This was one for the books.
On a perfect football Saturday at the Stadium, Harvard held a 42-16 lead in the second half and seemed to be cruising to its fifth win of the season. Then, within a span of 10 minutes, a furious Princeton rally cut the Crimson lead to a shaky-looking three points.
To the relief of most of the 11,422 spectators in attendance, Harvard got its mojo back, scoring two late-game touchdowns to secure a 56-39 victory.
Quarterback Collier Winters ’10 (’12) returned to action after pulling a hamstring muscle in the Holy Cross opener. He had been ably replaced by junior Colton Chapple, who passed for 918 yards and 12 touchdowns in the four games he started. In last week’s 42-3 rout of Bucknell, Chapple had matched a 58-year-old Harvard record by throwing five touchdown passes.
Not to be outdone, Winters threw for five touchdowns on Saturday, adding another touchdown on a one-yard rush.
Winters completed 34 of 42 passes for 403 yards. His 34 completions were two short of the Harvard record set by Neil Rose ’03 at Dartmouth in 2002. Only two Crimson quarterbacks — Rose and Chapple — had previously thrown for more than 400 yards in a single game.
Winters spread his passes among nine receivers, with fifth-year senior Chris Lorditch and freshman Seitu Smith III each making six catches. Lorditch led the receiving corps with 101 yards and one touchdown.
Receivers Matt Brown ’14, Alex Sarkisian ’12, Cameron Brate ’14, and freshman halfback Zach Boden also caught scoring passes. Halfback Treavor Scales ’13 had two short-yardage touchdowns and led the ground attack with 86 yards rushing.
Princeton started the game with a palette of trick plays that caught Harvard flat-footed, allowing the Tigers to score after just four downs and a minute and 14 seconds of play.
The Crimson came back with a 69-yard drive, finished off by Winters’s short-yardage touchdown. Harvard next moved downfield in four plays, scoring again on a 29-yard pass that Brown wrested from two Tiger defenders. None the worse for his four-game layoff, Winters threw six passes on those two Crimson drives and completed all of them.
The offense sputtered on three of Harvard’s next four possessions, but Scales scored on a second-period drive and the Crimson led, 21-9, at halftime.
Winters amped up his aerial showpiece by passing for two quick touchdowns — on a 53-yard bomb to Lorditch and a 16-yarder to Sarkisian — at the start of the second half. A 17-yard pass to Boden put Harvard up, 42-16, midway through the third period.
The Tiger then bared its claws, mounting a three-touchdown rally that began with a 42-yard breakaway by the team’s top rusher, freshman halfback Chuck Debilio. Just a minute and a half later, the Orange and Black scored again on a 36-yard pass from quarterback Tommy Wornham to wide receiver Shane Wilkinson.
Princeton rocked Harvard with another scoring drive as the final period started. This one ended with a one-yard quarterback sneak by Wornham and a two-point conversion pass that narrowed the score to 42-39.
Harvard rebounded with a 67-yard drive that produced Scales’s second touchdown of the day. Princeton regrouped, but the Tigers’ next series was snuffed out when linebacker Alex Gedeon ’12 intercepted at midfield. Harvard needed only five plays to register an insurance touchdown, this one on a 17-yard pass to tight end Cameron Brate.
Kicker David Mothander ’14, who’d delivered on seven previous extra-point tries, now booted his eighth to make it one for the books, 56-39.
Harvard’s nerve-jangling win raised the team’s Ivy League record to 3-0 (5-1 overall). Princeton is 1-2 in the league and 1-5 overall.
The Tigers had arrived at the Stadium with the Ivies’ best rushing attack, averaging almost 170 yards per game, but ranked last in scoring defense, allowing an average of 30-plus points per game. Princeton amassed 267 yards rushing against a top-ranked Crimson defense that had limited five earlier opponents to an average of 55.4 yards per game.
Gedeon’s fourth-quarter interception was the senior captain’s fourth takeaway in the last four games. Fellow linebacker Joshua Boyd ’13 led the defensive unit with a career-high 17 tackles and a first-half fumble recovery.
The fleet-footed Seitu Smith, who does triple duty as a kick-return specialist, receiver, and occasional running back, was credited with 220 all-purpose yards: 122 on five kickoff returns, 54 on six pass receptions, 42 on a punt return, and two yards rushing.
Backup quarterback Colton Chapple watched the game from the sideline. Only one Ivy quarterback, Cornell’s Jeff Mathews, has thrown more touchdown passes (13) this season, and Chapple’s passing-efficiency rating is the third-best in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. At Cornell two weeks ago, Chapple passed for 414 yards and four touchdowns; with his five passing touchdowns against Bucknell, he became the first Crimson passer to throw for four or more scores in consecutive games.
For the record: The game’s combined scoring total of 95 points is the highest in Harvard annals — unless one counts a 158-0 walkaway against Phillips Exeter Academy in 1886. The previous high in the modern era had been 89 points (Princeton 63, Harvard 26, 1950; Harvard 63, Dartmouth 26, 1999).
The Crimson offense generated 33 first downs, one shy of the Harvard record of 34, set against Dartmouth in 1999. The teams’ combined total offense came to 1,116 yards: 560 for Harvard and 556 for Princeton.
Harvard has scored at least 40 points in its last three outings. No Crimson team has been so productive since 1932, when coach Eddie Casey’s squad started off with a 60-0 defeat of Buffalo, a 40-0 defeat of New Hampshire, and a 46-13 defeat of Penn State.
Tail-twisting: Harvard has taken 14 of the last 16 meetings with Princeton. The Tigers posted their only wins in 2005 (27-24) and 2006 (31-28). Harvard now has a five-game streak in progress, and has scored in every quarter during that stretch.
Weekend roundup: In a tilt between Harvard’s presumptive rivals for the Ivy League championship, Penn (3-0, 4-2) came up with 27 fourth-quarter points to overtake Yale (2-1, 3-3), 35-25. Brown (2-1, 5-1) defeated Cornell (0-3, 2-4), 35-24, while Dartmouth (1-2, 2-4) won its first Ivy victory with a 37-0 shutout of Columbia (0-3, 0-6).
Harvard and Penn now lead the league, with Yale and Brown a game behind. Brown can only remain in the mix by defeating Penn in a home game next weekend. The four second-division teams — Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Columbia — are out of contention, but could still be spoilers. Each still has a shot or two at a top-tier team.
Next week: Harvard hosts Dartmouth in a Saturday night game at the Stadium, kicking off at 6 p.m. Senior halfback Nick Schwieger, the Ivies’ leading rusher, is the wheelhorse in the Green’s ground attack, but the passing offense ranks last in the league. Harvard hasn’t lost to Dartmouth since 2003, and has prevailed in 13 of the last 14 meetings.
The Harvard-Princeton score by quarters:
Princeton 6 3 22 8 — 39
Harvard 14 7 21 14 — 56
The season so far:
Holy Cross 30, Harvard 22
Harvard 24, Brown 7
Harvard 31, Lafayette 3
Harvard 41, Cornell 31
Harvard 42, Bucknell 3
Harvard 56, Princeton 39