They Will Play This Game As Long As They Live
BY JAY GREENBERG
For the seniors, Saturday is the opportunity of their dreams.
“It does not get better than this,” said defensive end Brannon Jones. “To have a chance to play for the championship, at home, against a good Dartmouth team that you haven’t beaten, we could not ask for any more.”
These guys can go out a champion the same way they came in as freshmen, this time finishing it up against the school that denied them an undisputed title back then. This is the kind of closure that closes the book on closure, absolutely the ending any senior would want. Only problem is, these guys don’t want it to end.
Any athlete mourns the finale of his career. But it’s more than that for the Class of 2017, which has been blessed with exceptional health and opportunity. No limping to the finish this year. The Tigers are playing too well to stop now, but they must.
“I have never been on a defense that is this smothering and playing this well in key moments,” said linebacker R.J. Paige. “I am proud to be part of it and wish I could keep it going.
“But we can’t. One left. Have to take care of business.”
Business it has been for a team that in the last 44 opposition drives has allowed one touchdown (when it led 35-0) and one field goal (on a possession that began at the Tiger 10). Princeton leads the Ivy League in both forced turnovers (21) and fewest turnovers committed (10). They have a margin of victory in its last four wins of 24, 29, 28 and 28 points. One of the Tiger quarterbacks, Johnny Lovett, has more touchdowns than the next two closest Ivy League players combined.
Throw out – and oh, how they wish they could – one mistake-ridden first half against Harvard, and the Tigers have been utterly dominant since the league season began, and seemingly getting better every game. It is almost like their best competition has been the previous week’s effort. At Yale last Saturday, Princeton took only two penalties. The focus has been extraordinary, almost eerie.
The 7-2 Tigers, 5-1 in the league, are hugely appreciative of the second chance they were given by last week’s Harvard loss to Penn and in grinding down Yale 31-3 demonstrated the ability to handle it.
“They know what is at stake this week,” said Coach Bob Surace “I don’t have to talk about that. One of the things I do talk to them about is eliminating distractions.
“The reason we are in this position is we prepare well and play hard. Guys have bought into understanding what we want in the game plan and then executing it. Now we have to keep doing it against a team that is literally a few bounces of the ball from being in the position we are in.”
“Our lapses were against Lehigh. Dartmouth (4-5, 1-5 Ivy, but with three of the losses by a total of seven points) has had them in league play.”
Surace, who has not had a losing season in the five since starting 2-18, nevertheless hasn’t beaten Dartmouth. So he has the same memory as his seniors of coming up three points short in a Game 10 fourth-quarter blizzard at Hanover in 2013, which kept Princeton from running the table in the league and forced it to share the title with a Harvard team the Tigers had beaten in overtime.
“Everybody has a chip on their shoulder about something,” shrugged Surace. “Whatever it is, I just don’t want it to turn into a distraction.
“We watched Harvard beat Penn, then at eight the next morning were ready to play Yale. Hopefully we have the right game plan in and we execute it like we have been.
“We have focused this year. I trust them.”
Was the 2013 club guilty of that in the finale at Hanover, when the Tigers fell behind 21-0, rallied to tie, and then couldn’t get over the hump? That is arguable. Those players didn’t go into that game satisfied with just a share of the title. They lost, barely, to a Dartmouth team that fell just one win short of a three-way tie.
That said, it was the first rodeo for all those Tigers in that situation. In Paige’s belief, that remained the case when the Tigers slipped to 5-5 in 2013 for more reasons than a hobbled Quinn Epperly.
“We had a lot of guys like me playing a lot as freshmen who spent the summer working our tails off and came in thinking we were going to crush everybody,” recalls Paige. “One thing I have learned is you have to take every season game-by-game, practice-by-practice. You can’t ever look too far ahead.
“Sophomore year, I felt that a little bit. Then, injuries messed us up last year. But we’re more mature now, know how to be leaders and make our guys accountable for everything we do on and off the field. I just think we just have a better head on our shoulders for this one.
“I think every team I have been on played great. I just see a lot of great leadership in our class.”
If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Meaning, wiser, too. How many professional athletes lucky enough to have been on a championship team as rookies wait years to get another chance or sometimes never do and lament how they had assumed every year would be like the first?
“I felt that exact same way,” said Tyler Roth, the punter in 2013, as he is now.
“All freshmen really are just trying to keep their heads above water academically and athletically. I was just trying to survive the week of practice and classes. And then we won and it was over. Really, I didn’t know anything else besides winning.
Definitely, I did not realize at the time how hard those championships are to come by.
“As a senior you understand that in a totally different light. At Yale I was rooming with Tavish (kicker Rice) and other freshmen were in the room (watching Harvard-Penn). I was thinking about us beating [Harvard] freshman year and it kind of set in on me.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride not being able to control our own destiny for [three] weeks. Now we can. Yes, if we win, we probably will share the title, but the coach’s motto for the season was ‘finish’ and we need to do that by not letting [Dartmouth] get out of here another time with a win.”
Probably, these seniors have a bigger problem with never having won a season’s final game than they do with a classy program at Dartmouth. But the schedule has made those feelings intertwined.
“That would mean a lot to us, be a big credit to the work we have put in. Look, we would play hard to win any game. But the fact that it is Dartmouth helps a little too.”
Title would be Princeton’s 11th since the Ivy League was formed in 1956 and make the Class of 2016 the first in 60 years at Princeton to play on two Ivy League championship teams. . . . This is only the third time in 50 years that Princeton has been in position to wrap up a title with a home victory. . . . Thanks to Dartmouth’s six-game streak over Princeton, it leads the all-time series 48-43-4. The last Tiger win was Roger Hughes’ final game as Princeton coach. . . . Lovett needs one rushing touchdown to tie Keith Elias’s school record of rushing touchdowns, 19 in 1993. . . . Kickoff at 1:30, will be streamed on the Ivy League Digital Network and One World Sports. Radio is WPRB (103.3) with Cody Chrusciel and Dave Giancola. . . . Season ends Saturday, but our coverage will continue with Sunday’s award banquet, and, in the coming two weeks, a review of the best plays and players of 2016, the naming of the All-Ivy teams, and Surace’s tributes to each of the seniors.