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PRINCETON, N.J. — In close games between talented teams, the victor is often decided in high-pressure situations. In this week’s matchup between two of the Ivy League’s top teams, much of the contest was decided by all-important third downs. While the squads combined for a low 21.4 percent conversion rate in the first half, in later key situations Princeton won the edge and, ultimately, the game.
The undefeated Tigers converted on five of 10 third downs in the second half to stave off Harvard’s (4-2, 2-1 Ivy) upset attempt. Princeton won the contest 30-24, its third straight victory over the Crimson.
“Hell of a football game,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “At the end of the day, I think the team that made the least mistakes won the football game.”
The back-and-forth matchup was decided in critical situations throughout the game. While the Crimson remained in the game thanks to its strong defense and prevention of both of the Tigers’ fourth-down conversions, Princeton’s (6-0, 3-0 Ivy) 50-percent third-down conversion rate in the second half helped propel them to victory.
The end of the game was decided on difficult third downs. After forcing a speedy Princeton three-and-out while trailing by two points with under five minutes to play, Harvard avoided the same fate thanks to a leaping 11-yard catch in traffic from senior wide receiver Cody Chrest to convert on third-and-eight. Despite the conversion earlier in the drive, the Crimson would be forced to punt, with junior punter Sean McKeogh pinning the Tigers once again, this time on the seven-yard line.
The poor field position and limited momentum were not enough to stop the Princeton attack early in the drive. The Tigers wiggled out of a tough third and eight with a 33-yard pass and converted on an even tougher third and 10 on its next series with a 16-yard completion. Despite bending, the Harvard defense refused to break, finally coming up with a stop on third and long thanks to a sack that forced a Princeton punt.
In its next drive, the Crimson narrowly converted on an early third and nine to keep its drive alive. On its next third down, however, junior quarterback Jake Smith sailed a pass over his receiver into traffic, resulting in a Princeton interception, Smith’s third of the game.
“Any time you make mistakes, any time you have takeaways, everybody pins it on the quarterback,” Murphy said. “But it’s a little bit of everybody, I take responsibility. Ultimately those are my responsibilities.”
On the Tigers’ next third down, senior quarterback Kevin Davidson launched a ball off his back foot as he was hit. Sophomore wide receiver Dylan Classi, having separated from the coverage-spying Davidson, dove and snagged an impressive one-handed touchdown to extend Princeton’s lead to 30-21 with just over three minutes to play.
“They played a lot of man, and they got us sometimes,” Princeton coach Bob Surace said. “But we got them enough to get the ball into the endzone to win.”
The first half told a different story in these significant situations. The two squads combined for only three third down conversions on 14 attempts in the first two quarters, with a slower start resulting in lower offensive production numbers.
“I thought our defense played their butts off, they did a tremendous job,” Murphy said. “We made them really have to make plays.”
Despite starting with the ball this week, Harvard again unable to prevent its opponent from scoring on its first drive. Following a quick three-and-out, the Tigers’ wasted no time in attacking the Crimson defense. A 41-yard bomb from Davidson to Jacob Birmelin set up a quick Princeton score on its fourth play from scrimmage. The score made it the fifth time in six games that Harvard’s opponent has scored on its inaugural drive.
Davidson, while only a first-year starter, has shown impressive ability in taking over the reins of an already explosive Princeton offense. The gunslinger is outpacing the entire league in nearly every statistical category, completing 70.5 percent of his passes for 1854 yards, 18 touchdowns, and only two interceptions.
“We had everyone covered, we had them well covered, and [Davidson] just stuck it in there,” Murphy said. “He threw about three corner balls that were NFL-quality balls and the receivers made some great plays. They had to make some great plays to earn those.”
Things did not turn around quickly for the Crimson after that first drive. Following a 17-yard completion on first down, Smith threw an interception that gave the Tigers favorable field position just two plays after their first drive had ended. After a sack on third down, Princeton settled for a 46-yard field goal.
Even on its next drive, Harvard’s now-consistent early-game jitters continued. A second successful screen pass to sophomore running back DeMarkes Stradford, and the Crimson was forced to punt once again.
The Tigers’ subsequently marched down the field in methodical fashion, yet the Harvard defense stopped Princeton in the red zone to force a short field goal attempt. On the chip shot, however, sophomore defensive lineman Truman Jones pushed through the line and blocked the kick. The next drive saw limited success, but it resulted in a punt that landed inside the 20 and finally gave the Crimson a manageable field to defend as the clock expired on the first quarter.
To start the second quarter, Princeton failed to drive across midfield for the first time in the contest, punting to Harvard’s own 34-yard line. Despite the strong field position, a holding penalty immediately negated the benefits and gave the Crimson a first down with 20 yards to go to start the drive.
Now that the first quarter had ended, however, it seemed systematic that the tides would shift back in Harvard’s favor. Junior running back Devin Darrington turned a few broken tackles into a strong 33-yard carry to lead the Crimson into the Tigers’ territory for the first time in the game. Feeling the second quarter juju, an almost automatic interception thrown from Smith was dropped directly into the hands of Chrest, keeping the drive alive with a free first down. A 23-yard sideline catch from junior tight end Ryan Reagan allowed Darrington to waltz three yards into the endzone untouched for Harvard’s first score.
With the wind finally at its back, the Crimson continued the momentum by keeping up the defensive pressure. Sophomore defensive lineman David Schwartz leapt into the air, batting down a pass to force Princeton’s first three-and-out and second consecutive punt.
“A lot of our stunts were going well,” Jones said. “We executed a lot of stuff during practice this week so we needed to be quicker and get our hands up more and deflect some more passes.”
The Harvard defensive front continued to excel. The unit held Princeton runners to a stingy 2.7 yards per carry and recorded four sacks.
The Crimson wasted no time in attacking off of this momentum. Smith tucked and ran for 14 yards, then completed passes of 15 and nine yards to senior wide receiver Jack Cook to push Harvard deep into enemy territory. The drive stalled on the next series, setting up a 41-yard field goal attempt for senior kicker Jake McIntyre. Repaying the favor, the Tigers blocked the attempt from the Crimson’s all-time leader in completed field goals.
The Princeton offense, having uncharacteristically stalled for two straight drives, came out firing following the blocked kick. A 24-yard pass from Davidson opened up the drive, but an impressive open-field tackle from Crimson junior defensive back Max Jones forced a fourth and four from the Harvard 44-yard line.
Feigning a fourth down attempt, the Tigers’ offense remained on the field. Davidson took the snap and the Ivy League’s passing leader quickly pooch-punted the ball to the Crimson six-yard line. The call paid off, resulting in a quick Harvard punt from its own endzone.
A later Princeton punt seemed to take the game into the half as the Crimson allowed the clock to tick down south of 30 seconds. Harvard faced a third down and four to gain on its own 27-yard line. Smith found Cook on the sideline as the defensive backs failed to switch to the out route, and the veteran receiver never looked back. Speeding down the sideline, Cook turned on the burners and outran multiple Tigers on the way to a 73-yard touchdown that gave the Crimson a 14-10 lead heading into halftime. This was Harvard’s first lead against Princeton since its last road trip to its New Jersey rival in 2016, over three years ago.
“When I saw it, I said, ‘okay great, we’re going to get another play,’” Murphy said. “I didn’t think it was going to the house, it just turned the whole thing around from halftime, just our whole attitude.”
Replicating its first half start, the Tigers showed off their big play ability with a 26-yard rush from junior running back Collin Eaddy early in the third quarter. This surge was short-lived, however, as the Crimson defense stuffed Princeton on third and short and sacked Davidson on the ensuing fourth down conversion to take possession of the ball near midfield.
Three plays later, Harvard faced a similar fourth and short itself. Possibly learning from its opponent’s mistake, the Crimson decided to punt it away, pinning the Tigers inside the 20-yard line.
The field position and previous stalling proved only a slight hindrance to Princeton, as Davidson completed three passes for 49 yards, including a 21-yarder on third and 10. This moved the Tigers into Harvard territory, where they eventually faced a third and seven at the 30-yard line. This time, Davidson used his legs and scrambled, falling to the turf just short of the line to gain for a first down. Once again, Princeton failed to convert, as the stout Crimson defensive front stood its ground and caused its second-straight turnover on downs on its own side of the field.
“I think we were just playing really physical and big up front,” Jones said. “I think this Princeton team does a lot of things well and a lot of things methodical, and we just kind of knew what they were doing before they did it.”
The fevered excitement on the Harvard bench lasted only a brief moment, as Smith threw an interception along the Crimson sideline on Harvard’s first play from scrimmage. Possession switched again following the very next play, yet this switch was finally in favor of the offense. Davidson found Collins for a 31-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the drive to retake the lead for the Tigers. The score would only be 16-14, however, as the Crimson got to the kicker once again to block the extra point, with sophomore defensive lineman Jacob Sykes recording Harvard’s seventh block of a kick or punt this season.
“I think our special teams group and our coach, Jon Poppe, do a really good job,” Murphy said. “They take a lot of pride in it, and we get a lot of speed off the edge. Whether it’s [sophomore safety James] Herring or whether it’s [freshman defensive back] Khalil [Dawsey], all those guys can really bring it and I think we’ve done a good job sort of figuring out where any potential weaknesses are.”
Finally showing its usual offensive colors, Princeton made quick work of the Crimson defense once again. Starting with a 47-yard reverse from Eaddy, the Tigers again crossed midfield. An acrobatic catch, again from Classi, set Princeton up at the one-yard line, where Eaddy punched the ball into the endzone, his second touchdown of the day and first on the ground, to give the Tigers a two-possession lead.
Sensing the mounting urgency, Harvard decided to put together a few big plays of its own, highlighted by 31 and 16-yard runs from freshman running back Aidan Borguet. The first-year finished off the eight-play, 85-yard drive with a rushing touchdown from two yards out, shrinking the deficit down to only two points just seven seconds into the final quarter.
“Aidan’s a very patient runner,” Murphy said. “He’s a very strong runner, he’s got good vision and balance, and he’s a hell of a football player.”
The Crimson continued to show signs of life despite the late deficit. After Smith lost his helmet and was forced to the sideline for a play, sophomore quarterback Luke Emge scrambled and launched a 30-yard jump ball for Reagan to move Harvard down the field. A late field goal from McIntyre made it a one-score affair, but an unsuccessful Crimson onside kick sealed the game.
—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JMinatelTHC.
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