Exhausted after a week of midterms, the Princeton football team stumbled onto buses Friday morning in New Jersey and fell asleep for the long ride to Cambridge and a showdown with the Harvard Crimson.
But the bus driver got lost, and when the Tigers woke up Saturday afternoon they found themselves in Never-Never Land, winners over the Crimson in a bizarre 11-6 contest before 18,000 incredulous fans.
The Crimson (now 4-2, 3-1 Ivy) had a commanding 6-3 lead over Princeton (now 3-3, 3-1 Ivy) with less than five minutes to play when Harvard lined up in punt formation at its own 37.
Kevin Dulsky's snap flew high over the head of punter Rob Steinberg and began rolling toward the Crimson endzone. Steinberg, who despite a missed field goal had had a marvelous day kicking the ball, turned and gave chase with a bevy of Tigers on his tail.
By the time the punter caught up with the ball it was on the goalline. The senior slid and kicked the ball over the endline and out of the playing field as a host of visitors lept to cover it for a would-be touchdown.
Steinberg's play gave Princeton a two-point safety, but Harvard still had an unusual 6-5 lead. If the Tigers had fallen on the ball, they would have gotten at least three points, and the game would have been tied. The safety didn't really hurt Harvard, and Steinberg's heads-up play was the difference.
"He [Steinberg] made a big play on the safety," Crimson Coach Joe Restic said afterwards. "I mean that's a pro kind of a play. He's thinking, he's in the ballgame. He knows we can't give up the seven points, he's got to get it [the ball] in the endzone. That play could have been the ballgame and should have been the ballgame."
But it wasn't the ballgame.
After a safety, the team that surrenders the two points must take a free kick from its own 20, and may either punt or kick off. The Crimson elected to have Steinberg, who is a better placekicker than punter, tee the ball up and kick away.
Restic said he had no doubts that Steinberg should kick off, although many other coaches choose to punt.
"We worked on that during the week, and we just didn't do a good job on that part, punting the ball, free kick," Restic said. "Robert kicked the ball off very well. What you're trying to do is get maximum distance there. On a punt...in that situation he's not the best kicker. He kicks well for us when we're in the snap but it's a different kick, it's a different kick altogether."
"I was very surprised," Princeton return man Tom Urquhart said of the decision to kick off. "You can get the hang time on a punt so you can't get a return."
But the Crimson opted not to punt, and Steinberg smacked a solid boot to the Tiger 30, where the ball took a crazy bounce. Urquhart lunged at the ball and made a wonderful pickup on the pigskin.
The senior pulled the ball in, broke a single tackle and headed upfield. Seventy-five yards later, the ballgame was Princeton's.
"Honest to goodness, when he broke that first tackle, it was almost like I was looking right into his eyes," Rogerson said. "I said to myself he's gone, because there was just like a fire, a determination and it was just an acceleration and I just figured, boy, I don't know that anybody--unless they get a clean one on him--I'm not sure anyone's gonna stop him."