admitted in a statement that the referees had made a mistake: Harvard, the league said, should have won the game after Wimberly’s catch.

Although seven months removed from the action, the disappointment is still raw for the players.

“When I think of the Princeton game, the loss still stings a bit,” Wimberly said. “Everyone, even Princeton, knows we won that game.”

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Most of the day for Harvard was business as usual, as the typically stellar defense, which entered the game tied for second in the nation with four sacks per game, did not disappoint. With four interceptions and seven sacks, the defense was able to hold Princeton without a touchdown until midway through the third. Even then, this touchdown was defensive, coming off of a blocked punt by junior punter Jon Sot. In contrast with its defense’s outstanding performance, the Crimson had a relatively slow day on offense, with most of its points coming off the leg of junior kicker Jonah Lipel until a short run to the right of the end zone by sophomore running back Aaron Shampklin in the fourth quarter set the game up for overtime.

The first two periods of overtime went largely the way of the first half. A Princeton field goal was answered by a 33-yd Lipel strike in the first overtime, and although the Harvard offense failed to convert in the second overtime, junior defensive lineman Anthony Nelson was able to block a 34-yard field goal attempt to force a third overtime period.

Due to new NCAA rules introduced prior to the 2021 season, starting with the third overtime, the two teams begin what some have called the football equivalent of a shootout: they trade two-point conversion attempts until a team wins the game.

In the third overtime, the Tigers failed to complete their two-point conversion. This meant that Harvard now had a chance to end the game. Crimson senior quarterback Jake Smith was able to find Wimberly on a beautiful route, who hauled it in inbounds for the win. Once Wimberly came down with the ball, the stadium erupted. The team rushed the field, helmets flying everywhere as the Crimson squad swarmed their offense. But the celebration was short-lived.

Shortly before the snap, Princeton head coach Bob Surace had been frantically trying to call timeout. No referee noticed him, even though in his desperate attempt to get their attention, he was so far on the field he was practically at the hashes. During review of Wimberly’s catch, the referees finally saw Surace and granted Princeton its timeout, negating Harvard’s score.

When head coach Tim Murphy heard their ruling, he appeared apoplectic. The normally serene play caller for the Crimson convened with the referees and Surace at midfield. Although no one but those in the huddle could hear what was said, it was obvious to onlookers that Murphy was not pleased with the result.

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Murphy’s rage was not out of blind passion for his team. According to the 2021 NCAA Football Rules Book Rule 12, Section 3, timeouts are not listed in the litany of reviewable plays. Although the referees were within their right to review the play itself, as it was a scoring play, they could not grant a timeout retroactively. Harvard should have won the game then and there.

Nevertheless, the ruling was made, so the Harvard offense trotted out again for its second attempt at a game-winning conversion. This try was also completed on a beautiful look from Smith to Watson, but the referees determined that Watson had pushed off, giving the Crimson a 15-yard penalty and forcing it back to the 18 yard line. On its third attempt, Harvard was unable to convert, with Smith’s pass for sophomore tight end Haven Montefalco being batted away by Tigers senior linebacker Jeremiah Tyler.

The fourth overtime was again unsuccessful for both teams. But in the fifth, Princeton senior quarterback Cole Smith found senior wide receiver Jacob Birmelin in the end zone, putting the pressure on the Crimson. This marked the end of the line for Harvard, as Princeton was able to break up a short pass to Montefalco to end the game.

Emotions ran high postgame — and were only exacerbated by the Ivy League’s admission the next day that what Harvard had suspected was correct and the timeout should not have been granted. In the announcement, the league recognized that although the Crimson should have won the game, it would allow the result to stand as a win for Princeton.

The Ivy League’s decision was largely based on past precedent. Never in the history of college football has the result of a game been overturned by the regulating body of college athletics itself. The only time a game’s result has been changed was during a 1940 competition between Cornell and Dartmouth, when a referee mistakenly granted the Big Red a fifth down to win the game. After realizing that a mistake was made, Cornell forfeited to Dartmouth, unofficially overturning the official result.

Seven months ago, Harvard’s team was angered with the league’s decision. However, it has made the team more fired up for the upcoming season.

“Obviously, I wish they would’ve overturned the result of the game, especially after recognizing they made a mistake,” said Wimberly, who cited the Princeton game as a reason for his decision to return to the program for his senior season in 2022. “But, it is what it is, and we all just have to take it on the chin.”

Harvard is clearly ready to avenge the heartbreak this fall. The Crimson will have the chance to avenge its loss on Oct. 22, when it welcomes the Tigers to Harvard Stadium.

“Instead of being angry about the decision, I have turned my focus on controlling what I can control and beating them again next year,” Wimberly said. “I think everyone on the team has that similar sentiment. This just gives us extra motivation.”


–Staff writer Maddie B. Barkate can be reached at madison.barkate@thecrimson.com.

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