They Are Not ‘Backing Down an Inch
BY JAY GREENBERG
With Mark Fossati out, Princeton is not going to drop football. In the absence of the Ivy League’s second-leading tackler, remains the conference’s other second-leading tackler, Thomas Johnson. And as for replacing the defensive captain at the WILL position, the Tigers are not up the creek without an Orr.
“When Mark went down on Saturday, John Orr stepped in and played well,” said Bob Surace. “So did Jack Simcox as he stepped into John’s role, which was 20 snaps a game.
‘It is what we expected of them. They just have to play more snaps on defense, which means fewer snaps for them on special teams.”
Thus, opportunity knocks for underclassmen to get on the field for kick coverage or return blocking. The next men up will not be down at the loss of Fossati; on the contrary guys coming off the bench are always sky high for the opportunity. The better question is: Are they prepared?
“John and Jack have been going into every practice like starters,” said inside linebacker coach Stephen Thomas. “There has been improvement week-to-week.”
Orr, a sophomore, has already demonstrated playmaking ability in blocking a fourth-quarter punt in the loss to Columbia. More to the point of replacing Fossati, is that Orr had four solo tackles.
True, a lot of guys can be better for 20 plays than they prove for 65 plays, but in 2015, when Rohan Hylton went down halfway through the season, replacement Luke Catarius ended up being better for 65 than he had been for 20. When Hylton returned last season, he and Catarius became the best middle tandem in the Ivies, so the blackest clouds eventually prove to have silver linings.
If anybody is pouting over the loss of one all Ivy shoe-in—okay, so maybe it’s two, counting John Lovett–Fossati knows what dorms these guys sleep in and what clubs they eat in.
“One thing I learned from watching Mark play is that he attacks each day, whether it is a lift, film, a practice or a game,” said Orr. “He is always of a mindset to get better.
“That’s the mentality he plays with; not like there is a switch you turn on and off.”
Off a painful 2016 overtime loss to Harvard, the Tigers took a switch to Cornell, 55-7. Following the loss to Columbia, it would be surprising to see anything but a similar response Saturday on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium against 1-3 Georgetown.
Fossati is an engine, Lovett a touchdown machine and Jake Strain was the starting nose tackle. But the Tigers, who enjoyed uncanny health in winning titles in 2013 and 2016, are still nowhere near as wrecked as they were when a 4-0 start in 2015 faded to a 5-5 finish in the absence of their best pass rusher (Kurt Holuba), offensive lineman (Spenser Huston), linebacker (Hylton) and running back (DiAndre Atwater).
A young secondary has had breakdowns, and the defensive line has been thinned for both injury and non-injury reasons, a factor in the call for the blitz that backfired on Columbia’s winning touchdown. That said, Joe Percival, freshmen Samuel Wright, Simeon Lane and Matt Hampson combined with Holuba last week for enough pressure to result in six Princeton sacks against a good line.
With Johnson and Fossati lined up side by side, the tackles were coming sideline-to-sideline. “Thomas Johnson has been tremendous,” said Surace. “He has always been hard-headed, physical, like the linebackers I love, but this year he has done a much better job at recognizing high hats and sets out of play action, and is playing better on passes. He also hasn’t missed many tackles.”
Neither have Johnson’s front-seven teammates. There were some edges surrendered on Lafayette’s first touchdown drive and one of the Columbia touchdowns came on a sweep to the side of rush linebacker Mike Wagner. But that’s the same Wagner who leads the Ivies in sacks with four and is second in tackles for a loss with five-and-a half.
Outside ‘backers Quincy Wolff and Wagner have been holding the corners resolutely. The run defense–the Tigers are fifth in the FCS in rushing defense (58.3)–so far has been spectacular.
“Quincy and Mike have played a lot of football here,” said outside linebackers coach Mike Mendenhall. “When you have a veteran group, they understand the expectations.
“Wagner has made some plays, I think he still has some untapped potential. We have challenged him to do better and he has.
“The number of times we have been beaten on the edge is very limited. Columbia tested us trying to throw a little screen out there but we shut it down and they never went back to it. Quincy is playing at a high level. He is very sound, always in position, makes the play when he has an opportunity to make the play.
“Our depth is fine. Anthony Siragusa’s reps may increase a little bit. He deserves it, has worked his butt off. We have guys we can rely on. Ed Rudinski will help us when he comes back. Brett Stewart is backing up Quincy and has a high special teams role.”
Unlike the optimism, the volume stayed low this week. You get all around a win and don’t get it, you just want to scream, but the yelling by the coaches was at a minimum.
“I went into the locker room and Chance (Melancon, who missed a tackle on the 73-yard winning touchdown) was beating himself up,” said Surace. “But there were other plays–in the first quarter, too–that could have changed things. There always are.
“We covered those things in a matter of fact way and moved onward. It wasn’t like in 2010, when it was all about building a culture of effort and I would yell. In this case, we just have to be more detailed; we can fix missing an assignment on a pass route. What you can’t fix is a lack of hustle. And I didn’t see that on the film.”
Seeing is believing, more than is hearing. Thoughtful communication is critical, but the picture of a Fossati refusing to quit on a play is worth a thousand blue words delivered with one’s face turning blue. He didn’t have to say a whole lot to lead.
“He was a little about both talking and setting an example,” said Johnson. “In spring ball, he was teaching me a lot and taking the vocal lead on most things, but as we have progressed through camp and the season, we were chattering pretty equally.
“I don’t think this means I have to speak more. Johnny knows what he is doing, Jack knows what he is doing. We have guys who have prepared for this moment.”
Phil Aurich, brother of Tiger offensive line coach Andy, was among those injured in the Las Vegas shootings. He underwent extensive surgery Tuesday and is expected to recover.
For obvious injury risk reasons, the coaches would prefer to keep Chad Kanoff’s punts to the odd quick kick, but in the absence of sophomore Steven Mejia, freshman Antonio Ferrer shanked his one opportunity badly against Columbia.
“On both ends, we have to transfer our punts in practice to better punts in the game.” said Surace. “Neither guy punted as effectively as they have practiced.
“Antonio has been more consistent in practice the last few weeks. We felt comfortable with some of things he was doing; he just had a bad one at a bad time. He’s going to be okay,”
Princeton leads the series with Georgetown 7-1, and is 2-1 since it resumed in 2012. Both the Tiger wins came in Washington . . . . The Tigers lead the FCS with only three penalties per game. . . The game will be streamed on Watch ESPN and the Ivy League network with Cody Chrusciel, Dave Giancola and Jon Mozes. Radio is WPRB and Tune In Ap [search Princeton IMG Sports Network]