So Far, So Good, And Getting Better
BY JAY GREENBERG
A year ago this week the Tigers went to Brown 4-0 and as it turned out, in serious trouble.
All-Ivy wideout Seth DeValve, All-Ivy left tackle Spenser Huston, lead running back DiAndre Atwater and All-Ivy candidate defensive lineman Kurt Holuba were all out of the lineup and All-Ivy linebacker Rohan Hylton would be lost that day.
Princeton committed 11 penalties and three turnovers, including a Chad Kanoff hit-as-he-threw interception with 1:57 remaining that Brown converted into a five-play winning touchdown drive in a 38-31 loss.
All four defeats in the final five games that left Princeton 5-5 for the second consecutive year were by seven points or fewer. The one at Penn on a blocked field goal attempt after a superb two-minute drill was excruciating. But the Brown loss was the sloppiest and least excusable defeat by Princeton since the program began to turn in Surace’s third season.
It is not so much redemption that the Tigers seek as a six-game run of league games begins against the 1-3 Bears at 3pm Saturday on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium. But rather, reassurance that this year is going to be different.
They all are, of course, in ways both big and small. But when seasons go bad in the end of consecutive years–Princeton was 5-3 in 2014 before losing the last two–the reason usually is injuries.
“In 2013 (the Ivy League championship year) we had the same starting lineup in Week 10 as we did in Week One,” recalls co-defensive coordinator Steve Verbit. “Then we lost three offensive linemen at Dartmouth.”
Princeton was forced to share the title with Harvard.
It is not particularly deep analysis to say it usually is all about the depth. But it is, unless you want to use the excuse that it is all about the luck. Since it is hard to catch or throw the football with your fingers crossed, there is no percentage in bemoaning a season when practically every one of your best players goes down, but the reality is that is what happened in 2015 to a bitter end. When DeValve was good to go again in the final two weeks, Johnny Lovett was lost.
Next man up, of course. When there is not much difference in ability between the guy being looked at by Dr. Jeff Bechler and the one running onto the field, then you can withstand anything. But of course that is not always the case. Some players are irreplaceable and some seasons irredeemable if you lose the wrong performers. Your best players make the good players around them better.
The Princeton offense currently has some key players whose status is week-to-week, but, touch wood, the defense is in good health and, apparently improving, which would not be the case if Holuba and Hylton were not back on the field.
Hylton has run sideline-to-sideline for 21 tackles in four games. Holuba has a sack, two-and-a-half tackles for losses, and a couple of quarterback hurries. But you have to watch the film, as Verbit has done at Princeton since 1984, to fully appreciate what impact key defensive players are having.
Defense comes down to: Can you have faith in the guy next to you? Trust Verbit, there is no such trust issue with Holuba, Princeton’s top defensive recruit in at least a decade. Holuba gets held a lot, the ultimate tribute.
“The thing that separates him from most young players is his love for the game,” said Verbit. “He studies it and studies himself. I see him work feverishly on trying to improve.
“Not only is he a tremendous leader on campus but also a tremendous student from a football standpoint.”
Holuba doesn’t think he’s so tremendous yet and probably never will. “I think pass rush is one of the hardest things in the game for me,” he says, but it certainly doesn’t look like it, considering how often he is around the quarterback. Asked to grade the 10 sacks in four games recorded by the Tigers, Holuba said, “Its never enough.” And nose tackle Henry Schlossberg has come so far as a player, Holuba just might be right.
“Henry knows where to be, has his eyes right, and is really, really, strong,” said Holuba. ‘He throws people around.’”
That’s a good start towards Princeton so far holding opponents to 2.6 yards per rush despite the absence of DE Tyler Desiré for two of the first four games. With Holuba coming hard on every play from one side, Desiré may yet be the other slice of the bread in the Tigers’ quarterback sandwich. But Brannon Jones, the fourth man in the rotation, has been so much more than a placeholder.
“He was a skill position player in (Kent Denver, Colo.) high school and we had him at outside backer when he was first here,” said Surace. “Last year we moved him and threw a lot at him and he is such a hard worker that he has overcome his lack of experience. Now he is plying at a high level, even technically”.
With Luke Catarius, who was more than just steady while Hylton was out last year, moving over to the WILL and Birk Olson and R.J. Paige protecting the edges, the linebacker play has been good. Safety Dorian Williams, another guy who would be tough to lose, is again playing at an All-Ivy level and the secondary has been improved since Chance Melancon moved into the starting lineup.
The last two weeks the blitzes worked and the coverages were much improved but the Tigers did not face mobile or experienced quarterbacks. Brown’s Kyle Moreno, a read-option type, will be a bigger test and so will their veteran offensive line. David Moodie is a breakaway threat out of the backfield. That said, the Bears, averaging 3.2 yards per carry, have not yet shown the ability to pound and the Tigers stats invite the pass so expect the Bears to air it out.
“[The 2.6 per carry] is good,” said Surace. “But I told the team it is not good if we are giving up nine yards [per] passing attempt.
“Saturday (at Georgetown) was the first time we both stopped the run and had discipline against the pass–we’re really good on [not committing to] the play action.
“Our 37% [third down completions allowed] is really improved. We’ve stepped up on the pass rush and our guys are playing with more confidence on pass defense. We might give up a completion, but the window is tighter than it was. You take out that 88-yarder against our third team at Columbia, and we haven’t give up much at all the last two weeks.
“But this is the best offensive line we have played so far and maybe all year. They have skilled players who hurt us last year. This is a test of how far we have come.”