The Greater the Effort, the Greater The Agony
BY JAY GREENBERG
The more film Bob Surace watched, the more proud he was of his team, the more painful became Saturday’s 28-24 loss to Columbia. And the harder he beat himself up.
“There were 188 plays and we won 120 of them,” said the coach Sunday morning. “The problem is that there were 15 that we have to coach better.”
“Twenty per cent of the plays ended up leaving us frustrated and angry, even more so because we did so many things right. I have to do a better job of understanding the identity of our team; what can we handle? Am I asking them to do things that may be a little big for them in terms of our level of experience?”
“We are not quite as talented and experienced as we have been. And that has been compounded by injuries, so little details turn into big things. We missed some plays that would have extended drives. Going for it on fourth down (the Tigers were 0-for-3), I was trying to do everything to keep our defense off the field for too many plays. In the end, it was showing.”
The winning touchdown pass, scored with 1:12 remaining, went for 73 yards on a third-and-11, after a blitz was ordered in the belief that Princeton’s thinned-out defensive line was too exhausted to mount a pass rush with four persons.
“I am going to kick myself until this is on my tombstone: ‘Why did we want to pressure in that situation?’” said Surace.
“But then you watch the film and our eyes had been telling us the (true) story. We had played some softer zone coverages earlier (in that series), on the second-and- twenty, and didn’t stop them. Kurt Holuba was amazing in his pass rush at the end, but the other guys were worn down and we weren’t getting anything. They doubled Kurt on a couple plays there.
“So I thought we had the choice of either a slow death or try to get off the field. It’s unfortunate that a player who was playing unbelievably well (Chance Melancon) missed a tackle. Using max pressure, we knew there would be an unblocked guy (Mike Wagner) and he was an inch from tipping that pass, about as close as you can get. But credit their quarterback (Anders Hill) for standing in there and throwing it to a spot without seeing the receiver, who ran a crisp route. It was as good a play as you can see.”
The members of the secondary, three quarters of whom were playing their third game as starters, did their assigned jobs: The deep middle was wide open because the safeties were in one-on-one coverage with two of the four Columbia receivers. Then, too, Melancon, the most experienced member of the secondary, was coming from the side, so it was never a case of having receiver Ronald Smith II in the grasp.
Thus there were plays – like Hill’s 46-yard throw to a completely uncovered Smith II on Columbia’s first touchdown– where poor execution was more closely a reflection of inexperience.
All that acknowledged, with one final stop, Princeton still wins the game. And even if you understand all the circumstances that went into the chosen deployment, conventional thinking insists you can’t risk giving up a home run.
“Sometimes the 50-50 calls work,” said Surace. “When they don’t, I will kick myself for all time.
“(Defensive coordinator) Steve Verbit walked into my office and said this loss was one the toughest ones he has ever had to take. I agree because our guys played their hearts out. We did the hard stuff, the dirty work. To hold this team to 1.3 yards per carry while we averaged 4.5 was phenomenal.”
TOUGH SLEDDING DEPT:
Charlie Volker’s 73 yards rushing and freshman Collin Eaddy’s 62 as his workload increased due to the unavailability of Ryan Quigley, were hard earned.
“In their style of defense they are going to press with their corners. They play tight; don’t care if they give up two big plays, want to win the rest. I can’t tell you how many times we blocked everybody only to have their safeties make the tackle. A lot of those four-yard gains we had are huge gains every other week.
‘I told Andy (offensive line coach Aurich) we can ding the offensive line for things here and there, but that Columbia has an outstanding front seven and then there are two unblocked guys every play. It’s a hard team to march 80 yards on and we did it a couple times.”
Jesper Horsted caught passes for 73 yards–all but seven–on the second of those drives. And the Tiger defense held resolutely after two interceptions, three failed fourth-down gambles (two on the goalline, one at midfield) and a shanked punt.
“I thought it was going to be hard to win the play-to-play battle; we would have to make some big plays and win the turnover differential,” said Surace. “ And then we won the play-to-play.
“But if you have four turnovers and don’t score in the red zone, those things add up. We gave up numerous long gains. The last one was a missed tackle. But on the others we called coverages for the deep throw and we took our eyes off the responsibilities.
“We practiced well, I thought we were ready, but it is a different speed on game day.”
BACK TO THE SALT MINES DEPT.
It would be surprising to see anyone run the table in the league this season. It is even conceivable that two losses might still earn a title share. So even if good Princeton teams have never had to recover from a league loss this early since Columbia became the Tigers’ opener in 2000, the season hardly is wrecked. In 2016, the Tigers lost painfully to Harvard in overtime and the next week scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions in a 56-7 rout at Cornell. From then on, Princeton clearly was the best team in the league.
Harder to get over than the Columbia defeat will be the loss of captain Mark Fossati. “Mark had the game ball the first two games and he was playing great on Saturday,” said Surace. “He has been the pulse of our defense, was turning into a special player, playing as well as any linebacker we have had in my eight years.”
The next man up – sophomore John Orr – manned up well, making four solo tackles that didn’t get the attention that did his spectacular fourth quarter punt block.
Luke Catarius turned into a star after Rohan Hylton went out the 2015 season, as close as you can come to replacing the irreplaceable. So there are always silver linings in injuries. But of course, every starter that goes down not only saps your depth but also can force backups into number of reps that they are not yet ready to handle.
“John was in the role Mark had a year ago and has also been a leader on special teams,” said Surace. “That was a great play Saturday, getting through the block to get to the kicker and, on defense, he did a terrific job.
“If Mark is out, we will need guys to step up into different roles.”
BY ANY MEANS AVAILABLE DEPT:
A phenomenal red zone touchdown rate inevitably was going to shrink with the loss of John Lovett, and after the Tigers failed twice in the fourth quarter Saturday (overall they were three-for-five), the second-guessing will begin. On one the Tiger failures, they didn’t get a penalty call as Stephen Carlson appeared to be held in the back of the end zone on fourth down. But the new goalline quarterback, sophomore Kevin Davidson, fumbled away another opportunity.
“I don’t know if there are players walking on any campus, even on NFL teams, that have all the qualities Lovett has for those situations,” said Surace. “But Kevin is a big, physical, guy. He had a really good first down run earlier in a drive. He does some really good things.
“Going forward, we are going to have to figure what we are going to do in the red zone. We are going to have to continue to find different ways.”
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
We are on our own this week. The coaches don’t award game balls after losses.
Offense – Jesper Horsted. Four catches for 73 yards on an 80-yard drive? Whoever heard of something like that?
Defense—Thomas Johnson had 13 tackles, 1.5 for losses, plus a quarterback hurry.
Special Teams—John Orr, for his punt block.