PRINCETON, N.J. — It has been a tale of two defenses for the football team this season.
The Yale defense, which had kept its opponents to an average of 12 points over the first six games of the season, struggled for the third game in a row, as the Tigers (3–6, 2–4 Ivy) ran the Bulldogs (4–5, 2–4) into the ground in their 24–17 victory at Princeton Stadium on Saturday. The loss was another example of the Bulldogs’ struggles this season — with, arguably, their biggest test still to come in The Game this weekend.
Princeton junior fullback Kenny Gunter and sophomore quarterback Tommy Wornham combined for 174 rushing yards, and the Tigers stopped another late comeback effort by the Elis to secure the victory in the 132nd meeting between the two rivals.
In what was an eerily similar game to Yale’s 35–21 loss to Brown last week, quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 led a second-half comeback with his team down 21–3, but once again the Bulldogs came up short.
“[Up until] the end of the game, I thought we had a chance,” captain and linebacker Paul Rice ’10 said. “This is really disappointing, especially for us seniors.”
Even before the game started, emotions were running high. After the coin flip, both teams charged onto the field, screaming and gesturing at each other, while a thin wall of officials prevented a fight from breaking out.
But one play later, during the opening kickoff, linebacker Jordan Haynes ’12 was ejected after punching a Princeton player.
Head coach Tom Williams said that he had not seen the play, so he could not comment on its specifics.
“This was a rivalry football game and emotions [were] high,” he said. “I can’t speak intelligently about what happened because I didn’t see it.”
The troubles continued for the Bulldogs when Witt threw an interception at midfield on the first drive of the game.
Princeton immediately started its one-two punch that would continue all game: the running games of Gunter and Wornham. Wornham ran 14 yards to Yale’s 12-yard line, and, from there it was all Gunter, who carried the ball the next three plays, and scored a3-yard touchdown to give Princeton the early 7–0 lead.
Recently the Bulldog defense has had trouble dealing with mobile quarterbacks. Two weeks ago at Columbia, Lion quarterback Sean Brackett ran for 68 yards.
Wornham finished with 55 yards on the ground to go with 136 yards through the air.
“I think that we flattered them with a lot of missed tackles,” Williams said. “We expected [Wornham to run]. If you look at the last couple weeks, the running quarterbacks have been able to make some yards on us, and I figured Princeton would try to copy that game plan.”
Upon getting the ball back, it was more of the same for the Elis. They recorded two first downs but Witt promptly fumbled the ball on Yale’s 46-yard line.
Taking advantage of the good field position, the Tigers marched into the end zone, with all 48 yards coming on eight rushes.
At first it seemed like they were going to have to settle for a field goal, though, after the Yale defense forced fourth-and-goal on the 2-yard line. But Wornham caught the Bulldogs off-guard, quickly hiking the ball and running untouched into the end zone, making it 14–0 as the first quarter wound down.
“We didn’t make them go a long way,” Williams said. “They had a lot of short fields to work on, so that, combined with our inability to tackle, was a deadly combination.”
Yale immediately responded in similar fashion, running nine times on a drive that was highlighted by a 30-yard run to Princeton’s 12-yard line by tailback Rodney Reynolds ’10. The Bulldogs got it to within four yards of the goalline — and were about to go for it on fourth-and-two — but a delay of game penalty forced Yale to settle for a field goal try. Kicker Alex Barnes ’11 made the 26-yard kick to make the score 14–3 with 12:07 left in the first half.
On the next drive, Princeton used a series of passes to get them to the 10-yard line, but cornerback Adam Money ’11 forced a fumble, which linebacker Max Newton ’10 recovered.
Two drives later, with 1:01 left in the half, the Bulldogs tried to get some more points to grab the momentum leading into halftime. Witt completed four passes for 43 yards, but Barnes’ 50-yard field attempt hit the left upright and bounced out, leaving the score 14–3 at halftime.
The Tigers immediately came out of the locker room and orchestrated another touchdown drive, which was capped off by tailback Matt Zimmerman’s 30-yard touchdown run, increasing the lead to 21–3.
On Princeton’s next drive, they seemed to be about to put the game away, but linebacker Travis Henry ’10 recovered a Princeton fumble on Yale’s 25-yard line to give the ball back to the Eli offense.
And this time Witt and his teammates were ready.
The sophomore quarterback found tight end A.J. Haase ’10 on consecutive passes for a combined 36 yards. On the next play, Witt connected with wide receiver Peter Balsam ’11, who zigzagged his way to the end zone for the 33-yard score to bring the Bulldogs within 11 with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.
But the Elis weren’t done just yet.
For the fourth time this season, Yale successfully recovered kicker Tom Mante’s ’10 surprise on-side kick.
Quickly faced with a fourth-and-four, it seemed that the Bulldogs’ trick play had gone to waste, but Williams had other tricks in mind.
In a play similar to the one the Elis had converted into a touchdown at Lehigh, the Bulldogs lined up to punt, but Rice took the snap and ran to the sideline for a 13-yard gain, easily getting the first down.
“I had one guy that I had to make miss, and then I got to the sideline and got a first down,” Rice said.
After Princeton received a penalty on fourth down for having too many men on the field, the Bulldogs were once again saved from having to punt.
With luck seemingly on the side of the Bulldogs, Haase made a 26-yard catch, and fullback Shane Bannon ’11 scored from one yard out. Mante made the extra point to make the score 21-17 with 11:34 left in the game.
Williams said he chose to kick an extra point instead of going for two and trying to bring the Elis within a field goal of the Tigers because there was too much time left on the clock.
“You don’t necessarily go for two until you have to go for two because you never know how the score is going to finish,” he said. “At that point, I thought there was time to keep playing.”
Although there was time left, it was not enough for the Bulldogs to ever land the blow they needed.
Princeton took the momentum back with a drive that got the Tigers to the 3-yard line, but the Bulldogs recovered a fumble — only to see Witt throw an interception three plays later, as Princeton went on to make a 27-yard field goal.
It was still a one possession ballgame, though, and with Yale getting the ball back with 4:30 remaining, a comeback was still possible. The Bulldogs got past midfield, but on fourth-and-six, Witt was pressured and threw an incomplete pass to Balsam to turn the ball over on downs.
The Yale defense promptly forced the Tigers to punt, giving the offense one more chance. Starting on their own 15-yard line, with no timeouts left and only 1:33 remaining, the Bulldogs needed a miracle.
But that miracle never came.
Witt was sacked for a 13-yard loss, and on fourth-and-23, the Elis used a hook-and-ladder play which gained 20 yards, but was still short of the first-down marker.
For the first time in three years, the Tigers had defeated the Bulldogs.
Witt took the blame for his three turnovers, which Princeton had cashed in for 17 of their 24 points.
“The [Princeton] defense played hard, they did a good job disguising their coverages, but this is self-inflicted,” he said. “A lot of those turnovers were just me making a bad decision.”
With the ever-important season finale against Harvard (6–3, 5–1) coming up, Rice recognized that the defense is going to need to make big improvements if they are to stage an upset victory.
“Our defense has to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we want to be remembered next week,” Rice said. “I’m confident that we’ll go out on a high note.”