It wasn’t quite a buzzer beater, but it was a win over a bitter rival on Homecoming. And that’ll do.
Princeton's failed 31-yard field goal attempt in the last 10 seconds secured Penn football a 38-35 victory in a fiercely fought Homecoming game that finished in fireworks.
The Quakers led for almost the entire game, but for three minutes late in the fourth quarter, the hosts fell behind after the Tigers took their first lead of the contest to make it 35-31 with 4:26 left.
On the ensuing drive, Penn drove a full 80 yards down the field in nine plays that featured highlight-reel heroics from senior captain and wide receiver Justin Watson to give his team the lead and the game its final scoreline. All three of the drive’s passes were aimed at Watson with one 26-yard bomb from senior quarterback Will Fischer-Colbrie to a fading Watson saving the Quakers just as they looked stuck in front of a stout Tigers defense.
A 15-yard pass from Fischer-Colbrie to Watson, who burned his man with ease on a cut to catch the ball in the end zone untouched, secured the win for Penn.
“I think probably 80 percent of the time, I release to the outside; that’s kind of how the play is designed, but just working with Will … I knew that if I released to the inside, then we’d be on the same page,” Watson said of the play. “Sure enough, I got open to the inside, and Will saw it and delivered a great ball.”
After the go-ahead score, Princeton had just over a minute to put together a drive of its own, though, and threatened to send the game into overtime — or even win it in regulation. After a series of wild plays and calls that included an interception disallowed and a Princeton touchdown catch later called incomplete, the Tigers had a 31-yard field goal attempt to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Then came the ice. Then a second timeout. When the kick finally went up, it was wide right, sending Franklin Field into sheer pandemonium.
“We’ve had some classics against Princeton. There have been some phenomenal ones in my tenure here. This one here is right up there with them,” coach Ray Priore said.
The win put the Quakers (4-4, 2-3 Ivy) level in the conference standings with the Tigers (5-3, 2-3). It also avenged last year’s humiliating 28-0 defeat at Princeton in the Quakers’ worst showing in 2016.
Watson broke yet another record early on in the game on Saturday. With his third catch, the senior became Penn’s all-time leader in career receptions. He finished with eight (for 124 yards and two TDs) to take him to 265 in total.
“Would you stop it?” Priore joked to his talisman at the post-game press conference.
“I don’t know what happened,” Watson said, grinning ear to ear. “The win feels better, but it’s gonna be cool looking back on my career, for sure.”
Other stars on offense shone bright against Princeton. Running backs Abe Willows and Tre Solomon ran for 142 and 116 yards, respectively. It was the first time Penn had two rush for over 100 since 2004.
Likewise, Fischer-Colbrie came back from injury to deliver his best performance for the Red and Blue. The senior went 15-18 and threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns, giving him an astonishing quarterback rating of 214.3.
The entire offense put up 545 yards — 331 on the ground and 214 in the air. Princeton managed 448, the vast majority of which came from its passing attack. Of the Tigers’ long scoring drives, quarterback Chad Kanoff sliced open the Quakers’ secondary for a glut of mid-range completions. At times, the Tigers were ruthless.
Especially when the Quakers gave up 14 points in 90 seconds.
A botched 14-yard punt on one possession, followed by a fumble on the very first play of the next, gave Princeton remarkable field position that allowed for two easy touchdowns. Though Penn still led 24-21 at the time, it felt that the air had left the stadium — and the 9000 fans in it — altogether.
Earlier in the season, the team might have panicked itself into a loss. But Priore was pleased at the different result on Homecoming.
“We grabbed the team together at that point and told them, ‘Just relax. Look up at the clock and the scoreboard, see that we’re winning. Take a deep breath, and go have fun.’ The last thing you can do in a panic situation is cause more chaos,” Priore said. “They needed to take a second to get the blood pressure down, get the pulse down, and go out there and have fun. That’s what the kids were able to do today, and I’m very, very proud of them.”
The result leaves Penn and Princeton tied for sixth in the Ivy League standings, but neither team is out of the title race — a scenario still exists in which all seven teams not named Brown could tie for the championship at 4-3 for the season. The Quakers and Tigers sit just one game behind four teams all tied for second, with Yale being the only remaining one-loss team in the league.
Penn takes on tied-for-second Harvard next weekend in Cambridge. If this year’s madness in the Ancient Eight continues, then next Saturday could be yet another one for the ages.