A Perfect Season Ends With Another Masterpiece, 42-14

  • November 18, 2018

BY JAY GREENBERG

Excellence overflows on a campus where about half the class valedictorians who apply don’t get in. It is so hard to stand out at Princeton that definitions for high praise become blurred.  

Everywhere in life, not just sports but especially in sports, the word “great” becomes overused to describe the merely good or very good. So now how do we properly pay tribute to 10-0, outscoring opponents by an average of 34.9 points, only two games being in any real doubt into a fourth quarter?  

Perfect is a Princeton record for the first time since the 1964 team went 9-0. Still, one of the reasons this team has won the Ivy’s only second undisputed championship in 15 years was that right up until Saturday’s 42-14 victory over Penn, Bob Surace and his assistants were urging their players to try to get five per cent better every day.   This school has great mathematicians to reject any possibility of such but what mattered was the striving. That is how the Tigers became too much for everybody but Dartmouth to handle over 60 minutes. 

Combine that resolve with the level of talent and it inconceivable that any Princeton team, in any year, has ever done better or ever will do better than this. The Tigers record was unassailably perfect.  Their performance was almost incomprehensibly close to that. 

“The outcomes are the outcomes,” said Coach Bob Surace. “The thing that is so awesome is how these guys do everything every day.  

“It’s the easiest team I ever have had to coach and I’m not saying that because they are obviously talented. I would say the same thing if we finished 8-2.  They are accountable; they fight through injuries to practice.  It is never, “Coach I need a day, its ‘Coach, I’m practicing’ and the trainers have to tell them no. 

“It is just so enjoyable to be a part of this group. They pay such attention in the classroom.”

This team has now set an impossibly high bar–undoubtedly conceded with great joy Saturday night at whatever bar by supporters who have waited up to 54 years to toast an undefeated season again. Here’s to the already immortal 2018 Tigers. They were wonderfully talented, impeccably coached, and spectacularly focused from the first touchdown they scored on just the season’s second play until they finished off Penn with Charlie Volker’s two-yard run, climaxing an 11-play, 84-yard drive.

“All on the ground; one of those runs Charlie was hit two years in the backfield and still got the first down, “ said Surace. “I told Sean (Offensive Coordinator) Gleeson that was the best drive I’ve ever been around.”

Try to get five per cent more perfect than that. This offense, which broke the 2013 Tigers Ivy offensive yardage record earlier in the day, finished off the most dominating season any of us will ever see on any level with its best work at the very end, although, maybe if the Tigers had it do over again, they wouldn’t have been in such a rush to kill 6:49 off the clock.  

More than an hour after game, John Lovett still was in his uniform on the field, throwing passes to friends and family members. These guys want to keep playing.

Not a single sigh of relief was there on the bench as they pulled away from a tenuous 21-14 lead deep into the third quarter. If the Ivy Presidents won’t let their league’s football champion participate in the FCS playoffs, maybe the Tigers can find a parking lot to play Colgate or somebody.

“I will speak for our players because I know how they feel,” said Surace. “Tuesday at 4:45 and we are going to be sick to our stomachs because we don’t get to practice for another game   

“When I watch other (Princeton) teams get to [be in playoffs] we all root for them.     They may end up crying their eyes out (after elimination) but they at least know they came close.   

“For [football] it’s a unique [situation], I know the commissioner is expanding opportunities, but

[the Ivy Presidents]

don’t know how hurt these guys feel to not be able to participate.  

“[Executive Director] Robin Harris has done a great job. If you don’t get football into the playoffs, it’s a black mark on her legacy.”

No black marks for the 2018 Tigers. No shades of gray to the dominance. The absolute worst of it for them was one drive at Harvard where they committed three penalties. There was some disappointment with the numbers as they played a little too soft with a big second half lead at Yale, and a failure on fourth-and-one at the Dartmouth five, after driving 91 of the hardest-earned yards all season.

 The Tigers quickly turned that field position into triumph when the defense forced a punt and John Lovett finished the next drive. Princeton won 14-9 over an all-time Ivy team, too, that now has nothing to show for its excellence but 9-1. 

After that meat grinder, you can’t say the Tigers never faced any adversity.  They lost their All-American defensive end, Kurt Holuba, at least on the field, before the first game, suffered the absence of starting cornerback, C.J. Wall for the final eight weeks and probable All Ivy tackle, Reily Radosevich in week nine  

Last season, the Tigers were 5-1 after a rout of Harvard and seemingly headed for a share of a back-to-back title when devastated by defensive line injuries, a reminder that you can’t do what they did this year without reasonably good health. Certainly the Tigers benefitted this time from it.

But they had depth, especially depth of character, which shined through again Saturday when Penn, trailing 21-0 on the Jesper Horsted show—two touchdown catches and one run on a quick flip from Lovett-put together a 75 yard drive touchdown drive late in the second quarter to get on the board. What seemed at the time like a cautionary note that it was far too early to celebrate turned into real concern when a missed Tiger tackle on an out pattern enabled Tyler Herrick to go 69 yards to make the score 21-14 1:18 into the third quarter.

Thanks largely to two Tiger penalties on the same play, the Quakers even got a stop and the ball back and had a first down to build some more momentum when Tom Johnson crashed the backfield on first down to stop Abe Willows. A blitz chased Nick Robinson into a throwaway, and a false start penalty forced Penn to kick.

“We were in that position in the Dartmouth game, we were even down that time,” said safety Ben Ellis. “We take the field in the same way no matter what.

“That’s what we do; nothing fazes us. We take that energy in getting big stops and try to give it back to the offense.”

Starting from the 10 after the punt, the Tigers never needed a third-down conversion to go 80 yards, 39 of the final 42 to Horsted, including 20 on Lovett’s second picture perfect end zone delivery to Jesper of the day.  The pressure—did the Tigers ever really feel it all season, or just apply it?–was relieved with a two-touchdown lead restored. And Penn, which did a good job against the run for three quarters, was soon out of gas.

The Tigers enforced their will by running eight of 11 plays in an 84-yard scoring drive culminating in a Lovett touchdown run, the 21ststraight game he recorded one, a new Ivy record.

Horsted set his own mark, a Princeton one, with eight catches for a career total of 196, three more than Kevin Guthrie.  He also passed Guthrie in receiving yards, while still falling 95 short of Guthrie’s teammate, all-time leader Derek Graham.  But Horsted had little to say about any of those things, except for 10-0.

“Certainly that was our larger goal, the biggest one stated (at the beginning of training camp),” he said. “But that said, it was game-by-game that we approached things.

“And that’s how we could do this,” added Lovett. “We never looked ahead.”

“We have this saying in our locker room, “Don’t take the cheese’ and that really came across our whole team.”

In addition to being unflappable, indeed the 2018 Tigers were untrappable, either from inside their own five, or inside their own heads.  Their maturity long established, nevertheless there was no champagne inside a college locker room to celebrate wire-to-wire excellence; just some cigar smoking outside, and inside, where nine members of the ’64 team came to share in the celebration, the cheese was flying. 

“Cosmo (Iacavazzi, the ’64 All American running back] seemed like an old guy to when he was in our locker room in ’89 (when Princeton broke a 20-year title drought),” said Surace. “Cosmo is double my age; it is amazing.

“Shows how hard it is.”

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