A field goal was not going to be enough.
Not in this four-hour classic between the two most prolific scoring attacks in the Ivy League.
Harvard junior walk-on Andrew Flesher lined up for a 51-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds left in regulation. A successful kick would have decided a back-and-forth blitz of points that featured nearly 1,000 yards of offense, and kept the Crimson unbeaten.
But his booming boot, though long enough, was a shade left.
Flesher’s 23-yard field goal handed the host Crimson a 48-45 lead on the first possession of the third overtime, but also left the door open for Princeton and its magnificent junior quarterback, Quinn Epperly.
With his 50th pass of an amazing performance, the smooth southpaw found senior Roman Wilson in the back right corner of the end zone, the 6-yard strike — his sixth touchdown pass of the day — providing the deciding points in a dramatic 51-48 victory before 11,188 chilled folks Saturday afternoon.
“You knew that today, field goals were not going to be enough,” said Harvard coach Tim Murphy after his resilient squad had forced overtime on a 10-yard hookup from Conner Hempel (25 of 47, 307 yards, 4 TDs) to tight end Tyler Ott (3 TDs) with 2:57 remaining.
With its first victory at Harvard Stadium since 2005, Princeton (5-1, 3-0) now shares the Ivy lead with Penn (a 28-17 winner over Yale). Harvard (5-1, 2-1) was denied a 6-0 start by the Tigers for the second straight season, after last year’s 39-34 defeat in New Jersey.
“It was a great game, win or lose, but it feels a lot better to be sitting up here off a win,” summed up Princeton coach Bob Surace with a wide smile, noting that his team, with a number of coaches and players battling the flu, “just kept fighting and plugging away.”
The Tigers followed the lead of the 6-foot-1-inch, 222-pound Epperly, who completed 37 passes for 321 yards, with no interceptions. The six TD passes were believed to be a record for a Harvard opponent. Epperly also rushed for 86 yards on 19 carries.
“[Epperly] was flawless at times,” said Murphy. “Just a tremendous football player.”
On the final possession, Epperly connected with former Everett High star Matt Costello (nine catches, 10-yard TD reception), a junior wideout, for 18 yards to the Harvard 7.
On the winner, Wilson (nine catches, 76 yards) was Epperly’s second option, “but he made just one heck of a play [over Harvard corner D.J. Monroe],” said the quarterback, who also delivered the clearing block for Wilson’s 9-yard scoring scamper to the left pylon in the first OT. That TD countered a 5-yard toss from Hempel to Ott.
“I don’t think that it has quite hit me yet,” said Epperly, who has racked up 14 touchdown passes and 11 rushing scores in six games. “One of the greatest moments I have ever been a part of.”
In the second overtime, Nolan Bieck (31 yards) and Flesher (38 yards, with holder Mike Pruneau rescuing a low snap) drilled field goals for a 45-45 tie.
Princeton was on top, 35-28, with four minutes left when Harvard corner Brian Owusu jarred the ball free from DiAndre Atwater — son of former Denver Bronco Steve Atwater — with Jaron Wilson taking fumble 29 yards to set up the tying score.
“I knew that we needed a big play down the stretch,” said Owusu (11 tackles). “There was not a lot of time left to go. Defensively, we take it upon ourselves to create turnovers.”
Epperly had put the Tigers ahead, 35-28, with a 12-yard strike to Seth DeValve, capitalizing after Matt Landry had knocked the ball loose from Hempel, who faced fierce pressure all day and was sacked seven times.
But making his first start in three weeks after hyperextending his knee at Holy Cross, Hempel was a “magician” with his elusiveness, said Surace.
Harvard pulled even at 28 when Hempel stepped up in the pocket and lofted a 23-yard scoring pass over the middle to Ott with 54 seconds left in the third quarter.
However, on the last play of the quarter, Harvard lost a starter for the second straight week with a season-ending injury, when senior center Dave Leopard, an all-Ivy-caliber center, suffered a broken left ankle. Junior receiver Andrew Fischer (torn hamstring) also is likely out for the year.
The Crimson continue to play with grit and determination, despite the adversity, charging back from a 13-0 first-quarter deficit for a 14-13 lead.
First, on fourth and 8, senior Ricky Zorn (eight catches, 168 yards) snared a 33-yard catch in the end zone that caromed off of the shoulder of defender John Hill, cutting the margin to 13-7.
Four minutes later, sophomore Paul Stanton (12 rushes, 91 yards, 2 TDs) burst off right tackle, tip-toed for a few steps along the sideline, stumbled, and then picked up steam, finishing off his 60-yard scoring sprint thanks to a crunching block from Zorn at the 5.
“It wasn’t a work of art, but our kids play so hard that we willed the thing into overtime,” said Murphy. “And in the end, they just made one more play than we did.”