With 60 minutes of defense and one of magic, Yale (4-5, 4-2 Ivy) stole Saturday’s game from Princeton (6-3, 4-2), 21-14.
By the time the clock had reached its final 1:14, beleaguered Eli captain Jeff Mroz ’06 had had a long day. There were the two interceptions, the three straight incompletions just thrown, and the fact that he had watched most of his first 38 passes from the seat of his pants — all to the delight of the 18,265 on hand at Princeton stadium.
Fourth-and-goal from the ten, the sun setting on the uneven Yale season as well as his own career, Mroz heeded the advice of injured receiver Chandler Henley ’06 and changed his playcall.
Henley’s brainchild was a masterstroke. For the first time all day, Princeton’s cocksure, all-world cornerback Jay McCareins hesitated, and Mroz zipped ten yards of history into the diving hands of receiver Todd Feiereisen ’06.
With the newly tied game seeming destined for overtime, persistence bore still more fruit.
On first down, receiver Brian Shields caught a pass in front of defensive end Brendan Sponheimer ’07, who delivered Shields a baleful blow. The ball popped out of the thunderstruck receiver’s hands and into those of skulking linebacker Bobby Abare ’09, who carried it to the Princeton goal line to set up a game-winning quarterback sneak by Mroz.
It is a testament to the Bulldogs’ defense, which forced seven turnovers, that Mroz even had a chance to shine.
“Our defense – I’ve never seen a more dominant second half,” Mroz said.
Though indeed dominant in the second half, limiting the Tigers to 95 yards of offense, the Eli defense was plagued in the first two quarters by poor tackling from the front seven and two flagrant lapses by the secondary – both of which resulted in passing touchdowns.
“We got beat by a couple of double moves,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We were over-anxious. We didn’t play the defense. We didn’t stay over the top.”
The Tigers had a chance to add a third touchdown at the end of the first half when quarterback Jeff Terrell, with his funky, sidearm release and nimble feet, engineered a nine-play, 69-yard drive that erased 4:49 from the clock. With the ball at the Yale five, Terrell’s slingshot motion proved a blessing for the Bulldogs. Defensive end Brandon Dyches ’06 leapt up and tipped the pass into the hands of linebacker Lee Driftmier ’07.
“There weren’t an awful lot of people happy at halftime,” Siedlecki said. “But we had made one big play. It was the only big play we made in the first half. And it kept us from being down 21.”
The defense continued to produce game-changing plays after the break.
Driftmier halted Prinecton’s first drive of the second half when he secured his second interception on a similarly tipped ball. Safety Nick Solakian ’07 interrupted the Tigers’ next drive when he stepped in front of tight end John Dekker, Princeton’s leading receiver who was held to one four-yard catch, and returned the ball 20 yards to the Princeton 25.
The Elis converted two third downs before running back Mike McLeod ’09 scored on fourth-and-goal from the one.
“I think we can accredit that a lot to our defense,” said Feiereisen, who caught eight passes for a career-high 115 yards. “They gave us so many turnovers and gave us the ball with great field position the whole second half. Our offense knew we had to take advantage of it.”
Yale’s best chance to tie came when Abare forced a Rob Toresco fumble, which Driftmier recovered at the Princeton 21.
But a slew of penalties and a potential-first-down pass off the fingertips of Feiereisen landed Yale at the 36-yard line facing fourth-and-25. Mroz threw a prayer toward receiver Ashley Wright ’07 that star cornerback McCareins foolishly intercepted, landing Princeton on its own three. The field-position swing caused by the interception, McCareins’ second on the day and Division I-AA-leading eighth of the year, allowed Yale to tie the game on its next drive.
“That was a gift,” Mroz said. “I got hurried and you don’t take a sack on fourth down. He should’ve batted the ball down. Field position in a game this close is huge.”
The interception was crucial because it all but assured that Princeton would be punting from its own end zone. Of the Tigers’ final nine drives, two were three-and-outs, two resulted in fumbles, and five resulted in interceptions — the last two by cornerback Mike Holben ’06.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of an effort,” Siedlecki said. “You couldn’t ask more from a football team than we got out of these guys in the last 20-25 minutes of that game.”
The win keeps alive Yale’s slim hopes for an Ivy League title. To claim a share of the prize, the Bulldogs must beat Harvard in the season finale next week and Columbia must upset first-place Brown.