By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PRINCETON, N.J. — The Harvard Crimson and the Princeton Tigers have met 105 times in one of college football's great rivalries, but the previous 104 games had never seen a finish quite like the one that the Tigers dreamed up on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon at Princeton Stadium.
Playing a No. 22-ranked Harvard squad that had been breaking down opponents like they were pieces of thin, stained glass, Princeton held together long enough to construct a comeback for the ages, rallying from a 34-10 deficit in the final 12 minutes to somehow win 39-34 with one of the epic finishes in Ivy League history.
The win, combined with Yale's 27-13 upset victory against Penn, handed two of the Ivy League's three first-place teams losses to turn the standings upside down and left surprising Princeton alone on top at 3-0 among the Ancient Eight and 4-2 overall.
Harvard fell to 5-1 and 2-1.
The Reader's Digest version of this contest wouldn't have been preferred by Princeton alums, who would want to savor every last second of that fourth-quarter surge.
And the Hollywood script of these bizarre events would have been summarily rejected.
But when Roman Wilson hauled in a high-lofted, 36-yards spiral from backup quarterback Quinn Epperly with 13 seconds remaining for a game-winning touchdown, Harvard had to wonder if Frank Champi had been resurrected in a black and orange uniform?
Champi, of course, was the unlikely quarterback hero of that 1968 classic when Harvard "beat" Yale, 29-29, leading the Crimson to 16 points in the final 42 seconds.
If the Crimson, or Champi, made a deal with the devil on that crisp, autumn afternoon 44 years ago, I think Charlie Daniels might have written a new fiddle tune on Saturday.
The Devil Came Down to Jersey may not sound as poetic as "The Devil Came Down To Georgia," but at least Snooky and the rest of her friends from the Shore would have liked it.
At least, Epperly took some snaps during the game, something Champi didn't do until the fourth quarter of his epic triumph.
There were so many times when the Tigers appeared dead on this remarkable afternoon.
And the Crimson had to wonder what hit them?
It was like Sonny Liston being struck by that phantom punch from Muhammed Ali in Lewiston, ME.
Harvard moved the ball almost at free will against the Tiger defense in the first half.
Like the Crimson had done so many times through the first five games of the 2012 campaign, they picked an opponent apart behind the passing of Colton Chapple (31-of-45 for 448 yards and five touchdowns passing), the receiving of tight ends Kyle Juszczyk (15 catches, 192 yards, three TDs) and Cameron Brite (seven receptions, 109 yards, one TD) and wideout Ricky Zorn (four grabs for 101 yards and one TD) and the running of Treavor Scales (21 carries, 104 yards rushing).
Harvard could have easily put up 42 points in the first half alone and only the tenacity of the Tigers in their red zone defense and Crimson execution errors kept the crowd in the stadium instead back at the tailgates by halftime.
Harvard could have gift-wrapped its sixth win of the season by converting just one play at various points in the second half, but the Crimson allowed the Tigers to stay alive with the handout of a series of life preservers.
There was the loss of a second-period fumble and Chapple's interception a few minutes later that killed scoring drives.
It was 20-0 at the intermission, but Princeton kept picking away at Harvard's once-24-point lead.
Princeton cut Harvard's lead in half on a 15-play, 86-yard drive to open the second half as Epperly pounded into the end zone for a touchdown and Nolan Bieck drilled a 22-yard field goal following Wilson's recovery of a fumbled kickoff return by Princ Jakobi Johnson.
But Chapple's fourth and fifth TD aerials of the day — an eight-yard circus catch from Juszczyk and a feathery, 14-yard toss to Brite — boosted the advantage back to 34-10 with 13 minutes remaining.
It seemed like there was plenty more where that came from for a Harvard offense that piled up 634 yards of total offense and 33 first downs.
Connor Michelson found Dre' Nelson for a seven-yard scoring strike with 11:19 remaining to begin the orange wave of emotions and his two-point conversion pass to Tom Moak made it 34-18.
At that point, the Princeton faithful just seemed happy that the Tigers might beat the point spread.
Things got a little more tense for Harvard and cheerful for Princeton when Michelson followed with a 29-yard TD rocket to Matt Castillo on the next drive.
And when Epperly fake a run into the line from the Wildcat formation — old Tiger fans would call it the Single Wing — and then leaped into the air for a completion to Shane Wilkinson, it was suddenly 34-26 with 7:43 left and a winning comeback began to feel like a possibility.
Harvard was ready to slice Princeton's life support again when the 22-yard field goal from David Mothander that was blocked on a surge through the middle of the line by nose tackle Greg Sotereanos with 4:48.
That gave Michelson (20-of-33 for 237 yards and three touchdowns) another chance and he marched the Tigers 79 yards in eight plays before hitting Seth DeValve with a TD toss to pull Princeton within two points at 34-32 with 2:21 left on the fourth-quarter clock.
Michelson's two-point pass fell incomplete and left the Tigers fans hoping for one last stop of the Harvard offense so that Princeton's shaky kicking game might have a shot to pull out a victory in the final moments.
The Crimson faced a third and seven from its own 43, needing a first down to run out the clock.
It wasn't surprising that Chapple dumped the ball off to Juszczyk on a short pass, off a play fake, but Juszczyk's attempt to stretch the ball for a first down came up just short.
Needing a yard from its own 49 to clinch the game from an offense that had gained 634 on the day, Harvard coach Tim Murphy decided to punt and leave the game in his defense's hands after time outs from each team.
It proved to be the wrong decision, even though Jacob Dombrowski boomed a 41-yard punt to the Princeton 10-yard line.
Early in the drive, it almost seemed like the right move when Bobby Schneider intercepted a Michelson pass, only to drop it.
Princeton hearts started beating again.
Michelson completed passes to Wilkinson and Will Powers and scrambled for four yards to give the Tigers a first down at their own 37, but the game took a devastating turn on the next play when the quarterback was sandwiched by Zach Hodges and John Lyon for a seven-yard sack.
But as Michelson struggled to lift himself off the grass and came up holding his throwing hand in severe pain, Lyon began an elaborate celebration as he looked to the Harvard sideline.
It wasn't surprising when a penalty flag came flying from the referee and Lyon was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The 15-yard penalty changed the situation from second and 17 to first and 10 at the Princeton 45.
Epperly answered the call after Michelson was knocked out of the game and he dashed for six yards and then found Powers out of the backfield for five more and a first down at the Harvard 44.
After an incompletion, Epperly used his wheels to race for eight yards, setting up a third and two from the Crimson 36.
On the next play, Epperly picked on Schneider, who lunged for the ball at the pylon, near the Harvard sideline. But Wilson came down with the ball and Princeton had its remarkable comeback win — its first against Harvard since the Tigers won a share of the 2006 Ivy League title with Brown.
There haven't been many memorable moments for Princeton fans since that 2006 crown, but the Tigers control their own destiny with four Ivy League games to play.
The TD catch sent the Princeton fans into a state of frenzy and students rushed the field a few moments later when Chapple's final desperation pass fell incomplete.
It will probably take another 105 games to find one as exciting for Tiger players, coaches and fans alike.