Tiger Defense Stands Tall — But Tigers Come Up Short in Loss at Dartmouth
BY JAY GREENBERG
HANOVER, N.H. — There is zero consolation in being one play away when four times this season the other team made it and Princeton didn’t.
There certainly was great honor Saturday in the way a depleted Princeton defense made beautiful use of well-timed and perfectly-executed blitzes to sack Dalyn Williams seven times; play, as Bob Surace said. “Like our hair was on fire”; and take the co-Ivy League champions to the wire.
But as Steve Verbit insisted, it wasn’t good enough to get these seniors or Coach Bob Surace a win, finally, against Dartmouth, or even gain Princeton a winning season, a huge disappointment considering a 4-0 start.
When it was volunteered to Verbit that his defensive unit, which stuffed Dartmouth to just 83 rushing yards, forced five punts, and chased Williams relentlessly, could not have played any better, the co-coordinator shook his head.
“We could have kept them under 10 points, that would have been a lot better,” he said
”Did we play hard? Yeah we did. Were we right all the time, no, and a good team takes advantage of that.
“We ran to the ball the way we should run to the ball. Now these guys have to learn that’s the way we have to do it for 10 weeks. We made a few mistakes on their final drive that you can’t against a good team. It’s just not playing hard and fast but being right.”
Princeton lost its bookend All Ivy-to-be pass rushers (Tyler Desire and Kurt Holuba) by Week Three, an All Ivy-to-be middle linebacker (Rohan Hylton) in Week Five, and suffered the absence of a lot more of its very best and most experienced players from week to frustrating week. To their credit, the Tigers never lost their soul but they did lose four games by one score or less and settled for a second consecutive 5-5 season and a third in four years.
They won an Ivy League championship with the other one, a real consolation for the seniors who went out Saturday with a 17-10 loss to the Big Green. It was the only solace, though.
“Football is a very unforgiving game,” said Seth DeValve, who finished his career as superbly as he had played it, with nine catches for 110 yards. “We had trouble staying healthy this year, which turned out to be insurmountable for some of the games we lost.
“It’s easy to be in a game, hard to win one, and that’s a lesson we learned this year.
It’s hard to be the best. When those seasons come, you have to enjoy every second of them because they don’t come along very often.”
The 2013 Tigers were relentless in creating and seizing opportunities. The 2015 version did what they did yesterday, jumping to a 7-0 lead on a Di Andre Atwater’s one-yard touchdown plunge and then getting nothing out of second-quarter possessions to the Dartmouth nine and 20-yard lines.
Nolan Bieck suffered the first of what would be two field goal misses for the game and Chad Kanoff committed a red zone fumble. Nevertheless, after Dartmouth’s Danny McManus returned the second-half kickoff for 44 yards and Ryder Stone cut back to run 32-yards for the first Big Green touchdown, the Tiger defense rose to occasion after occasion to give the offense ample opportunities for redemption.
“We got after them,” said Brannon Jones (one sack), who like Henry Schlossberg (1.5 sacks) and Luke Catarius (1.5 sacks and 10 tackles), came a long way this year in the absence of big talents.
The offense, which showed signs on a game-opening drive and on 28-yard scoring drive (set up by a Sam Huffman interception of a tipped Williams pass) of being able to run the ball against an outstanding Dartmouth front, after that couldn’t get Princeton into enough second-and-threes to ever really get rolling.
The Tigers did answer the first Dartmouth touchdown drive by driving 55 yards in 12 plays to a successful Bieck 21-yarder, but the rest of the game managed only one more drive, which ended in a Bieck miss from 40.
“He has had an unbelievable career,” said Surace. “So not to make excuses but he’s hurting.
“He missed practice this week. We didn’t know if he could go last week. In practice this week he wasn’t quite as accurate. He missed the ones today by a foot.
“We had guys playing without knee ligaments and hernias and fighting to get back to be part of the team and, even when the ball didn’t bounce our way, we just kept fighting.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them, their approach to practice and meetings, and how they represented our school.”
The defense, which also received 12 tackles from Nick Fekula, 10 more from Dorian Williams and nine from a Matt Arends who limped on one leg to the end of a sterling Princeton career, got three more stops, one of them in the red zone to force Dartmouth to settle for a 22-yard Alex Gakenheimer field goal and a 10-10 tie.
And even after a Chad Kanoff pass was tipped by fullback Cody Smith and into the hands of David Caldwell, again Princeton bent but did not break. A 39-yard miss by Gakenheimer gave the Tigers one more shot in a 10-10 game with 3:04 to go.
But Kanoff was sacked on third-and-eight, Tyler Roth had to punt, and Williams, starting at his own 37, began to pick Princeton apart until Kyle Bramble ran the final 12 yards with a delayed screen for the winning touchdown with 24 seconds remaining.
“We knew that was the play [Dartmouth was] running,” said Surace. “We told them in the huddle; their guy did a great acting job and our guy ran by him.”
And what would have been a wonderful victory — and a winning season — got away, just as had the opportunities at Brown and Penn and against Yale.
“The quarterback (Williams) is one of the all time best to play in the league,” said Surace.
“He is a hard quarterback to trick or get into a bad spot. If you get him three or four times in a game, it’s unbelievable because he is so smart and we got him seven .We flew around the field.
“Obviously, knowing how talented and well coached they are, we were going to have to play really well, better than we played all year. And I thought other than the few mistakes, we did.
“But it was the story of our season. Playing shorthanded, we had against really good chances against good teams and we just didn’t finish as well as we could.”