Both football teams knew what was at stake.
Clinging to a two-point lead over its rival to the north in Milaca, a fourth and two awaited the Princeton offense as a first down would seal the victory while failing to convert would give the hard charging Wolves a chance to steal the game.
Milaca wouldn’t get that chance as the Tigers’ were able to execute as a scamper by Princeton running-back Zach Marshall was able to secure the first down, willing the Tigers to the 38-36 victory on Sept. 24 on John Harvey Field.
Not only did that first down push Princeton to victory, it also pushed the home team their third straight Pizza Bowl title as the Tigers will once again maintain the Pizza Paddle Trophy for another year.
Picking up that game-winning first down came down to execution said Marshall. “Everything needed to execute there and that’s what we did and it paid off with a big Pizza Bowl win,” said the senior, who has been a part of each of the three wins in the Pizza Bowl series that began in 2019.
On the other side for the Wolves, falling behind early led to loss believes Milaca senior, Ryker Tillotson. “We didn’t come out like we should’ve and we got behind early. Almost came back but couldn’t finish it off,” he said, as Tillotson finished with 6.5 tackles in the loss.
Earlier on in the Pizza Bowl, it appeared like the stretch of the previous two games between Milaca being decided by a single score might be broken as Princeton’s quarterback Cooper Drews came out firing with touchdown passes to Jonah Hviding and Haydn Stay of 11 and 23 yards to propel the Tigers to the 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
The pass to Stay proved to be a costly one as during the senior captain and Division 1 commit’s run to the endzone resulted in Stay limping to the score, forcing him to be sidelined for the remainder of the contest.
With the force on both sides of the ball now absent, Milaca didn’t waste time using the loss to it advantage as just minutes later, Carter Walter broke free for a 34-yard gallop for the score and after a successful two-point conversion, the game was brought to a 14-8 affair.
On the ensuing drive, the Tigers were gearing up to answer with a touchdown score of their own but a holding call stalled the offensive as Princeton had to settle for a 37-yard Marshall field goal to put itself back up by nine points early in the second quarter.
Holding the explosive Tiger offense without the touchdown, Milaca was able to start getting its own scoring drive going, pounding the ball on the ground, capped by a QB keeper by Wolves’ Dylan Greninger with another successful two-point conversion to bring the game to a single point at 17-16, Tigers.
Trying to answer, Drews was able to be picked off by Milaca’s Jack Schoenborn to give the Wolves the chance to take the lead going into half.
Tigers’ defensive back Donovon Brown was able to answer with an interception of his own, giving Princeton the ball right back with just over 30 second left in the half.
Princeton’s explosive offense would not let the chance go by without trying to score as Drews marched the team down the field in the hurry up offense, as Marshall would punch it in from five yards out to give the Tigers the 24-16 lead into the half.
Back after the break both teams battled to find points but failed to capitalize as both teams went scoreless in the third.
Drops plague the Princeton offense as on target passes failed to be hauled in.
Going forward, Drews isn’t worried about drops in the long term for the team. “More reps in practice and more time with receivers. Stuff like that will fix that,” said the quarterback.
As for Milaca, the run game struggled to get flowing in the third.
Into the fourth quarter, the Wolves found themselves driving before finding themselves in a third and long situation.
Greninger dropping back to pass once again was picked by Brown for his second of the night as the Tigers quickly turned the turnover into points with a Drews QB sneak to give Princeton the 31-16 lead with 7:23 left in the contest.
Knowing time was against it, Milaca would retake the field and quickly march down with Walter once again breaking free to cut the game to 31-22 after failing to convert the conversion.
As quickly as Milaca scored, Princeton would return the favor, this time with Kaden Olson breaking loose for 52 yards and the score to give the Tigers the 16-point lead with six minute separating them from the Pizza Bowl Title.
The Wolves would not go away once again rallied via a Greninger 59-yard bomb to Schoenborn to cut the game to just 10 points.
Milaca then would recover the onside kick and again quickly score this time via a 14-yard pass from Greninger to Owen Vanderplaats, bringing the game to 38-36 with 4:22 left in the fourth.
“They had all the momentum in the world there,” said Princeton Head Coach Ryan Fay.
As the pressure mounted on the Tigers, the offense was able to answer marching down the field, converting on a couple big first downs to salt away the game, sealing the Pizza Bowl victory for Princeton.
On offense, Princeton was led by Drews’ passing, completing 10 of 19 attempts for 149 yards and two scores and a pick while Marshall had 97 yards on the ground and the rushing score.
For Milaca, Greninger finished nine of 20 with two scores and two interceptions with Walter leading the way on the ground at 106 rushing yards and two scores.
Both teams now sit at 2-2 on the year. Princeton reached the mark after dropping its first two contests.
Now sitting at .500, a daunting trip awaits the Tigers as a visit to Albany is up next for Princeton.
“We are looking forward to a good game against them,” said Fay on the match up.
As for Milaca, the Wolves return to Claffy Field for homecoming with Cathedral coming to town.
In order to walk away with the victory, Milaca has to get off to a better start believes Tillotson. “We just need to start doing our thing right away and not wait,” he said.
Both teams played on Oct. 1.