The Harder the Falls…
BY JAY GREENBERG
One era’s patsy can become another era’s powerhouse. Be careful what you wish for.
Schedules made a decade in advance need to be assembled for better reasons than padding a won-loss record. That is one reason Princeton ended up with a formidable non-league threesome in 2018, the other factor being the absence of a crystal ball. Despite all that brain power at Princeton, a woman in a babushka in a Nassau Street storefront staring into a tea cup knows just as much about this Tiger season, never mind the one ten years from now.
“The dream is to be celebrating in Week 10 and there is no better feeling,” said Bob Surace. “But if we are worrying about Week 10 now, we won’t get to that point.
“We start spending all our time talking about league games, we will be in for a rude awakening at Butler, typically a top three team in their (Pioneer) league.
“Monmouth is the best in its (Big South) league. Lehigh has gone to the (FCS) playoffs four of the last eight years and is predicted to finish second in that (Patriot) league this season.
“We beat a playoff team (San Diego) last year and this season probably will prove to have two or even three more, which helps us to prepare for our Ivy season. If we are not allowed to go to the playoffs, let’s play some teams that will be going.”
An 11th game would mitigate against the seeming disadvantage of opening against a team that already has played twice, seeming being the operative word. Princeton, which lost its first five openers under Surace, has won the last three, including the one last year over San Diego.
Starting a week earlier and playing 10 games over 11 weeks—the bye coming during midterm exams—would mitigate against first-game mental rust, prioritize academics in an Ivy League way and probably help preserve bodies. But if it’s going to be 10, there is going to be no real easing into this. So Surace is excited to play a team of the quality of Butler, whose 2-0 start includes a 23-21 win over Youngstown State, a program in the FCS championship game just two years ago.
Butler, where the Tigers visit at 6 pm. (EDT) Saturday night, went on this schedule before Bob Surace became head coach in 2010, but he wholeheartedly would have approved. Monmouth, Princeton’s foe in Week Two, was one to which he gave positive input, both for convenience and variety’s sake.
Lehigh always has made sense from a proximity and competitive standpoint and, like Lafayette, will remain, just not every year, so that alums in other portions of the country can rally around a live appearance by the orange and black.
“I believe in the philosophy of having travel games to certain regions,” said Surace. “I look forward to it, the players look forward to it.
“Our team and alums are from around the country. Butler gives a chance for Midwest alums to get to a game with a short drive. The Midwest is a little harder for us to schedule, because there aren’t that many schools there that play at the FCS level, which is why Butler is ideal. There are schools in the South, Mid-Atlantic, and West that make sense that same way.”
Butler comes to Princeton Stadium next season, when Bucknell appears on the schedule for the first time since 2011 and Lafayette will return after a one-year absence. In 2020, the Tigers will meet Virginia Military Institute, Bucknell and Monmouth. Slated for 2021 are Lehigh, Stetson (Fla.) and again Monmouth.
“Florida is a big recruiting base for us,” said Surace. “Virginia will be good for recruiting as well.”
Outside of offering the top-rated undergraduate education in the U.S., nothing will continue to recruit for Princeton better than winning. It is incredible that a team that smoked perennial power Harvard, 52-17, last year in Boston to go to 5-1 could be taking a four-game losing streak into Indianapolis Saturday night, but it is nevertheless true. Injuries on defense had everything to do with that fad, and redemption will have much to do with soaring hopes for 2018, along with a massive amount of returning talent on both sides of the ball.
“You could feel through the whole off-season we had a chip on our shoulders,” said linebacker Mike Wagner, who was leading the FCS in sacks per game when he was lost for the season at Brown. “It allowed us to train a lot harder, be a lot more focused.”
Surace has not wasted a second worrying about high expectations lowering any sense of reality about all the work still ahead. “Our senior leadership is off the charts,” said the coach. Throughout training camp his message, “get five percent better tomorrow than you were today” has not wavered.
“Some of the coaches here said when I first got here I can have an irrational confidence by game day,” he said. “All it takes is an excellent work week at practice and by Friday I’m convinced that we are ready for the ’85 Bears.
With this many All-Ivy returnees and expectations as high as they ever have been during the Surace era, there has been zero difference in coaches’ and players daily approach, only that much more anticipation. The ending to last year made interminable a 42-week wait for this one. And for some of these guys it’s been 52 weeks.
The fact that all but eight teams in the country have been playing since the beginning of September only adds to the expectancy. Butler has no video of the 2018 Tigers, who also have legs that are two weeks fresher. Both these things are to Princeton’s advantage but not if rust manifests itself in repeated mental mistakes.
“It’s definitely a long time watching games,” said receiver Stephen Carlson. “But it is what it is. We’ve made good use of the time we have had.
“Minimizing mental errors has to be a key but we have freshness coming in. Everyone is going to be flying around.”
Freshman George Triplett has won the week one punting job. . . Prideful members of the Princeton football team that are in the University’s residential Butler College have been asked to wear other shirts at the freshman orientation sessions this week. “I don’t think they have taken me seriously,” laughs Surace… This is only the third time in 150 seasons of Princeton football it has played a team from Indiana. The two previous games were against Notre Dame and Knute Rockne at Palmer Stadium (1923-24), both convincing Fighting Irish victories. . . . San Diego (four times) is Princeton’s only previous Pioneer League opponent.