Refusing to let a season-ending loss at Dartmouth keep them down, seniors from the Ivy League co-champion Princeton football team reflected on a remarkable season in advance of Sunday’s Big Three bonfire. The Ivy title, shared with Harvard, is the Tigers’ first since 2006, when they shared the honor with Yale.
“No matter how hard it looks you can always work yourself out of it,” senior defensive back Elijah Mitchell said. “And if you work hard enough you can accomplish the goals you set from the very beginning even if it doesn’t look like you’ll get there at first.”
“It’s been a long time coming to a lot of us simply because it would be hard to find a team and a group of guys that have worked harder than we have,” senior running back Brian Mills added.
The season has seen an accumulation of records for Princeton football, most of them by quarterback Quinn Epperly ’15. Despite doubts at the beginning of the season over who would start under center, the junior quickly showed that he knew how to score. Epperly matched Doug Butler ’86’s record for single-season passing touchdowns (set in 1983) with 25. Almost half of those touchdowns were to senior receiver Roman Wilson, who caught 11 touchdowns passes this season, matching the record of Derek Graham ’85, also set in 1983.
“[The records] are just kind of an added extra. Our main goal is to win, every drive we want to score, so that’s the first goal,” Wilson said. “But those are great. I think they reflect us as a team, where we’ve come and a reflection of the coaches as well.”
Epperly also came within one score of Keith Elias ’94’ single-season rushing touchdown record of 19 (set in 1993) with his 18th rushing touchdown of the season coming in the season finale at Dartmouth — a 28-24 loss that ended the Tigers’ eight-game winning streak. His success has not gone unnoticed: Epperly earned Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week honors six times.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a stronger candidate than Quinn,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said, in reference to Epperly’s chances of taking home the Ivy League’s honor for Offensive Player of the Year, the Bushnell Cup.
Epperly set a new FCS record by completing 29 consecutive passes in a single game and passed for six touchdowns against Harvard, tying Princeton offensive coordinator James Perry’s Ivy record for most touchdowns in a single game, set during Perry’s playing days at Brown.
“It’s an honor [to set these records],” Epperly said. “I think it is a great thing to strive to be one of the greatest in the history of the program and hold records but the records aren’t something I think about or focus on much.”
Led by Epperly’s performance, the Tigers set the new Ivy League scoring record with 437 points this season, 88 points more than Princeton’s previous best, set by the 1950 team in a nine-game season.
“It’s always great to see the offense go out and score a lot of points, and it gives the defense motivation to get the offense back on the field to go score more points,” senior defensive lineman Matt Landry said. “Football is a team game and offense is certainly breaking records and defense is playing very well, and that’s what you need in order to win games.”
While the offense has attracted most of the attention this season, “the defense has really saved our butts for the start of like three games,” senior tight end Des Smith was quick to add.
The turnaround of the program from back-to-back 1-9 seasons to an Ivy League title has been especially meaningful on the Class of 2014, who were the first class to play their entire careers under Surace.
“I still remember the first meeting as an offense and everything hasn’t changed,” Smith said. “The philosophy of the offense, and the philosophy of the team hasn’t changed. We’re going to work as hard as we can all year round and we want to be the Ivy League champions, and it’s cool to finally accomplish that goal.”
“It’s not really something that just happened over this one year, it’s really been a four-year accumulation and process that’s been going on for a while, so for this senior class its obviously really special to go out like this and something that we’ve been working for,” senior defensive back Phil Bhaya added.
“I think the coaches were really able to instill a culture on this team, and the first two years they really struggled to get it across to the previous upperclassmen. But I think now we’ve really started to get what they’re trying to preach to us and we’ve just bought in and it’s really paid off,” senior linebacker Jason Ray said.
“For me its been one of the most rewarding experiences having seen the transitions from the bad seasons to the good ones, knowing that we’ve gone through all that adversity and been able to work through that and still have a positive mindset and come together as a team and work towards a specific goal,” Wilson added. “I think that’s been so important to us, it means a lot. It’s definitely brought us closer as a team and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful.”
The Tigers finish the season first in scoring offense (43.7 points per game) and total offense (511.6 yards per game). They found the end zone 56 times, compared to 37 for second-ranked Brown. Most importantly, however, they finish the season as Ivy League and Big Three champions.
Men’s hockey (3-8, 2-6 Ivy) beat No. 4 Quinnipiac 4-3 on Saturday after losing to them 0-3 on Friday night. It was Princeton’s first win against a top-5 team since November of last year. Senior Andrew Ammon gave the Tigers the lead with 2:24 left in regulation on a glove-side shot.
Men’s water polo (22-5) advanced to CWPA championship with a win over third-seeded Navy in the semifinals, 9-8, but lost the title game to St. Francis, 11-9 on Sunday. St. Francis earned the league’s bid to the NCAA Final Four.
Men’s basketball defeated Rice 70-56 to start the season with 3-1 for the first time since 2006-07. Sophomore forward Hans Brase lead the team with 15 points, nine of them from beyond the arc, and junior guard Ben Hazel had seven rebounds. Senior guard T.J. Bray returned for the Tigers after a hand injury kept him out of the beginning of the season and added eight points in 21 minutes.