Tigers Have Their Hearts Broken, 26-23

  • November 7, 2015


PHILADELPHIA – Not only were the planets seemingly aligned in favor of the Tigers after Joe Rhattigan slanted for two yards, so was the ball almost equidistant between the hashmarks at the 18-yard line for Nolan Bieck.DSC06039

Princeton had gotten a fumble recovery by Matt Arends at the one, plus a five-yard tackle for a loss by Arends at the 25 to foil two deep Penn fourth-quarter drives. After Chad Kanoff, Quakers hanging on his leg, had gotten away a third-down pass to Seth DeValve, they had driven 59 yards to seemingly imminent glory.

DeValve, able to play an entire game for the first time in five weeks, had caught nine passes and the Tigers had shaken off an early fourth-quarter failure to convert a fourth-and-goal at the one. This is the stuff that makes wins memorable and, with three seconds left in a 20-20 tie, Penn’s chances hung precariously on the foot of a kicker who had made 26 of his last 27 field goal attempts.

“I felt great about it,” said Bob Surace. So Bieck’s mighty leg could have kicked Donald Panciello, the Penn linebacker who came off the edge, in the solar plexus and it would not have sucked out any more wind than rushed out of the Princeton coach and his team at the sight of that blocked ball rolling worthlessly away, along with the Tigers’ best chance for their best win of the 5-3 season.

In overtime, three Kanoff shots at DeValve failed, forcing Princeton to settle for Bieck’s 42-yard field goal. Penn then needed only two plays to win it, 26-23, on an Alex Torgersen 11-yard-pass to a much too open Eric Fiore.

It was probably the most heartbreaking loss in recent years — worse than Georgetown disaster with all the bad snaps of four years ago — because of all the work the Tigers had put into getting just one perfunctory play away, because Princeton had a 20-10 lead at the half, and of course, because this was Penn.DSC05932

“It’s very painful,” said Arends. Too painful for Bieck, who saw the first opportunity to win a game in his four years at Princeton turn into no opportunity at all, to even talk about it. He declined comment. But of course, while one play assuredly would have won this one, it always takes more than one to lose even the closest of contests.

“I told the guys they played their hearts out but it has to be more than that,” said Surace. “At the end we weren’t detailed enough.

“In one-play games we have to do a better job. That’s why they are celebrating instead of us.”

Indeed, it wasn’t the first time the Tigers failed to block Panciello during a play that carries a high percentage of success. With Princeton leading, 20-17, four plays into the fourth quarter, he came off the edge to foil Rhattigan going up the middle on the fourth and-one.

“We were doing a good job getting movement, and I thought our runners were really finishing their runs.” said Surace. “[Panciello] made a really good play.

“I thought the call was a no-brainer.”

It might have been for Penn, too, in the absence of Princeton’s proven best goalline option, the double threat Johnny Lovett. If the Quakers didn’t know for sure who was getting the ball, the result was if they had more than a sneaking suspicion. Rhattigan, who completed drives of 73 and 70 yards in the second quarter with runs of four and two yards, had to go to work 30 times for his 116 yards.DSC06045

After the second of his two touchdowns with an apparent 17 seconds left on the first-half clock, the officials inexplicably had it reset to 19 seconds, which was what it read before the touchdown play.

Surace, not wanting Penn to have those two seconds, argued and lost, then won when Jack Stibich dropped Bieck’s purposely-short kickoff. Mark Fossati jumped on it, enabling Kanoff to hit Scott Carpenter for 12 yards, putting Bieck in position to drill a 39-yarder.

Up 20-10, the Tigers had the ball to start the second half, too, but after moving the chains once, Rhattigan got thrown for a loss on first down, and Roth had to punt the ball away to a 14-play 74 yard Penn touchdown drive, completed by a Solomon three-yard run.

As neither team was able to stretch the field, and both soon pretty much stopped trying, there were only three possessions in a grinding third quarter. The Tigers, not scoring again until the overtime, ended up converting only 10 of 21 times on third down.

But the defense got huge fourth-quarter stops, the first at the one when R.J. Paige, from deep under the pile, was credited with dislodging the ball from Tre Solomon for the Arends recovery. When the Tigers couldn’t get the ball off the goalline, Tyler Roth punted for 44 yards, and just two Quaker plays put the ball at the Princeton 28, Arends made a terrific read and solo tackle on a third-and-two pitch to Brian Schoenauer.DSC05740

“The previous time they got up on the ball they did the sneak with the option, kind of knew it was coming.,” Arends said. Penn settled for a 42-yard Jimmy Gammil field goal that tied the game and left Princeton a very comfortable 2:44 to win it.

Kanoff refused to go down and DeValve, closely covered by Ian Dobbins, wouldn’t be denied so the Tigers got their drive doing. Kanoff hit James Frusciante for 20 and DeValve for another eight to get Bieck within range, where he remained comfortably even after a false start penalty.

“He is such a good kicker,” said Surace. “He has made I don’t know how many in a row and he hit a couple of deep ones (Saturday) before that. Thirty-two yards is a pretty makeable kick for him.DSC06283

“We need to do better in our protection. The kick was fine.”

The coverage on the winning touchdown was not, but by that point Princeton’s best chances already were gone, making a 50-minute bus ride home endless. The ones that would have been so good to win always hurt the most to lose.

“All I am thinking about is everything you could have done better,” said DeValve.

“It’s horrible.”