Princeton almost mattered.
Although the Tigers (3-6, 2-4 Ivy) had the chance to play spoilers for the second straight season, the Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0) avenged their only loss in the past 18 games with a 27-6 win at Princeton Stadium, their largest margin of victory against the Tigers in 17 years. Ironically, the Elis’ last bid for a perfect season — the Bulldogs started off 8-0 in 1981 — was upset by a 35-31 Princeton victory.
The win gives the Bulldogs a chance to record their first perfect season since 1960 and sets up an epic showdown with league co-leader Harvard (7-2, 6-0) next week for the Ivy League championship. Harvard defeated struggling Penn in Cambridge, Mass. on Saturday afternoon, 23-7, and the winner of The Game next week at the Yale Bowl will claim sole possession of the Ivy League championship.
“We don’t like Princeton and we make that known,” quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 said. “This was a payback game and we’ve made that clear all week.”
The Bulldogs made sure that the Tigers would not spoil this year’s quest for perfection. In a game that was a mirror image of last year’s heartbreaker, the home team dominated the first half before the visitors pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Despite being outgained 182-51 in total yards in the first half, the Bulldogs entered halftime tied at 3-3 thanks to two key Princeton turnovers. The Tigers coughed up the ball twice within the Yale 3-yard line after methodically driving the length of the field both times.
“We have confidence in our defense that no matter what happens, we’re going to play, play after play, and eventually it will turn our way and things did down in the red zone there,” linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said. “We’re not going to get down if they’re moving the ball on us because we know on any play we can come up with something.”
The first drive of the game set the tone for the rest of the half. The Tigers used a spread formation with consistent pre-snap movement, making up for their lack of a go-to rusher by keeping the Elis from keying in on any one running back. The Tigers used four different rushers to pick up 50 yards on the ground during the drive. The offensive success was short-lived, however, as wideout Adam Berry muffed a handoff and lost the ball on the Yale 3-yard line.
Two drives later, the Tigers experienced a remarkable case of déjà vu. Strong safety Nick Solakian ’08 forced a Princeton fumble on the 2-yard line, one of four Tiger turnovers on the day. Cornerback Paul Rice ’10 recovered the ball and ran 55 yards to set up an Alan Kimball ’08 field goal to give the Elis a 3-0 lead.
On the last drive of the second half, the Tigers nearly committed their third straight turnover inside the Eli 3-yard line when Casey Gerald ’08 almost intercepted an ill-advised throw by Princeton quarterback Bill Foran down the right sideline. The Tigers were forced to settle for a field goal, tying the game 3-3 heading into halftime.
In three trips to the Yale 3-yard line, the Tigers came away with just three points.
“Obviously, the difference in the game was the turnovers — we didn’t have any,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “The ones that they had absolutely killed them. In the first half, they drove the ball down the field, they had a lot of yards, and they didn’t get any points. To be 3-3 at halftime with the way we played offensively — we were in pretty good shape, to be honest with you.”
For the fourth straight game, the Elis offense took an entire two quarters to get going. Mike McLeod ’09 played through a broken toe but could not escape a swarming Princeton defense that sold out against the run by consistently stacking eight to nine men in the box. McLeod ended the first half with only 36 yards on 13 carries for an uncharacteristically low 2.8 yards per carry average.
Despite the slow start, the Elis turned things around in the second half with a bang. On the second play of the third quarter, wide receiver Chris Denny-Brown ’08 made the play of the game. Denny-Brown caught the ball on the Yale 40-yard line, broke a tackle at the 45, and sprinted the rest of the way into the end zone with a trail of Tiger defenders in his wake. The 80-yard touchdown pass, the fourth-longest in school history, was 29 yards more than the Bulldogs entire offensive production in the first half.
“They came in at halftime and Chris thought he could get inside and Jarrett [Drake ’08] thought he could get inside so we ran the post,” Siedlecki said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve run that play for how many years. That’s the way it used to be. The guy used to catch it and run across the field for a touchdown. We haven’t had one of those in years so that was a thrill.”
After the touchdown, the Bulldog defense stepped up again, stuffing Foran on fourth and two in Yale territory. The two teams traded punts until the Bulldogs put together their first drive of the game longer than six plays. After recording only three first downs in the first half, the Bulldogs picked up four on a 13-play drive that ended with a 40-yard field goal with 14:51 left in the game.
On the ensuing drive, the Yale crowd held its breath as Princeton seemed poised to make another dramatic comeback. The Tigers drove to the Yale 14-yard line but were forced to settle for a field goal to cut the Eli lead to 13-6.
McLeod then showed the characteristics that make him the nation’s leading rusher. The star tailback picked up 41 yards on the ground in the late offensive possession to set up a 10-yard touchdown pass to Chris Denny-Brown that clinched the Bulldog victory.
“Mike’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached,” Siedlecki said. “The kid just keeps playing and he’s got a broken foot.”
Matt Coombs ’08 stifled the Tigers’ last-ditch attempt to score, picking off Foran and returning the interception 40 yards to the Princeton 1-yard line before stepping out of bounds. Coombs’s interception set up a one-yard touchdown run by McLeod that extended the running back’s streak to 18 straight games with a score and provided the final 27-6 margin.
“I joked with Matt — he’s about the fourth guy that stepped out of bounds so that Mike could score a touchdown,” Siedlecki said with a laugh. “Mike had another one yarder. Two of our defensive guys this year have done that.”
Although the game before The Game was much closer than the final score indicated, the Bulldogs left Princeton Stadium with a convincing victory over their second-biggest rival. For the first time since 1968, Yale and Harvard will head into The Game with identical 6-0 records in Ivy League play.