And then there were two — again.
After enjoying sole possession of the number one spot in the Ivy League for the past two weeks, the Yale football team (7-2, 5-1 Ivy) dropped back into a tie with Princeton (8-1, 5-1) after Saturday’s painful loss. Combined with Harvard’s loss to Penn, a Yale victory would have ensured the Bulldogs their first outright Ivy championship in over 25 years. Now, the team will have to scrap and battle for its chance at a league title next week against Harvard.
In a scenario eerily reminiscent of last year’s season finale against the Crimson, Yale got off to a spectacular start and appeared in complete control of the game, only to relinquish its lead late in the second half, ultimately resulting in a frustrating 34-31 defeat at the hands of archrival Princeton. The Bulldogs’ fine play early in the game was overshadowed by a devastating late-game collapse, which resulted in the Tigers’ first victory over the Elis in five years and their return to the top of the league.
Few times in football is the difference between two halves of play as drastic and pronounced as was the case in this weekend’s showdown. Whether Yale’s absolute lack of offensive production in the second half was due to poor execution on the part of the Elis or substantial adjustments made by the Princeton coaching staff during halftime, the contrast was glaringly obvious to the every individual in the crowd of 43,407. Yale exploded for 355 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in the first half, but mustered only 59 yards and a field goal the entire second stanza.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with such contrasting halves,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We played the best half of offense we’ve played all year in the first half. We just didn’t have the answers and didn’t make plays in the second, and that’s not a good combination.”
Desperate to avenge their 2005 loss — a game in which the Bulldogs were the ones who rallied from a two touchdown deficit to spoil Princeton’s title hopes — the Tigers used a combination of patience and determination to wear down the Elis. In a complete turnaround from last year’s game, quarterback Jeff Terrell, who threw five interceptions at Princeton Stadium, passed for an astounding 455 yards — the fourth-highest in Princeton history — and three touchdowns to fuel the Princeton charge over Yale.
“It’s hard to put into words how good it feels,” Terrell said. “I feel like I was remembered for that game all last year, and I just wanted to prove that I’m better than that.”
The Tigers appeared nervous to begin the day, as their first drive included a recovered fumble, a false start penalty and an incomplete pass before they were forced to punt the ball away. The Bulldogs were not much more successful for the better part of the first quarter until they mounted an impressive 12-play, 99-yard drive culminating in the first of tailback Mike McLeod’s ’09 four first-half touchdowns.
The Yale defense stepped up once again on the next Tiger possession, forcing another unsuccessful drive and setting up great field position for the offense. McLeod took advantage immediately, grabbing a handoff and bursting up the middle of the field for a 46-yard gain deep into Princeton territory. Unsatisfied, McLeod sliced through a number of Tiger defenders and dove into the end zone two plays later to give the Elis a 14-0 lead.
Princeton would record its first score on a bizarre broken play midway through the second quarter. After Terrell fumbled a snap at the Yale 20-yard line, wide receiver Adam Barry fortuitously picked up the loose ball and sprinted into the end zone untouched to cut the lead in half.
But Yale did not wait long to answer, using a series of evasive Matt Polhemus ’08 scrambles, combined with the power running of McLeod to march downfield. Once again, McLeod finished off the drive with a short run and extended the Bulldog lead back to 14.
The last five minutes of the half would feature both teams’ ramping up the offense and registering a touchdown apiece. McLeod’s fourth touchdown of the afternoon gave him a share of the 30-year-old school record of 16 rushing touchdowns on the year — a record he has the opportunity to break next week against Harvard.
If the first half was filled with efficient offense and big plays, the second half could be characterized by a marked inability to move the ball and repeated three-and-outs for the Elis. Instead, it was the Tigers that started to come alive and scored the only points of a the third quarter with a 15-yard lob to the left side of the end zone from Terrell to wideout Brendan Circle.
Yale scored its only points of the second half early in the fourth quarter, when Alan Kimball ’08 booted a 20-yard field goal to give the Elis a short-lived 11-point lead. Princeton came back with an impressive display of passing, moving the ball 65 yards in five plays and setting up Circle’s second touchdown reception of the game. With the score, the Tigers closed to within five points at 31-26.
The stingy Princeton defense once again stopped any forward movement from the Yale offense and forced a punt after only 80 seconds of possession time for the Bulldogs. It took only one play for Princeton to seize the lead from there, as Terrell used a pump-fake to confuse the Eli defense and bombed a 57-yarder to wide receiver Brian Bingham, who was inexplicably left wide open down the left sideline. A successful two-point conversion gave the Tigers 34-31 lead with 7:36 left to play and cast a surreal silence across the cavernous Yale Bowl.
“This team is so even-tempered that it doesn’t matter what the other team is doing,” Princeton head coach Roger Hughes said. “We always want to play at a certain level, and this team has emulated that more than any other team at Princeton since I’ve been head coach.”
Yale had one more chance to reclaim the lead, but came up empty handed and was forced to punt with 4:51 remaining. The Bulldog defense was completely impotent in stopping the visitors from running out the clock, and a Princeton conversion on third-and-eight with a minute and a half to go ensured that the Yale offense would never touch the ball again.
Despite the loss, Yale still has the coveted opportunity to capture its first Ivy League championship in seven years with a victory next week in Boston. A Princeton loss against Dartmouth would give the Elis solitary ownership of the crown, whereas a Princeton victory would result in a sharing of the title. Regardless of how the Tigers perform, Yale knows it must take care of business in what will invariably be the most intense and challenging game of the year against Harvard.
“We’re pretty down right now,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “But we’re still in first place, and we’ve got to start acting like it starting tomorrow. We’ve got to go up there and win a football game and be Ivy League champions. We still have everything to play for and need to bounce back and get it done.”