In the annals of Princeton football, the 1981 Tigers may not be the most accomplished team (they finished 5-4-1, good for third place in the Ivy League), but they left a lasting mark with one memorable victory on Nov. 14.
Princeton had endured a 14-year losing streak against Yale, and for the most part, the games hadn’t been particularly close. The 1981 Bulldogs, led by running back Rich Diana, were a perfect 8-0, including a nationally televised win over Navy. They seemed primed to steamroll the Tigers at Palmer Stadium — and an early 21-0 lead supported that idea. But Princeton’s prolific passing attack, led by Bob Holly ’82, helped the home team mount a remarkable comeback.
PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83 recapped the action in a story published 25 years after the game:
When Yale jumped to a 21–0 second-quarter lead on a chilly, gray afternoon, Princeton was forced to throw on almost every down. But the Tigers began to chip away at Yale’s lead, trailing only 21–15 at halftime and taking a slim lead early in the second half. Down 31–29 with just over a minute and a half to play, Holly led Princeton on a 76-yard drive, passing 18 times in 20 plays, including a fourth-and-10 completion to tight end Scott Oostdyk ’82, his old high school teammate. An end-zone pass to Derek Graham ’85, who set a Princeton single-game record with 278 receiving yards, was incomplete, but Yale was called for interference, giving Princeton a first down at the one-yard line with nine seconds left.
Holly looked to the sideline for the coaches to call a play, but when no signal came, he decided to call his own, a rollout to the left. It was a risky call, as Princeton was out of time-outs; if Holly had been tackled short of the goal line, time would have expired. But the senior quarterback saw a crack in the Yale line and dove for the winning touchdown. “Looking at the play on film,” he recalled a quarter-century later, “it looks a lot closer than it seemed at the time.”
Rich Gorelick ’82, who was calling the radio play-by-play for WPRB, remembers the Princeton coaches, perched in an adjoining booth of the flimsy Palmer Stadium press box, pounding the thin wooden walls until it seemed that they would fall apart. Paraphrasing announcer Russ Hodges’ famous call of Bobby Thomson’s 1951 pennant-winning home run for the New York Giants, Gorelick barked over and over again to his delirious listeners, “Princeton has beaten Yale!” Fans who poured onto the field turned the goalposts to scrap.
In all, Holly completed 36 of 55 passes for 501 yards, a Princeton record that still stands. The following week, Sports Illustrated named him its offensive player of the week. Yale’s Diana also set a school record with 222 rushing yards in the defeat.
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