Break out the kindling: Princeton beats Yale, earns Big Three bonfire

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Will Powers ’15 ran for 54 yards against Yale, and Princeton controlled the game in the second half, winning 29-7 in New Haven. (Photo: Donald Clark)

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The last time the football team played at Yale with a Big Three bonfire at stake, in November of 2006, Princeton faced an 11-point deficit in the final 10 minutes in a battle of eventual Ivy League co-champions. Star quarterback Jeff Terrell ’07 led a memorable comeback, guiding his team to two late touchdowns and lighting up Cannon Green for the first time in 12 years.

On Saturday, with Big Three bragging rights on the line once again, no such drama was required. Having already used up their fourth-quarter heroics with a 24-point comeback against Harvard three weeks earlier, the Tigers took their first lead shortly before halftime and never relinquished it, pounding the injury-ravaged Bulldogs 29-7 and bringing a bonfire back to Princeton.

For the first 15 minutes of the game, it looked as if loads of firewood might lay dormant for another year. Using a multi-option rushing attack and occasional well-placed passes, the Bulldogs marched into Princeton territory on each of their first three drives, scoring a 14-yard touchdown on their second possession. Meanwhile, the Tigers went three-and-out on each of their first two possessions; only two third-down stops of threatening Yale drives kept their margin at seven points.

But as soon as the teams switched sides for the second quarter, the mood changed. Princeton marched 70 yards down the field in three minutes, led by efficient passing by Connor Michelsen ’15. The sophomore was eventually picked off in the end zone, but after a quick defensive stand, quarterback Quinn Epperly ’15 led a 77-yard touchdown drive on the next possession.

Yale reached the Tigers’ five-yard line in the final minutes of the first half and was poised to take a lead into intermission. But running back Mordecai Cargill attempted a trick pass, running to the right side and throwing back to the left — and cornerback Trocon Davis ’14 was ready for it. Davis snagged the ball at the goal line and ran with it the length of the field for a 100-yard score, the second-longest interception return in Ivy League history.

By turning a potential Yale touchdown into one for the Tigers, Davis irrevocably swung the game’s momentum. “When the ball was in the air, I was close enough, and I made a play on it,” Davis said. “That’s the biggest play of my entire life.”

In the second half, almost all the breaks went Princeton’s way. After scoring on their first possession, the Tigers’ extra-point snap went bad — a recurring problem for the team this year — but kicker Nolan Bieck ’16 ended up with the ball and dove past a tackler, just barely reaching the end zone for a two-point conversion. “That was actually the first time in my career the ball has ever been in my hands,” Bieck said. Later in the quarter, Cargill darted toward the Tigers’ end zone but lost the ball at the one-yard line; cornerback Anthony Gaffney fell on the ball for a touchback, his second recovery of a Cargill fumble. Throughout the game, Yale entered Princeton territory nine times but somehow scored only once, stalling at inopportune times and committing three turnovers.

Princeton’s biggest break, though, came before the game even started, when Yale’s Tyler Varga — the Ivy League leader in rushing and all-purpose yards — did not suit up, sidelined with a knee contusion. Varga, a running back, was expected to start under center and run a Wildcat-like offense, with top quarterback Eric Williams and his two backups injured; instead, that spot went to wide receiver Henry Furman — effectively Yale’s second-string non-quarterback. (Furman played well considering the circumstances, completing 18 of 28 passes without an interception.)

Hundreds of Princeton students made the trip to New Haven, many of them riding buses sponsored by the USG, giving the Tigers a level of student support comparable to most home games. “When you turn around to go talk to the offense or defense, and you see that sea of orange, that was really nice,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said. And though Surace stressed the importance of keeping his team’s focus on the field, there was no doubt about the students’ primary motivation: After Matt Costello ’15 made a leaping touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to seal the victory, the fans roared, “Bon-fire! Bon-fire! Bon-fire!’”

Quick takes

For the sixth time in program history, FIELD HOCKEY is one of four teams left standing in the NCAA tournament. The No. 2 Tigers beat Drexel 5-0 in the first round on Saturday; the following afternoon, they downed No. 7 Virginia on the road 5-2 to reach the semifinals, as Kat Sharkey ’13 scored her 34th and 35th goals of the season to break her own Princeton record. Next up: unseeded Maryland, which ended Princeton’s run in the Final Four in 2009.

WOMEN’S SOCCER was also successful in NCAA play this weekend, upsetting No. 21 West Virginia 2-1 in Morgantown. Lynessa McGee ’15 scored an early goal and Jen Hoy ’13 added insurance on a second-half breakaway, which proved to be necessary. Claire Pinciaro ’13 made seven saves as the Tigers’ back line dodged bullet after bullet for their 12th straight win; they will face No. 4-seed Marquette in Provo, Utah, on Thursday.

In its first game of the season at Baker Rink, MEN’S HOCKEY upset No. 4 Cornell 5-3 on Friday. The Tigers racked up four more goals in a 4-0 win over Colgate on Saturday. WOMEN’S HOCKEY recovered from an early-season slide to take three points from RPI and Union on the road.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL opened its season by beating St. Joseph’s 69-59. Nine different Tigers scored in the game, which should happen frequently this season, as the team has lots of talent but lacks a second go-to scorer beyond Niveen Rasheed ’13 (who had 14 points, eight rebounds, four steals, and four assists).

MEN’S BASKETBALL edged a tough Buffalo team on the road, 57-53, behind a breakout performance by Will Barrett ’14 — nine rebounds and 20 points, including a game-icing three-pointer. Seven Ivy League teams began play with wins this weekend; the league could have been a perfect 8-0 had Yale not blown a 24-point lead in its opener.

 

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Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.