Rice Figures to be a Staple Again
BY JAY GREENBERG
In the next life, the football gods will have a full explanation for us as to why they spared the Princeton offense of the injury devastation suffered by the defense and special teams in 2017.
For now, we can only speculate. Ten Tiger defensive linemen, including All-American candidate Kurt Holuba; and two All-Ivy caliber linebackers–captain Mark Fossati and Mike Wagner–were lost, as was punter Steven Mejia, plus the freshman kicker Nicolas Ramos, who it turned out was badly needed behind the crippled Tavish Rice.
Through all that, the offense went 10 games with only one starter–Charlie Volker–missing just one game.
Hard to figure, especially since the quarterback who became the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year had to take over the punting, a recipe for a further disaster that, somehow never came about, fortunately. The Tigers had to punt just 24 times all season, Chad Kanoff handling 15 of them. Though he did not get hurt, there was pain in the opposition drive starts after all those line drives and shorties by three different punters.
“Punting-wise if there were 100 teams in the country, we were No. 100,” said Coach Bob Surace. Mejia showed up for camp hurting and only kicked five times, while freshman Antonio Ferrer’s four attempts for an average of 28 yards did not earn any immediate votes of confidence.
Coach Bob Surace said he doesn’t recall any consideration to the punter’s health or competence impacting 21 attempted fourth-down conversions. But certainly, the coffin corner was one less club in the Tigers’ bag.
In the meantime Rice, his leg worsening from Game Four on, lost about 15 yards per kickoff, resulting in 38 of them being returned–anxiety the Tigers normally would have done without, thanks to a kicker who, when healthy, routinely can put the ball over the end line.
“Tavish sucked it up and kicked but he was really hurting,” said Surace. “He couldn’t practice; just showed up on game day, and the results suffered.
“With Niko also hurt, Tavish looked around the room and knew that if he didn’t kickoff, we were going to have to go on campus and find somebody.
“And kickers aren’t supposed to be tough? He did us a great service.”
Because no good deed goes unpunished, Rice missed a 31-yard field goal with three seconds remaining that would have sent Princeton and Penn into overtime. That excruciating loss was much more on the heads of the officials who blew the call on a preceding apparent touchdown catch by Stephen Carlson. And to assume the Tigers would have won in overtime requires quite the leap of faith, considering Princeton gave up 321 rushing yards over 60 minutes.
But you never know, just like Surace would rather the opposition never know guys are playing hurt, forcing a lot of young men to suffer in silence, their reputations even more damaged than their bodies. Nobody in the stands was nominating Rice for any valor commendations. Who knew he was hurting?
“It’s football, everybody has nicks and bumps,” Rice said. “My mentality is if I am on the field, then they expect me to be able to kick.”
His particular nick/bruise required surgery, not so easy to shrug off. No wallowing in misery allowed in football, where a place kicker particularly needs a short memory. But for Rice, it has been an especially long time from Thanksgiving until now, waiting for redemption.
Following the Penn miss, he hit his last two tries, a 21-yarder against Yale and 42-yarder at Dartmouth, clutch kicks in close games even if the Tigers ended up losing. But on the season Rice missed five of 46 PATS, which is a lot, and he kicked off out of bounds after Princeton took a lead at Dartmouth with 3:02 remaining.
The inability to practice almost surely caught up to him and to the Tigers as a 5-1 start faded to a 5-5 finish. A win at Penn would have given Princeton a chance to at least salvage a winning season, so of course that one always will hurt.
“Every kicker dreams of hitting the game winner or the game tying field goal,” Rice said. “So to not be able to execute when I know my teammates worked so hard is difficult.
“But they supported me and the coaching staff supported me.
Maybe, when he hits Princeton’s first late game-winning field goal since 2005 in the final 20 games he has remaining in his career, Rice will tell us just how painful that miss at Penn was. In the meantime, no one’s confidence in Tavish Rice, especially Tavish Rice’s, has wavered and punting options for 2018 abound. The plague finally is over and a new season dawning. It is a real kick to see some balls soaring again off talented feet.
Mejia is ready to go, Ferrer looked better in the spring and freshman George Triplett was one of the top-punting recruits in the country.
Meanwhile, the special teams weren’t all bad in 2017. Freshman long snapper Ryan McNeil was stellar beyond his years and holder Zach Kelley was smooth. The coverage and blocking units suffered no disasters and and Tiger Bech averaged a remarkable 23.1 yards per kickoff return, 9.1 on punt returns, and didn’t fumble away a single kick. There is enough speed coming back—and coming in as freshmen—to better last year’s mundane 22.9 average on kickoff returns.
Because so many got to play after so many got hurt a year ago, the Tigers may have unprecedented depth, all the better to put more good athletes playing only 20 snaps onto special teams. The law of averages promises that all these guys can’t get hurt again, can they? It would seem the Tigers have some legs up on 2017.