Losses Will Prove Easier to Forgive than Letting Down Now
BY JAY GREENBERG
The chances of becoming Princeton’s first back-to-back Ivy League champion have become thin as the Tiger defensive line. So first place has become irrelevant but, to Tom Johnson, it always was until Week 10.
“I never see it as only chasing rings,” said the junior linebacker. “Then, you lose the good you have done throughout the year.
“Truth is, we are not out of it for sure, but to me it’s more about knowing after the last snap of the season that we have given our all and should hold our heads high.
“We have three more chances to go out with each other. It’s about playing to our own expectations. If we do that, we will be able to do some good things these next three weeks.”
There is much to still play for. The Tigers have a chance to go 8-2, a record as good as the ones recorded in the 2013 and 2016 championship years. Consecutive winning seasons for only the second time in 21 years is only one win–at Franklin Field on Saturday–away.
A week from now the Tigers will be playing Yale to hold a bonfire, and a victory at Dartmouth is the last triumph Bob Surace’s teams haven’t accomplished, although any Tiger caught talking about anything other than Penn this week, will be charged with an honor code violation. From Coach Bob Surace, the players heard only about Penn, this week, nothing about the big picture. And since Sunday there have been no mentions of what happened against Cornell.
“We fix what needs to be fixed on Sundays and when that is over, the switch is flipped,” said Charlie Volker. “It is then the next week, like last week didn’t happen.
The long memories are reserved for when football is over. By then, any satisfaction at having overcome so many significant injuries to finish strong will be enormous, perhaps come to mean as much to these guys as any title.
“For any Ivy implications, we need to win out,” said Mitchell Sweigart. “But one week at a time, we’re fighting to finish the season out right.”
Losses by four points to Columbia and one point to Cornell have put Princeton in a Rubik’s Cube to figure out how they can still salvage a championship piece. But peace that they overcame the loss of defensive stars–and some of their backups, too–is still highly attainable.
So is a win Saturday at Penn, if an offense relatively unscathed by personnel losses does its usual thing, new heroes step up on defense, and the best players demonstrate the same leadership they did after the Harvard loss a year ago and the Columbia defeat in this season’s third game. These players don’t stay down long.
“I think that is a testimony to the guys we have had here,” said Johnson. “We have tough guys who compete.
“It’s tough on all of us obviously without Kurt (Holuba) and Mark (Fossati). They were guys for us to lean on. We all now have to get a little more vocal, especially with the youth of the defensive line. I think we have been doing a good job of that but under these circumstances, we have to bring our all on every play. The [freshmen and sophomores] need to see that and grow confidence from it.
“They are all tough guys and good football players; it’s a matter of the experience they don’t have. They have to trust the guys around them, as I already trust them. That’s the theme: Next guy up. And I couldn’t be more proud of everyone we have brought in. On Sunday morning, it’s never about effort. We just need to get the rest of the stuff ironed out–our fits, our eyes, where we are in coverage.”
It is going to take more than one guy to cover Justin Watson, whom Surace says might be the best receiver in Ivy League history, and Penn (3-4, 1-3), which is coming off a solid 21-7 win over Brown last week.
The Quakers have had better teams. But it is arguable if Tiger football has had a better season-to-season rival, for reason of proximity, of dominant basketball programs, of nine Penn football championships during the Al Bagnoli era. Ask a Tiger whom he considers Princeton’s greatest rival and you could get five different answers. In a tight, seven-team, league of schools that have been playing each other for 100 years or more, nobody is just another opponent.
“This week we are headed to Franklin Field; a historic place,” said Charlie Volker. He has been on the planet for only 20 years of the 141 since Penn and Princeton first played, but he doesn’t need to know much more about Dick Kazmaier, or anything about the 2006 pitch back to Rob Toresco, to appreciate what’s at stake Saturday.
“Its Penn-Princeton,” said Volker. “It’s big.”
The principal Penn players have a 52-week memory of the 23-0 shutout they suffered on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium in 2016, when the teams wound up sharing the title. The Tigers are going back to a place where their last visit ended excruciatingly after a chip shot field goal that would have finished a superb two-minute drill engineered by Chad Kanoff was blocked and Penn won in overtime.
But even if these Princeton players didn’t know a Penn from a Penn State, it’s a football game, one of only 40 these guys will play in college, if they are fortunate. Sweigart says he believes the juniors, sophomores and the growing number of freshmen toil on in part to sends seniors like him out with a bang. The closer you get to the end of your four years of eligibility, the greater the desire to make the most of them.
“You never know when your last play is going to be,” said Volker.
He didn’t need to play on a team that has lost its entire starting defensive line, plus several reserves; its rush linebacker, and its middle linebacker to have that perspective. But maybe that’s a silver-lining reminder that all ten games are precious.
There were guys on crutches this week who wanted to be on the practice field, never mind in this game, which helps still-standing teammates remember that you can’t take anything for granted.
“Just coming out here for the love of the game is enough,” said Volker. “I can’t think of any reasons why we wouldn’t be motivated.”
Should Princeton win, its seven-game road winning streak will be the longest for the school since one from 1949-53, when Princeton won 11 straight (and the 1950 national championship). . . This is the 109th meeting between Penn and Princeton and the final one in the Week Eight slot. Dartmouth and the Quakers are trading places on the Tiger schedule in 2018. In 40 games at Franklin Field, the first in 1936, the teams are 19-19-1, Penn winning eight of the last 10. The Tigers lead the all time series 66-41-1.
Jesper Horsted is 145 yards away from joining Kevin Guthrie ’84 and Derek Graham ‘85 as the third Princeton receiver to record a 1000-yard season. Horsted is 23 catches shy of Guthrie’s mark for receptions (88). . . Chad Kanoff needs to average 316.7 yards in the final three games to pass Doug Butler ’85 as Princeton’s all time leader in passing yardage. Kanoff also has a shot at Butler’s and Quinn Epperly’s career marks for touchdown passes, 19, needing six more to tie. . . . The game will be televised on NBC Sports Philadelphia and streamed on the Ivy League Network. Radio is WPRB (103.3 or Tune In app) with Cody Chrusciel and Craig Sachson.