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The football team will travel to Cambridge this weekend hoping to repeat one of the greatest upsets in Princeton history. The Tigers won on an improbable touchdown throw from now-junior quarterback Quinn Epperly to senior wide receiver Roman Wilson last time they played Harvard, shocking the undefeated Crimson and breathing life back into the football program.
This year, Princeton (4-1 overall, 2-0 Ivy League) will face a very similar challenge. No. 22 Harvard (5-0, 2-0) looks just as offensively strong as it did last year despite graduating quarterback Colton Chapple, tailback Treavor Scales and tight end Kyle Juszczyk, all of whom were arguably the best in the league at their positions last season. Junior Conner Hempel, who will likely start Saturday despite a recent knee injury, picked up right where Chapple left off, and senior Ricky Zorn averages 72 receiving yards per game.
Head coach Bob Surace ’90 explained that, though Harvard’s offense features many upperclassmen starting for the first time, the Crimson’s tendency to win big has allowed them to gain plenty of on-field experience.
“They’ve done a great job building a program,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate they would slip at all, and I’m not shocked at all that they’re better this year.”
The Crimson defense is equally formidable. Its turnover margin currently stands at plus-11, as Harvard has recorded 3.8 turnovers per game. It boasts the No. 1 rushing defense in the league, but its passing defense is dead last in the Ivy League.
“I think their [defensive backs] are athletic. They like to keep things in front of them,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who is second in the Ancient Eight with 103.2 receiving yards per game, said he expects plenty of attention from Harvard’s defensive backs after his heroics the last time he faced them.
“I think it’s definitely going to be extra motivation [for them] — losing like that is painful,” Wilson said.
Epperly, whom the Crimson will most likely be equally eager to humble, was named Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week last week after leading a comeback against Brown that saw his offense put up 39 unanswered points. He leads the league in pass efficiency and averages 143 passing yards per game despite sharing time with junior quarterback Connor Michelsen. He has 20 combined passing and rushing touchdowns, also the most in the league.
Princeton leads the league in rushing offense while Harvard leads it in rushing defense. Surace and Offensive Coordinator James Perry have a plethora of running backs, including senior Brian Mills, junior Will Powers and sophomores Di Andre Atwater and Dre Nelson, as well as Epperly and Wilson at their disposal as they attempt to break through a tough defensive line. That line includes defensive end Zach Hodges, who has 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss this season.
Meanwhile, senior nose tackle Caraun Reid will continue to be central to Princeton’s defense. Reid, who has 4.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks this year, will likely be remembered by the Crimson for blocking a kick in last year’s game, helping to swing momentum the way of the Orange and Black. He has already blocked one kick this season.
At the pre-game media luncheon Wednesday, Surace emphasized that his team needs to ignore the various distractions presented by this week. He played down the fact that a win would lead to the possibility of a second consecutive bonfire on campus.
“Those traditions are great, and as an alum you support those traditions,” he said. “[But] if I’m worried about burning trees, we’re not worried about beating Harvard and blocking Zach Hodges.”
Still, as last year’s victory still stands as the finest moment in recent history in the minds of many Princeton fans, the Tigers know that another victory would mean a lot.
“We want to compete on a national stage and gain a national ranking,” senior defensive back Philip Bhaya said. “Certainly this game will go a long way for us, proving where we’re at.”
As each team is undefeated in conference play, the winner of the game will find itself either tied with Penn at the top of the league or alone at the top should the Quakers (3-2, 2-0) lose to Yale. The game kicks off at 1 p.m. in Cambridge.