When Princeton running back Cameron Atkinson broke past the Yale secondary and took off down the sideline, a collective groan arose from the crowd of Yale fans.
Atkinson is nationally ranked in the 100-meter sprint and a Princeton touchdown with four and a half minutes remaining in the game would have left the Elis with a 10-7 deficit and little room to maneuver. But the Yale defense came to the rescue, just as they had done all afternoon long.
Bulldog defensive back James Beck ’05 caught up with Atkinson from behind and pushed him out of bounds at the Yale 36. The Bulldog defense then regrouped to preserve the Elis’ (6-3, 4-2 Ivy) lead for a 7-3 win over Princeton (5-4, 3-3).
By the end of the game, instead of regretting that they had braved the cold temperatures and driving rain for nothing, the Eli faithful were chanting, “We want Harvard.”
“James [Beck] is an incredible athlete,” captain Jason Lange ’03 said. “He’s got a ton of speed. When the footrace started, I thought Cameron was going to make it; but James got the perfect angle on him and made the play.”
Princeton had plenty of chances besides Atkinson’s late-game footrace. But the unrelenting Yale defense managed to keep the Tigers out of the end zone the entire game.
Princeton’s only scoring drive and the Tigers’ second-best look at the end zone came in the first quarter. Princeton quarterback Matt Verbit connected with wide receiver B.J. Szymanski on a 43-yard pass to set the Tigers up at the Yale 18. Princeton eventually got to the Yale 2-yard line, but the Eli defense stopped the Tigers on three consecutive downs to force Princeton to settle for a field goal.
The Yale defense was put to the test again when Princeton outside linebacker Drew Babinecz picked off Yale quarterback Jeff Mroz ’05 in the third quarter. Babinecz’s interception and 16-yard return gave the Tigers the ball at the Yale 34-yard line.
But the Eli defense quickly crushed Princeton’s scoring hopes, keeping the Tigers from a first down on its following drive.
“That’s a situation that our defense had been in a couple times in the game,” Lange said. “I remember just going out there and saying to the guys, ‘Hey, this is where we’ve been three or four times before and it doesn’t matter whether it was off an interception or not. We have to come out and make a stop.'”
The Yale defense held Atkinson, who is second among rushers in the Ivy League with an average of 90.3 yards per game, to only 68 yards on 23 carries. Yale also did a good job of keeping the Tiger offense off the field. Princeton converted only 5 of their 18 third-downs and had possession of the ball almost nine minutes less than the Bulldogs.
One thing that worked for the Elis was their decision to throw more blitzes at the Tigers. The Bulldogs sacked Verbit six times for a total loss of 26 yards.
“We had great chances but we just couldn’t put the ball in,” Princeton head coach Roger Hughes said. “Yale started blitzing us a lot more and it was an effective force.”
While the defense dominated, Yale’s offense struggled. Mroz, who had been near-perfect in the last two weeks against Columbia and Brown, struggled in the pocket Saturday, completing only nine of 20 pass attempts for only 54 yards.
But when the time came, Mroz got the job done. In the fourth quarter, Mroz capped a 17-play, 85-yard drive with an 11-yard floater that sailed over two Princeton defenders and landed in the hands of Yale wide receiver Ron Benigno ’04 in the back corner of the endzone. On the same drive, Mroz also helped the offense with one key first-down from a quarterback scramble.
“It was a very frustrating day for me,” Mroz said. “I didn’t get real comfortable till that last drive. I missed a couple of guys early and that frustrated me. But you can’t get down on yourself.”
The Yale offense also got a welcome boost from running backs Robert Carr ’05 and David Knox ’06. Carr’s 96 yards from 21 carries yesterday put him at 1008 yards on 212 attempts this season, surpassing the single-season sophomore rushing record of 962 yards from 134 attempts set by Dick Jauron ’73 in 1970.
“It is a great achievement for Robert and a source of pride for our entire offense, especially our offensive line,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said.
Knox also contributed 51 yards on 14 carries.
Elsewhere around the Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania crushed Harvard 44-9, snapping Harvard’s 12-game Ivy League win streak. Despite Harvard’s loss and Yale’s three-game win streak, the Elis are not taking anything for granted when they take on the Cantabs in Cambridge next week in the 119th Harvard-Yale game.
“Penn’s win did not surprise me, though the final score did,” Siedlecki said. “Harvard will take a day to get over it and then get focused on us. I expect a great football game on Saturday.”