Offenses Saw Stars Because The Tigers Had Them on Defense
BY JAY GREENBERG
In 32 seasons Steve Verbit has coached his share of smothering defense, sending Mike Catapano and Caraun Reid to the NFL, having a hand in preparing units that produced six Ivy League championships. Verbit says the 2016 D probably had more difference makers than any of those five predecessors.
“All in all, this defense shouldn’t take a back seat to any over the last  years here,” said the co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach on Sunday, before the happiest Princeton football banquet since the 2006 team also beat Dartmouth to wrap up a title.
“Pretty darn special. (Kurt) Holuba and (Henry) Schlossberg were two of the best four defensive linemen in the league. (Luke) Catarius and (Rohan) Hylton were two of the top four or five linebackers in the league, if not better that that. Dorian Williams is the best combination athlete in the league in terms of safety/nickel.
“That’s [five] quality players.
“The 2005 team had the two best safeties in the league in Tim Strickland and J.J. Artis; they made that defense exceptional. Strickland led the nation in pass breakups.
“The 1989 team had the best defensive player to play here up to that point of my time here in Franco Pagnanelli. Jimmy Freeman was a very good outside linebacker. The secondary was very good too. (Frank) Leal would take the opposition’s best [receiver] out of the game.
“The 1992 team was stout up front, led by Brian Kazan, Jimmy Renna and Nick Brophy. It had a very good outside linebacker in Aaron Harris and a good secondary. The ‘95 team was led by (linebacker) Dave Patterson, who I think was the best defensive player in my time here. We led the nation in turnover ratio.
“That’s a lot of really good defenses. But when you look at the overall depth, this group had as many quality players as you really can have on one side of the ball.
“Also, Dorian was as good on the sideline as any player I ever coached. Saturday, from the beginning of the second half, he was absolutely phenomenal. In front of the bench, in back of the bench, he said, ‘There is no way they are taking this away from us; this is our game. Keep the faith, keep playing hard, this is going to turn our way.’
“Sometimes they have that wavering look when things aren’t going well. He was sure.”
Williams knew the numbers were trending to back up his faith. In the seven Ivy games, the Tigers gave up 74 points, 28 of which were in the second half after Princeton led by insurmountable margins. After the team surrendered 1,037 yards in weeks one and two to Lafayette and Lehigh, a staggering 820 of them in the air, nobody ever would have predicted such dominance.
But while in those dark September days, Bob Surace wasn’t exactly insisting he had the ’76 Steelers, he did believe the first two weeks were an aberration.
“I thought the defense looked good in camp,” said Surace. “Our offense can be explosive and it was being challenged every day. I thought it was just a matter of confidence and experience.
“It’s always hard when the other (Patriot League) team has a couple games under its belt. I thought Lafayette executed unbelievably well, made plays, but we stopped the run both those weeks, so there were encouraging things. Lehigh was tough–that is a great offense. But I think we were trying to do too much; in third-and-18 we were trying to stop a four-yard pass.
“I think the guys started to trust and came together. There were not a lot of bad plays from that game forward.
“Jimmy (Salgado) and Steve (co-defensive coordinators) work incredibly well together. They are both experts in their areas (Verbit, the D-line, Salgado the secondary) and they both know the other areas. There are a lot of great discussions trying to get the scheme right.”
The 2013 team had Reid, but he labored through a foot problem for most of the season and was merely very good that year, not dominant. That defense made plays, forced turnovers, but held only two Ivy opponents under 20 points. The offense drove the bus.
Surace threw his pass rush under one after the Lehigh debacle, in part to take some heat off a beleaguered secondary that had three new starters. One important personnel change was made; Chance Melancon was elevated from backup at one corner, but the whole team responded. If Verbit has a hard time deciding which Princeton defense was best, he will give the 2016 unit, this much: “Absolutely this one improved the most over a season.”
“We came out of that (Lehigh) game not feeling good about a lot of things,” he said. “But day-by-day, week-by-week these guys continued to do the things they needed to do. They never lost faith.
“They studied film, worked hard on and off the field. They always played hard: they began to play right. It’s about being in place; eleven guys as one and they did that, they got better each and every week, even against Harvard, though we wound up on the wrong end of that score.
“Harvard at that point was a good football team. I think we took some of the starch out of them.”
THEY EARNED THEIR STRIPES
The award winners named at Sunday’s Donold B. Lourie ’22 Football Banquet at the Princeton Westin:
Hank Towns h82 (Devotion to Princeton and contributions to the community at large): Isaiah Barnes ’17 and Marcus Phox ’17.
Class of 1952 (excellence on special teams): Tyler Roth ’17 and Pat Hall ’17.
Harland (Pink) Baker ’22 (freshman defensive stalwart): T.J. Floyd ’20.
Donald B. Lourie (freshman offensive stalwart): Reily Radosevich ’20.
Ronald A. Rogerson (inspiration to fellow players): Dorian Williams ’17, Joe Rhattigan ’17.
Charles W. Caldwell (most improved): James Gales ’17, Henry Schlossberg ’17 and Sam Huffman ’17.
Richard W. Colman (skill and scholarship): Scott Carpenter ’17 & Chad Kanoff ’17
Dr Harry Roemer McPhee (durability and fortitude): Rohan Hylton ’17 & Luke Catarius ’17
John P. Poe, Richard Kazmaier (player of ability and perseverance: Kurt Holuba ’18 and Johnny Lovett ‘18
WORST TO BEST:
That fourth-quarter strip (by Mark Fossati) and recovery (by Ryan Quigley) of the kickoff that effectively put away Saturday’s 38-21 victory? Not exactly the way it was designed.
“That was actually the worst kickoff [Tavish Rice] had all year,” said Surace. “He kicked it to the middle of the field, where he wasn’t supposed to. Our coverage guys just beat blocks.
“Our kickoff coverage is No. 1 in the nation or close to it. Sean Gleeson (special teams coach) does a terrific job. So enthusiastic, I love listening to him in his meetings.”
Johnny Lovett on breaking Keith Elias’s 23-year old record for rushing touchdowns in a season with No. 20. “It’s a product of how hard we worked as a team all year,” said the quarterback. “Our offensive line has done a phenomenal job.” It was left to Surace to gush about Lovett’s accomplishment: “To just approach that record, holy cow, Keith is one of the great players to ever play in the league,” said the coach. . . . Princetontigersfootball.com will have coverage of the All-Ivy Teams, to be announced Tuesday, and Asa S. Bushnell awards for Ivy League Players of the Year (Monday, December 5). . . . Lovett is expected to be a finalist for the offensive award. . . . Post-Thanksgiving, we will award the Plays and Players of the Year and have Bob Surace’s farewells and thanks to each individual senior.