From Close to the Vest, the 1992 Tigers Could Explode
BY JAY GREENBERG
First of a Two Parts Series
Princeton’s 1989 Ivy League championship, its first in two decades, was followed by a 3-7 disaster in 1990. But it wasn’t back to the pumpkin. The 1991 club rebounded to go 8-2, taking its title chase to Week 10 at Dartmouth, although the Tigers were routed, 31-13, by the champions.
“Dartmouth was better than us in ’91” recalls Head Coach Steve Tosches. “But the goal had been to regain momentum for the program and we had done that.
“I wouldn’t say we went into the 1992 season with a sense of unfinished business. We wanted to reestablish consistency.”
That motivation was secondary to the players, who in those days of freshman ineligibility, had three years to win a championship and then the rest of their lives to take pride in their class’s long-term impact on the program. The 1992 Tigers came to camp determined to make it their year.
“Back then, we worked out at home over the summers, not as much on campus as they do now,” recalls tight end Chris Beiswenger. “But every day in the gym that summer the thing that motivated me, and probably others, was an Ivy League championship.”
“We had lost our quarterback (Chad Roghair), and a great linebacker in Jim Freeman. Those left a huge gap, but the offensive line was significantly intact and a lot of young players on our defense had played well in ’91.”
Recalls defensive tackle Jim Renna, a rising junior. “As freshmen, we had kicked the bleep out of that ’90 team. Keith Elias would run over everybody and the defense would hit the quarterback even though he was wearing a yellow shirt, making Tosches crazy.
“We didn’t make friends with those seniors, only with the class above us. I thought from Day One, our class could be something special, so we had huge expectations for that ’92 team.”
Among Elias’s 902 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing as a sophomore in 1991 had been a 200-yard day against Colgate. It was a running jump to a bar the brash kid had always set abnormally high.
“I walked into Lacey Township (NJ) High to sit down with Keith and started into my recruiting spiel about Princeton and the academics and all its wonderful things,” recalls Tosches. “He kind of puts up his hand and says, ‘Coach, if I come to Princeton, I am going to break all the rushing records of Judd Garrett (’90).
“Princeton had just won its first championship in 20 years. In my mind, Judd could walk on water. And here was some 18-year-old Jersey shore kid with long hair making that kind of a statement?
“I just kind of nodded. I walked out of that school thinking, ‘What an arrogant kid this is.”
Elias was, however, a smart arrogant kid, with not only Princeton-qualifying grades but also an intellectual curiosity that belied his brash, jock culture, demeanor. After a junior year infatuation with the University of Virginia–“Went there and didn’t fit in at all,” he remembers thinking–Elias had narrowed his choices to home state Rutgers and Princeton.
“Visited Rutgers and had a great time,” recalls Elias. “Then I came to Princeton, where Mike Hirou (’91) and Bob Surace (’90) were my hosts. I knew right then that I was serious about Princeton.
“I’d had a good time in high school, but had never really felt like I had fit in with those around me. At Princeton, I felt they were all just like me–guys who loved the game of football and excelled academically.”
Surace had been entrusted with making Elias, a potential huge get for the program, feel at home. “The pressure was on from Steve Verbit (secondary coach and then South Jersey recruiter), “ recalls Surace. “He said, ‘Better get this kid’. I took him to the hockey game at Baker Rink, I never had a recruit sign autographs before. People already knew Keith Elias.
“About midnight at Dial Lodge, (MTV’s) Headbangers’ Ball came on TV. For the next two hours Keith was in front of the set at the corner at the bar, headbanging. He loved that heavy metal music.”
Elias could watch Headbangers’ Ball on television sets in Piscataway, too, plus play at a higher level of competition and for a full ride. He had a tough decision.
“I had been thinking it would be a nice burden off my parents to take that football scholarship at Rutgers,” Elias recalls. “At one point it had been like flipping a coin.
So (Lacey Township) Coach (Lou) Vircillo looked up for me that Rutgers had beaten Princeton in the first football game (in 1869) and I said, ‘Okay, going to Rutgers.’
“But as soon as I said that, I thought, ‘doesn’t sound right.’ So I said, ‘Nope, going to Princeton.’ My Dad was the happiest, never mind the money. And we got some financial help that I could go.”
Going into Elias’s junior season, there promised to be plenty of student aid for him in the offense. Senior offensive tackle Chris Theiss was a returning second-team All-Ivy selection and senior Michael Lerch was a diminutive (5-7, 160) and dazzling first-team 1991 All-Ivy wide-out who had caught nine passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns during a 1991 rout of Brown.
“With pretty much zero interest from anybody in the I-A category because of my size, Princeton was my choice from Day One,” recalls Lerch, another South Jersey recruit (Clearview Regional, Mullica Hill). “There was a mystique to it.
“I had met Dick Kazmaier (Princeton’s 1951 Heisman Trophy winner) and become friends. At Princeton, I caddied for him at Pine Valley and he got me a summer job.”
Whoever claimed the No. 1 quarterback spot was going to be the only non-returning starter on the offense. Junior Joel Foote had an ability to run the option that figured to best facilitate the use of Elias on pitches, plus a greater huddle presence than the stronger-armed junior Cam Scholvin. Foote won the job during camp.
The biggest question mark about the season seemed whether Lerch’s explosiveness could still be fully exploited by a rookie quarterback. But that was only until a defense to be anchored by returning first team All Ivy middle linebacker Aaron Harris lost the best outside pass rusher in the league. Senior end Brian Kazan suffered multiple torn knee ligaments during a full-scale scrimmage against Montclair State.
“He was actually dropping back in coverage, something we didn’t do very often, which made it terrible luck,” recalls safety Keith Ducker. “He leaped for a ball and the halfback, who lost his balance, came into the side of Brian’s leg and blew it out. I heard a really ugly pop and got nauseous.”
The next man up was not going to be anything close to a Kazan. “The best guy I would block against all year was Kazan during practice,” recalls Theiss. “It was just an awful loss and took away an entire dimension from us.”
Junior Matt McInerney became one starter outside junior interior tackles Jim Renna and Reggie Harris; the latter hardly considered Princeton’s “other Harris.” Reggie Harris had already been named honorable mention All-Ivy as a sophomore.
Defensive coordinator Mark Harriman and defensive line coach Bob Dipipi took their unit to Ithaca for the opener against Cornell with senior Steve Brown and junior Nick Brophy spelling each other on the end opposite McInerney.
“We weren’t going to be able to replace Kazan,” recalls Harriman. “We had to be innovative with what we had.
“Steve and Nick were a little bit lighter, so we used them more on their feet instead of hand on the ground.”
There Was No Easing into it
Princeton’s upset of Cornell in the ’91 opener had been priceless to the Tiger turnaround and the Big Red was expected to contend in ’92 as well. With its first possession, Cornell drove 73 yards in 14 plays to jump up 7-0 but Princeton immediately answered with Elias left and Elias right for four first downs that put the ball at the eight, where Foote, on a rollout, hit Steve Tufillaro for the tying touchdown.
Midway through the second quarter, Cornell quarterback Bill Lazor was hit, fumbled, and the ball bounced up into the hands of Reggie Harris. “It was such a good bounce I had to break my longstanding rule to just fall on it,” recalls Harris, who rumbled down the sideline 17 yards before being knocked out of bounds at the Cornell 17. “I got all this ribbing about being caught by an offensive lineman.” Jon Lewis’s 30-yard field goal put the Tigers up 10-7.
On the first series of the third quarter Lazor fumbled a snap, Renna fell on the ball at the Cornell 19 and, two plays later, fullback Peter Bailey burst up the middle for a nine-yard touchdown to put Princeton ahead 16-7.
Set up by a blocked punt, the Big Red needed only seven yards and two plays to score from the six, but the PAT was blocked and Princeton kept its lead at three until, two series later, Foote finished an 8-play, 61-yard drive, with a roll and throw to Lerch in the back of the end zone. Lewis’s second PAT miss left Princeton up 22-13, but Cornell came right back with a seven-play, 58-yard, march culminating in a 26-yard Lazor pass to Mike Jamin that cut the lead to 22-20.
Foote, who was permitted to throw only 15 times in the game, tried a 42-yard bomb to Lerch early in the fourth quarter, only to be picked off at the five. On their next possession, the Tigers again drove into Cornell territory, only to frustrate themselves again with an Elias fumble at the 19. Thus, with 5:03 remaining, the Big Red had one more shot.
Three first downs later, the ball was at the Princeton 49 before a procedure penalty pushed Cornell back into first-and-15. A Ducker tackle for a loss, a pass breakup by sophomore cornerback Jonathan Reid, and a tackle by nickel back Mark Berkowitz after a short gain left the Tigers one play from a victory and Aaron Harris and fellow linebacker Gene DeMorat made it. DeMorat got a fingertip on Lazor’s throw and Harris made a hit on receiver Andy Fitzpatrick as the ball arrived.
Thanks largely to Aaron Harris’ 17 tackles, and two touchdown passes against just one interception in Foote’s debut, the Tigers had endured for a big opening win on the road against a contender, 22-20.
“It was a game we should have put away and Cornell kept coming back,” recalls Aaron Harris. “It was exhausting.
“But we had played a lot of sophomores and had hung tough. You could see that this was going to be a legit defense.”
Aaron Harris, sturdy as a maple tree in his native Vermont, was a defensive trunk supporting seven branches in the linebacking corps and defensive backfield. “A linebacker that size (6-3, 235) was really ahead of his time in our league,” recalls Verbit.
Harris physically matured late in high school, growing into defensive end size and still running well enough that the Princeton coaches had no desire to move him.
“At a lot of places they would have put his hand on the ground,” recalls Harriman, the linebacker coach in addition to being the defensive coordinator. “A lot of tall linebackers are susceptible to playing at a high pad level but, because of his athleticism, Aaron played with a great knee bend.”
Harris had left school his sophomore year to rehab torn ankle ligaments – and took a job at Chuck’s Spring Street Café. “Best wings ever, so meaty,” he recalls. One night, watching the news, he learned the restaurant’s proprietor, Lyle Menendez, had been arrested along with his brother Erik for the murder of their parents in their Los Angeles home. “Guess that job is over,” Harris thought.
The brothers were sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives. A year in rehab didn’t seem so long to Harris. When he came back, the ankle was strong as his character. The graduated Freeman had nicknamed Harris the A-Train and outside linebackers Chris Mallette and, especially, DeMorat were hardly riding in the caboose. “Aaron and Gene were heat-seeking missiles,” recalls Brophy.
”Gene was strong, quicker than me, and shed blocks real well,” said Aaron Harris. “I just remember him being involved in so many plays and never getting enough recognition.”
That was in part because Harris cast such a lengthy shadow.
“He looked you in the eye in the huddle and you just knew you were going to get it done,” recalls Brophy. “That look and his actions were enough, without any words.”
Recalls Renna, “He wasn’t a yeller, but he commanded the huddle, and made sure by example we were all pulling the right way. And when necessary, he was not afraid to engage.
“I probably yelled at people and used more profanity, but I don’t think we needed it. Reggie Harris, too, was very quiet in the huddle. Strong, silent types were the nature of our defense.”
The Back in Black
The trashtalking was left to the offense, whose star running back routinely taunted the opposition during games and even warmups, telling them they might as well go home before the kickoff. “During a game, I might say, ‘You’re worthless.’ But I would never say anything about their moms,” Elias explains. “That would be bad sportsmanship.”
Prior to suiting up for the home opener against Lafayette, he did his usual drill, walking the field in his own pre-game uniform — a black shirt and pants, black bandana, with a black coat draped over his shoulder. The cape was left to the imagination of the self-styled Back in Black.
“Players ahead of me told me, ‘Four years goes by so quickly,’” recalls Elias. “I was always someone who wanted to take advantage of life.”
“I was in a (Palmer) Stadium, where they had been playing for 100 years. I wanted to soak it in so I walked the field before every home game. Plus, I always felt like ‘This is my field.’ I felt like [the opposition] didn’t have a right to come on it.
“So this was more than a ritual for me, a kind of ownership. In terms of the bandana, I was a Metalhead, a pirate. I read a lot of comic books growing up, always wanted to be a superhero.”
Or, was it Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker who grew up reading Keith Elias comic books? “You only had to hold your block half-a-second and he was by you,” recalls center Ian Lombard. As the human race improves with each generation, there had not been a combination of speed and power like this in Princeton history and perhaps not in the Ivy League since it was formed in 1956. And Elias was only 5-11, 190.
“Phenomenal leg strength and quickness, speed like a race car zero-to-60,” recalls Tosches. “And he had the mindset and the overall work ethic.
“On a December Tuesday in the weight room, Keith worked just as hard as on the field on a Saturday. It was all fun to him.”
Thanks to a 39-yard touchdown pass behind Jonathan Reid on the game opening drive, followed by a 72-yard punt return for a score, Lafayette was ahead 14-0 after only 2:43. But Foote converted a third-down pass to Lerch to the Leopard 38 and, on the next play, Elias took a pitch, cut inside, broke a tackle, ran out of another grasp and, thanks to a sealing inside block by tackle Chris Cyterski, was in the clear and scored.
Lewis’s PAT kick was low and blocked, leaving Princeton still down eight. But on the kickoff, Berkowitz’s hit knocked the ball into the air where Lerch could grab it with nobody in front of him. He did the final 10 yards of the 38 backwards. But when Lerch was badly overthrown by Foote on a two-point try, Princeton, despite the two touchdowns in 10 seconds, still trailed 14-12.
The Tigers got stops on a McInerney third-down sack, a terrific break on the ball for an interception at the flag by cornerback Brad Reed, then a combined Reed-Aaron Harris stop a foot short on a fake punt at midfield.
Elias followed that emotional swing by breaking a tackle to the 30. On the next play, with Bailey leading, The Back in Black disappeared into an apparent Black Hole in the middle of the Lafayette line. “But the pile just continued to move” recalls Joe Susan, the offensive coordinator, “and then he broke free.” No. 20 escaped two more leg tackles and scored to put Princeton ahead 18-14.
Foote fumbled the two-point try just when it appeared he was going in, bringing the Tigers to an incomprehensible one-for-six on conversion tries for the season. But Lerch preserved their four-point halftime lead with a field goal block.
The score went to 25-14 when Elias finished a methodical drive by breaking four tackles, the last two inside the five, on a 16-yard burst. Tosches went to junior Jeff Hogg to finally successfully kick an extra point.
The Leopards, who returned 20 of 24 starters, were moving the ball, only to be continually frustrated. On a fourth-and-one, DeMorat punched the ball loose and Reggie Harris fell on it. A pitch to Elias on the option yielded 16 yards to put him over 200 for the day before three quarters had been completed. But when Foote overthrew Lerch in the end zone, the Tigers settled for a Hogg 32-yard field goal and a 28-14 advantage.
As the fourth quarter began, the Leopards finally converted a drive on a shovel pass from quarterback Tom Kirchoff to Erik Marsh and were hanging around at 28-21. Elias was rested the next series, which died on a third-down try for Lerch, but after Hogg nailed his third field goal, a 25 yarder, it was a two-score game again, the Tigers having eaten up a valuable five minutes besides.
Nevertheless Jarvis Perry beat Reid on a post for a 49-yard touchdown that made it 31-28 with still 6:12 to go. The Tigers needed more than first downs and Elias provided, taking a pitch, cutting back, running out of two more potential tackles, then stiff-arming Chris Everett to the ground at the 20 and scoring a breathtaking 69-yard touchdown.
“Both Stilley and I pulled on that play, one guy kicking out, the other following through to pick up the linebacker, safety or whomever was in the way,” recalls Theiss. “I’m picking up a linebacker and I feel somebody grabbing the back of my shirt.
“I thought, ‘That’s kind of weird,’ but as I hit my block, there’s still somebody grabbing my shirt and then all of a sudden Keith flashes by me to a touchdown.
“When I saw it on film, somebody had tripped him at the line and he was falling forward, so he reached out to pull the back of my jersey to catch his balance. He got his feet back under him, waited to catch my block, and took off. That was the kind of play where the guy’s amazing athleticism made everyone look great.”
The 69-yard run gave Elias 282 for the day, nine more than the Princeton record set by Homer Smith ’54. But a tiring Tiger defense had barely been off the field. Lafayette took less than two minutes to answer with a 6-yard pass to Doug Duer and with two minutes remaining, Princeton again led by only three.
Bailey picked up one first down. Elias was clobbered on the next play and then tripped up at the line of scrimmage on third down. He was able to lunge only a half-yard short of 300 but, more importantly, of putting the contest away. “If I had gotten the first down the game was over,” he recalls. “I didn’t like putting the defense in that position.”
So Golden’s punt into the end zone left the Leopards 52 seconds to get into field goal range.
Two underneath catches and runs got them quickly to the Princeton 45. But Marsh didn’t get out of bounds after a reception on a crossing pattern and, under pressure, Kirchoff had to throw the ball away with 14 seconds remaining. With the ball short of field-goal range at the 33, Craig Roubinek made a one-handed catch, fell, and time run out in the Tigers’ 38-35 outlasting of the eventual Patriot League champions, a victory forged on a four-touchdown, 299 yard, rushing performance by Elias.
“He had a way of taking his body away from the defense, a change of direction on a dime, and great strength that, along with his balance, enabled him to break tackles,” Verbit recalls. “I can’t tell you how many times you would go from ‘Oh, no!’ to ‘Omigod.’ He looked stopped after two and then was 70 yards downfield.”
Recalls Offensive Coordinator Joe Susan: “He backed up his own confidence by giving confidence to the whole team, made your line better and your quarterback better. He forced teams to play with one safety, which caused one-on-one confrontations on the outside, which really helped Lerch.
“It wasn’t Elias alone because there were other good offensive players on that team. But it ended up being his team. Everybody in the stadium knew he was going to get the ball and he still got yards. That’s a special player.”
Elias supplemented his talent by being a student of the game, as he was of many things. “He wasn’t as glitzy as people might think,” recalls Ducker. “We lived together and he was a great student, always reading, not just course work, but things he was interested in, like Scripture, even though he was not very religious when we first met.
“All that Back in Black stuff covered up him being a total geek who took academics seriously.”
Always, Elias was looking for an edge. “He would always come into my office before a game and ask what the first couple of plays were,” recalls Susan. “One time, we told him we were going to run a screen right off the bat. ‘He said ‘I’ll score on that play’ and he did.
“He would always come up on Tuesday and we learned a lot about each other. He forced me to listen to his music and I actually developed a taste for Metallica. But I made him listen to mine, too–The Who, The Doors, and Tom Petty.
“Taking care of his body was a science to him at a time that preceded some of what we do now. His football IQ was outstanding. And he made himself one of the offensive lineman, which helped his production.”
Recalls center Ian Lombard, “It was always team-first with Keith, all of us in this together.”
“He would tell you that we made him look good, and that was definitely appreciated,” remembers Theiss. “But at the same time I think he said those things more for the media and people outside the program.
“Anyone who plays football knows that without an offensive line, the offense is going nowhere. So it was cool that he said all those things, but I don’t think we had the kind of mentality that people needed to get credit.”
The O-line’s business card was The Beast, an acronym Susan brought with him from an assistantship at Bucknell. It stood for Big, Excited, Agile, Strong, and Tough. Elias also nicknamed Theiss “Rolling Thunder,” after the roller coaster at Great Adventure.
“Keep your hands and legs inside the car and enjoy the ride,” Elias says to this day. “Chris’s angles were perfect, his body position fantastic, and hip strength amazing.”
From Theiss’s left, the view was just as awesome as from behind him, “He threw people around like rag dolls,” guard J.C. Stilley recalls. “An absolute freak.
“There are two types of athletes at Princeton: Those who were playing at the highest levels they could possibly achieve, like me. And then there are those who could play at a higher level but chose Princeton for the education and its benefits. That was Chris.”
Remembers Susan, who was the offensive line coach in addition to offensive coordinator: “Chris had long arms and really knew how to use his hands. He was sudden, explosive and athletic. He could reach defensive ends and push them down the field and used his arm length well in pass protection too.
“Dennis Norman (Princeton ’01, 2001-2009 in the NFL) was the best lineman in my time (nine years) in the Ivy League. Chris came the closest. He wasn’t tall enough for what the pros want to draft a tackle, but was quick enough that had he been a linebacker, he would have been a prospect.”
On all levels of the game, offensive linemen are among the brightest and most articulate of athletes and among its greater authority figures. “On any successful team, there is a big component of leadership,” says Lombard. “Even more than his athletic ability, Chris stood out for his leadership ability. He had had a huge impact on me. “
Indeed O-linemen are like fingers on a hand. The glove fit: Princeton’s 1992 front wall acquitted itself well week after week.
“Lombard was a little undersized but really athletic,” recalls Susan, now the head coach at Bucknell. “He could reach the [opposition] tackle inside, who was headed over the guard, which is a hard thing to do. Sometimes you don’t even ask your center to do that. He was also good on screens.
“Stilley was very physical. (Scott) Miller was athletic, a good pulling guard. Cyterski was an underclassman who performed much better than we thought he would that year.”
“(Tight end) Beiswenger set the edge on many of our perimeter plays and could control the C Gap, critical when we ran our power, isolation and lead draw plays. His effectiveness helped play-action concepts. He took a lot of pride in his blocking, a tight end who saw himself as part of a pretty special offensive line.”
Susan, a taskmaster, gets enormous credit from Stilley. “I didn’t even travel my sophomore year,” he recalls. “Joe Susan was the reason I was starting.”
The coach showed his caring side to Elias in their Tuesday talks. “He would talk to me about how to navigate the huddle, support Joel and pump up the linemen,” recalls Elias. “That was some of the best education I got at Princeton.
“When I would curse, Coach Susan would say, “That word is not going to get it done.” He was coaching us to be men, not just football players.
Recalls Theiss: “Some of the guys on the team may have felt [Susan’s] bedside manner wasn’t the best, but I can’t argue with the results we got. He challenged us. I liked that a lot.”
Fresh off 299 yards, Elias took only three scrimmage plays the following week at Lehigh to start with another fast 54. He received a pitch, followed Bailey through a hole created by Theiss and Stilley, stepped out of one Lehigh defender’s grasp after five yards and another after 15 and went down the sideline to the end zone.
The Engineers struck back just as quickly for a 7-7 tie when the safeties lost Jason Cristino and quarterback Scott Semptimphltr delivered a 76-yard touchdown pass. But with the Engineers refusing to risk a Lerch head of steam, he nevertheless picked up the deliberately short ensuing kickoff on the bounce at the 25, burst through the wedge in front of him, cut left and ran for a touchdown that put Princeton back up 14-7.
Elias got the next series off. Erick Hamilton, on a sweep enabled by a sealing block by Beiswenger, completed a masterful 11-play, 88-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown run. When Lehigh’s Sean McCarthy, taking a short pass, was stripped by Aaron Harris, Reid fell on the fumble at the Lehigh 36. Elias ran through a tackle to the 11, Bailey bulled to the one, and backup fullback C.J. Brucato took it in to make the score 28-7.
Semptimphltr wasn’t ready to pack it in. On third-and-13, a one-handed catch by Cristino through the double coverage of Reid and Berkowitz keyed a drive and Jason Mastropierro leaped over from the one, cutting the Tigers’ lead to 28-14.
A Foote throw on the run to Lerch for 17 yards had Princeton threatening again. But Foote, hit after he delivered and landing on his left shoulder, came to the line for the next play discovering he couldn’t get his left hand under the snap. His replacement, Scholvin, threw to Tufillaro to get the ball to the nine but Hogg hooked a 27-yard field goal wide with three seconds remaining in the half.
It stayed a two-score game for only two plays of the third quarter. Elias took a pitch, found a hole between the blocks of the pulling Miller and Cyterski, and, with a cleanup block by Lerch–“Michael was absolutely as good a blocker as he was a receiver,” recalls Verbit–broke three tackles within the five yards past the line of scrimmage. It seemed nobody could bring Elias down low. And when the chasing Hector Martinez tried to tackle high, Elias stiff armed the defensive back four different times between the 30 and the 20, then stepped out of his grasp and ran into the end zone to boost the lead to 35-14.
”That run, of all of his runs, was the one I remember the best,” says Stilley. “Keith punched the last guy in the face four times and kept going,”
When Mastropierro dropped a handoff and Reggie Harris recovered at the Princeton 15, the lead stayed at three touchdowns. But Hamilton gave the ball right back with a fumble and Semptimphltr threw for a score over the leap of Reed.
Reggie Harris stopped the two-point conversion attempt off a fake kick but Princeton went three-and-out and completions on underneath passes set up a 28-yard throw on fourth down towards Cristino just over the outstretched hand of DeMorat. Free safety Brian Mangene went for the interception, missed, and the receiver stepped out of the grasp of Ducker and went in. Before the third quarter had ended, Lehigh was back within seven.
Scholvin threw an interception on the Tigers’ next possession. But with one yard to go for a Lehigh first down at the Princeton 39, the Tigers got consecutive stops by Mallette and Reggie Harris and on fourth down, Ducker knocked down a rollout pass to preserve the lead.
There still was a fourth quarter to go, so the Tigers offense needed to relieve some pressure. Elias burst for 30 to the Lehigh 22 and then took a flat pass for another 22, enabling a Hogg 37-yard field goal that extended the edge to 38-28,
And the defense rose. Reed grabbed an interception off a tipped pass and DeMorat made a third-down stop in the open field. Another chance to add on, set up by a Hamilton return, vanished when Hogg missed from 28. But Aaron Harris knocked down a third-down pass and Reggie Harris forced an overthrow of a wide-open Cristino. The Tigers ran out the clock on a 38-28 win. Elias finished with 273 yards on 36 carries, bringing his yardage in back-to-back games to 473 yards, a new 1-AA record.
As usual, Beiswenger’s statistical measurements–one catch for three yards–were minimal and his contributions enormous. “On runs, he just shut off the outside,” recalls Theiss.
This tight end never aspired to be Kellen Winslow. “If we were going to give the ball to somebody on a pass play it was going to be Lerch and Tufillaro,” recalls Beiswenger. “I was actually a better basketball player than a football player in high school, so I had decent hands, but we had this kid named Elias coming up so why not move an offensive lineman to tight end?
“In , my senior year, they were using (junior) Colin Nance, who had really worked hard to improve himself, more on what passes they threw to tight ends. But I enjoyed blocking.
“After Keith had the 299 and 273 yards in successive week, I was picked by Tosches to come to the (midweek) press conference for the Brown game. On the speaker, the Brown coach (Mickey Kwiatkowski) was asked about stopping Elias and, talking about me and Pete Bailey, said, ‘They have a mauler for a tight end and beast for a fullback.’
“That was my favorite moment of recognition, coming from an opposition coach, but Keith did a good job of that every week, too, calling me and Pete “The Killer Bees.”
Defenses needed a swarm of tacklers to fight through the Killer Bees to Elias and Foote. “Pete was the ultimate role player,” Foote recalls. “If you needed something you just knew it was going to get done.
“A big part of our offense was the Iso; he would get hit head-on almost every play and never go down. He has been very successful since school and made a ton of money so his brain must still be working, but I don’t know how. He threw his helmet in there every single play.
“If everybody embraces their roles, good things happen. We never had dysfunction on that team.”
Nevertheless, a total of 919 yards surrendered in consecutive non-league victories was an indication that the Tigers needed improved function on defense.
The secondary was suffering some growing pains. At the beginning of the season Mangene had moved from corner to free safety and Ducker from free to strong safety, leaving cornerback Reed the only incumbent playing the same position he had in 1991. The other corner, Reid, was a sophomore. “Jonathan was physically gifted, probably the fastest of our four,” recalls Ducker. “But he was young.”
In addition, linebackers DeMorat and Mallette were in less familiar positions, DeMorat having switched from the strong to the weak side and Mallette having gone outside. But the biggest problem in 638 passing yards allowed over two weeks was the lack of pressure off the edge in the absence of Kazan.
A Quick Solution
“We’re sitting in the office, with Tosches going around the (coaches) asking, ‘What do you think. What do you think?” recalls Verbit. “I said, ‘Here’s my suggestion: Michael Lerch.”
The dynamic wideout was 5-foot-9 and 160 at best, but his speed off the edge had foiled field goal and PAT attempt, and his body of work covering kickoffs suggested that once Lerch surprised a quarterback, he would know how to get him to the ground.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of technique to what he would be doing,” recalls Tosches. “So there wasn’t much to teach Michael.
“I don’t recall even working him with the defense during the week. It was going to be just one play at a time, only when they absolutely had to throw.”
Lerch, who took as much pride in his special team tackles as touchdowns, welcomed the opportunity. “I used to stand next to (defensive line coach) Bob DiPippi the whole time we were on defense,” he recalls. “After two-and-a-half years of that, they put me on the field against Brown.
“Aaron said, ‘What the bleep are you doing out here?’ It was a bit odd, I must say. Had they run the ball against me, it would have been a disaster. “
In limited plays with the defense, Lerch did not get to Brown quarterback Dave Gardi. But McInerney and Reggie Harris arrived together for one sack, as did DeMorat on a blitz.
With Foote expected to be out three weeks, Tosches and Susan decided not to re-invent the wheel. Sophomore Tom McInerney (no relation to the defensive lineman) also was an option-type quarterback so the coaches went with him over the stronger arm of Scholvin, who had struggled with the timing of his pitch-outs against Lehigh.
Thus, as the Tigers went 70 yards in 14 plays with the opening kickoff by Brown to score on an Elias two-yard touchdown plunge, Lerch caught the only pass, on a third-and-six. “We were being even more conservative than normal,” recalls Tosches. “We didn’t want to give Tommy (McInerney) too much. “
On Brown’s first possession, Ducker recovered a fumble. Either the Bears had short memories of the 370 receiving yards they had yielded to Lerch a season earlier, or nevertheless were choosing him over Elias as their poison. “We had an inexperienced quarterback,” recalls Tosches. “They put virtually 11 men on the line of scrimmage.”
On the third-and-four, Lerch was running diagonally ten yards ahead of the coverage when McInerney delivered a 77-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
Hogg’s first PAT attempt had been blocked, and McInerney’s pass for two points failed, leaving Princeton up 12-0. But Brown drove right back and Gardi’s one-yard touchdown throw to Rene Ovalle pulled the Bears back to within five.
Ducker sacked Gardi, who fumbled. Aaron Harris recovered at the Brown 27 and four Elias runs later, he scored on a sweep. This time Hogg converted and Princeton led 20-7 at the half.
Scott Camp, in for Gardi as the third quarter began, found Ovalle three times on an opening third-quarter drive deep into Princeton territory. When a DeMorat sack left Brown in a third-and-12 at the 21, a sweep totally fooled the Tigers and Brett Brown took it all the way for a touchdown that cut the Princeton lead to 20-13.
Staying on the ground–and with Elias, despite an ankle sprain he had suffered on his second-quarter touchdown–the Tigers drove to the Brown 14. But the drive stalled with a clipping penalty and Hogg missed a chip shot. Thus it was still a one-score game when the third quarter ended with Brown downing a punt at the six.
Minus the gimpy Elias, Hamilton got the Tigers out of deep trouble with seven yards on first down. He ran for 38 total – and the touchdown — in a masterful 18-play, 94-yard, drive that ate up 9:22 and put away Princeton’s 28-14 win.
Beiswenger remembers Hamilton as an Eric Dickerson-type glider who could make people miss but missed out on stardom by the accident of Elias’s birth. “Erick was a really talented back who had the bad luck of going to a school at the same time it had Elias,” recalls Theiss.
Elias empathized. “Sophomore year, Erick was the guy and then along comes this loudmouth jerk who is telling everybody how good he is and not wanting to share time,” recalls Elias. “It had to be difficult on him.”
The next week, at Holy Cross, immediately after a fourth-down tackle by Reed thwarted the Crusaders’ game-opening drive, Hamilton made it look easy, taking a pitch right from McInerney and going untouched 74 yards down the sideline for a 7-0 Tiger lead.
“You score on the first play of the game its human nature to think, ‘This is going to be easy,’ recalls Susan. “It’s never easy. We had a long way to go against a very good team.”
A usual I-AA power, Holy Cross came into the game 1-4 following a 44-0 loss to Dartmouth. But in the final year that Patriot League schools were giving athletic scholarships, the Crusaders still had athletes along both lines that were out of Princeton’s, class, in Stilley’s memory.
“Entirely different zip code than the Ivy League,” the guard recalls. “They were a whole lot bigger and hit a whole lot harder than any guys we had ever played against.”
Not all the Tigers remember being so physically overmatched, only vividly that it turned into the most frustrating of days. Princeton tried the same play Beiswenger had spring for the touchdown – with the tight end in motion–but this time he was followed across. Minus Elias (who limped through only three carries) and still without Foote, Princeton managed only 155 total yards. The longest Princeton drive that followed Hamilton’s initial burst was for just 21 yards.
The Tigers’ best chance, set up by a fourth-down stop by Ducker in the second quarter, died when McInerney badly overthrew Lerch on a fourth-and-11 at the Holy Cross 34. Princeton converted only 4-of-17 third and fourth downs and punted seven times. “Their two interior guys must have weighed 290 pounds,” recalls Lombard. “We got beat to hell.”
Nevertheless, with the help of two missed Holy Cross field goals, the Tigers repelled five Crusader surges over the 50. Even with Scholvin failing to spark any more offense than McInerney did, Hamilton’s run held up for a 7-3 lead into the fourth quarter, until a 32-yard punt by Golden set up the Crusaders at the Princeton 48. Six plays–only one of them a pass–later, quarterback Andy Fitzpatrick scored on a 20-yard rollout. Princeton managed only one first down on its final two possessions, the last of which ended in a futile fourth-and-13 try to Lerch, and suffered its first loss of the season, 10-7.
“If we had Keith, I still think we win the game,” recalls Lerch. But as long as they had Elias back for Harvard, the Tigers still had a chance to run the table in the league. Dartmouth’s 26-16 loss in the rain at Cornell–quarterback Jay Fiedler had fumbled once and been intercepted twice–gave Princeton a clear path to an outright championship.
The other silver lining was the Tiger defense had enjoyed its best game of the season at Holy Cross, holding the ground-oriented Crusaders, who threw only 16 times, to 252 total yards.
Harvard (1-4) came to Palmer Stadium having had much more success throwing than running, an opponent that figured to give Princeton an opportunity to further exploit the pass-rushing dimension of Lerch. With Foote back at least a week ahead of schedule, the Tigers figured to be able to use Lerch’s offensive talents, too. For the first time, the coaches expanded his return duties to include punts. “It had been a trust factor,” recalls Verbit. “Catch a kickoff and they are 40 yards away from you. On a punt it might be a yard or two.”
After Elias, good to go if not yet at full strength, competed a first-quarter drive with a one-yard dive to put Princeton up 7-0, Lerch took advantage of out kicked coverage to break the first punt he ever received for 82 yards. The final 20 were run tauntingly backwards, much to the anger of Rob Santos and Chris Pillsbury, the final two defenders vainly chasing Lerch to the end zone.
“It was my first one and I had gone all the way,” recalls Lerch. “You get fired up, especially against Harvard.
“I thought I was much, much, closer to the end zone when I [turned around]. On the film, I saw I was actually around the 20, not the five.
“Pillsbury was a maniac-type player, flying around, and kind of a trash talker, too, so I wouldn’t say it was completely unprovoked. But I wouldn’t want to be remembered as a guy that was unsportsmanlike. And what I did was totally unsportsmanlike.
“I certainly remember the crowd enjoying it. But if I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t have done it or it would be less pronounced.
“We would fix the problem I created when [Santos and Pillsbury] were on the trip with me to Japan [in those years the All Ivy members went for an annual post-season game against a Japanese team]. Santos and I have done business together and Pillsbury is a friend, although I wouldn’t say he is completely over it. “
The officials did not target taunting in the day, as celebrations were not yet epidemic. According to Verbit, the steam coming out of Tosches and Susan’s ears at Lerch’s antics could have fueled the season-ending bonfire that Princeton, in total control of Harvard, seemed halfway towards.
“What Michael did, didn’t bother at all,” smiles Verbit and Elias loved it of course. “Mike had the same attitude I had, just a little more understated,” recalls the Back in Black. “Same hair, same attitude. He was a pirate, too, just quieter about it.”
The Back in Black Comes Back
Elias, more workhorse than game-breaker in his return, had needed 31 carries to reach 151 yards. His one-yard plunge, on the first play of the third quarter, gave him two touchdowns for the day and boosted Princeton’s lead to 21-0. Foote threw the ball only 11 times in the 21-6 victory.
“We didn’t need the quarterback to make amazing plays,” recalls Beiswenger. “But when Joel was out two weeks we had missed him from a leadership standpoint.
“He was great in the huddle, people liked him, wanted to be around him.”
Foote had been second team All-Ohio as a senior, but Tosches recalls his quarterback’s acceptance of his role as a game manager being complete.
“Any pass, even in the flat, was our trick play,” Foote laughs today.
“I loved the sport and loved to compete, so or me it was never the interviews or accolades. Lerch and Elias had amazing careers; I had something to do with that, and that was something I enjoyed doing. Like I tell my employees now, one of the hardest skills to learn at any age, but particularly at a young one, is to recognize what you can and can’t do. Every Saturday, we see folks trying to do more than they are capable of.
“Given how skilled Keith was, it was abundantly clear that other members of the team didn’t have to aspire to high places they couldn’t get to. My job wasn’t to make touchdowns, it was to move the chains.”
That task essentially was the same for Tufillaro, a prototypical, reliable, possession receiver playing in Lerch’s shadow. The five balls Tufillaro caught against the Crimson were a career high.
“I wasn’t as fast as Lerch or even (sophomore) Mark Ross,” Tufillaro recalls. “I just tired to run precise routes and find the right spacing between defenders to make myself as open as possible
“Even in high school, my hands were more my claim to fame than my speed. I didn’t drop the ball.”
Recalls Lerch, “Tufillaro and I were a great match. He caught everything, ran good patterns, and was a great guy and incredibly hard worker. Being around him was motivating. He was really the leader of the receiving corps in meeting and film rooms and everywhere else. We were roommates on road trips and today are very close.”
Together they had endured the pain of never before having beaten Harvard, even when there was a separate game for freshmen.
“[In 1991], we had played like bleep against them the previous year and lost (24-21),” recalls Renna. “After that game was one of the worst film sessions I can remember.
“I hated everybody we played, but I think a lot of guys had a bad taste from Harvard.”
In the remembrances of some Tigers, they had seen crimson at Harvard attitudes during the recruiting process. “I remember the coach from Harvard basically saying real arrogant-like, “Harvard speaks for itself,’ recalls Elias. “I said to myself, ‘Get out of here.’ So I really wanted to beat them, finally. I was back in the lineup and especially excited. As I ran out on the field, I had to tell myself to calm down.”
Recalls Brophy, “Nobody brainwashed us, but it comes with the territory: You go to Princeton, you hate Harvard.”
Brophy had been part of a defensive rotation that helped hold the Crimson to just six net rushing yards. After totaling just 12 sacks in the first five games, Princeton had nine against the Harvard–three and a half by Reggie Harris.
Lerch, double-teamed most of the game, did not catch a ball but still had 141 yards in returns, plus two unassisted sacks and half of another.
“Michael was one of the toughest kids I have ever been around.” recalls Harriman. “Later than season Penn ran at him at least once with a center and a pulling guard, but he took the guys on. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t like he was shying away.”
Lerch recalls trying to go inside once against Brown, just for the sake of surprise, and winding up with a 270-pound lineman on his chest. “An unpleasant experience,” he recalls. “After that, nothing cute.”
Not only was Lerch tiny, he came from a small high school and lesser competition that, at the time, had made his recruitment anything but a no-brainer. “To get speed, we took a chance,” recalls Verbit.
Four years later, Lerch had become the school’s greatest two-way threat since the one-platoon days. He wore a No.1 on a jersey cut off at the midriff. But quiet and unassuming when he wasn’t lifting his arms before crossing the goal line, Lerch didn’t think of himself as first above others, just as a guy thrilled to contribute.
“Being an undersized player, I was never going to be a star running back,” he recalls. “Even as a receiver, being as small as I was, it was a challenge. So being involved in a lot of ways–making a tackle on a kickoff, blocking a field goal, returning a kick, and then making a sack–meant a lot to me. I would say the sack was most meaningful.”
It also carried immense significance to his teammates, happy to see coaches relentlessly drilling basic defense and offense to be playing a wild card.
“It’s pretty cool when you have coaches willing to try stuff like that to take advantage of players’ capabilities,” recalls Theiss, “Very smart.”
Thinking All the Time – About Them, too
Tosches had come with Ron Rogerson from the University of Maine when the latter was hired as Princeton coach in 1985, becoming the head man when Rogerson died suddenly during the summer of 1987. Meticulous and unemotional, Tosches was, according to Senior Associate Director of Athletics Jerry Price–in 1992 a reporter covering the team for the Trenton Times–“The most organized person I ever have known.”
“He kept everybody grounded,” recalls Stilley. “A quiet, reserved, stable person incredibly knowledgeable about the game.”
As the quarterback, Foote likely had the deepest relationship with the head coach. “I found Tosches to be fair,” Foote recalls. “He was by nature conservative; at the time I felt too conservative. But in hindsight it was appropriate.
“There are always going to be times you butt heads, But it was a good working relationship. Not super emotional. Business, just go to work.”
Recalls Beiswenger: “I liked Coach Tosches. He struggled to motivate in the moment, so he worked with Mark (defensive coordinator Harriman) as a team that way.”
Tufillaro recalls receiver coach Mike Hodgson as a guy who could crank up the decibels. “You knew where you stood with him,” recalls Tufillaro, and Harriman, today the head coach at Bates, was the same, in a quieter way. He is remembered by Aaron Harris as “amazing.”
“ Very understated, a tough guy who made you accountable,” said Harris. As such, Harriman was a good fit in personality for his two star linebackers.
“Coach had good teaching technique; helping a smaller guy like me not to put myself in positions where a bigger guy could take advantage of me,” remembers DeMorat. “I wouldn’t say he was rah-rah; a one-word phrase here and there would catch your attention.
“Just like with a teammate, if you have a good relationship with the coach, you don’t want to let him down.”
Recalls Brophy, “As the (North) Jersey recruiter, Harriman was the main reason I went to Princeton. When he looked you into your eyes on the sideline and told you what he wanted, you were going to do it or die trying.” You would follow that guy into a fire.”
And, then, after that, invite him to a barbecue. “He was always checking with us about classes and the social scene, stuff that is challenging at a place like Princeton,” recalls Ducker. “He wanted to be sure we were succeeding elsewhere than the field and that’s pretty rare.
“Coaches are there to win and keep their jobs. Looking back, it was pretty special how he cared about us.”
No one has better looked after Princeton football grads in job networking than Verbit, 32 years a Princeton assistant under three head coaches. “Verbs has no upside for himself in helping us in life,” says Ducker. “He really cares; I would do anything for the guy.”
A younger Verbit, who coached the secondary in 1992, did not come across like the players’ best friend, though. “He didn’t care who you were and what you did yesterday, it was all about what you were doing on that day,” recalls Ducker. “There were days we didn’t like each other much.”
Recalls Reed: “He wasn’t much older than us, so he reminded me more of a defensive back than a coach. He had that attitude that said, ‘Screw you, I don’t care how many times you have beaten me, next time I know I am going to win.’
“First week of sophomore camp. I thought I showed up in shape and he ran us like I have never been run. Practice would start and then we would break into position groups. Everybody would go in and watch film for 20 minutes before the whole team would come out, stretch, and start practice. But [the DBs] never did that, at least not for long. While the other positions watched film, we were out there doing backpedaling drills. He wanted us to be able to run all day, not get tired in the fourth quarters.”
Elias, fatigued during freshman year of coach Steve DiGregorio and his demands, celebrated his escape to the varsity, only to learn DiGregorio was moving up too, to coach the running backs. “He hated me and I was psyched to be done with him, but he made me a better player because he didn’t care that I was good,” recalls Elias. “He made me first in line for every drill and for the gassers.
“We had great coaches; good men both on the field and on the sideline.”
Not only were the relationships healthy but also so were Elias and Foote, two essential players, as the 5-1 Tigers bore down on a league title.
Coming in the concluding Part 2: “If you thought you could run the ball down our throats, you were bleeping crazy.”