It’s the Company D-Line: One Game at a Time.
BY JAY GREENBERG
The Game of the Century lived up to its billing. The Tigers woke up Sunday having the glow and the bruises to prove it.
Short century so far, though. And six even shorter days with no basking allowed, lest the greatest opportunity in many generations of Princeton football slip away. The Tigers need two wins to go to 10-0 and record Princeton’s best season of the 63-year-old Ivy League era. But they can’t win No. 10 without first getting No. 9 Saturday in New Haven against defending champion and pre-season favorite Yale.
“The special thing about our team is the culture we have going,” said Tiger defensive end Jay Rolader. “Tom John (Thomas Johnson) and other captains are making sure guys bring the juice to every practice.”
Every week of preparation begins with Coach Bob Surace telling his team that the next game will start like the last one did–zero to zero. They don’t seem tired of hearing it. But if so, film study easily convinces players theoretically in increasingly danger of having their heads full, that again, they have their hands full on Saturday.
Princeton has played Yale, probably still its biggest rival, 140 times, has last year’s blown lead of 17 points and a 35-31 defeat to avenge, plus what would be only the fourth bonfire in 23 years ready to light. No shortage of carrots here, good for the eyes, sharpening ever more the focus, just in case earning this week the chance to play the game of their lives next week isn’t quite enough.
The August day the Tigers reported to camp fully cognizant of how much talent they had and the chance it presented, these 18-to 22 year olds strapped on blinders, with no sign of sneaking any peaks at anything but what is directly in front of them.
“We get ten games each year, no playoff, that’s it, just ten,” said quarterback John Lovett. “We put everything into every game we have.
Yale, not complacency, will be the enemy Saturday. “Every Sunday I talk about the potential things that could distract them,” says Surace. “We talk about letting the other people deal with those and we just play.
“They know how good Yale is. There is not a guy on our team who thinks this will be a walk in the park. It’s going to be as big a challenge as we have had. On Sunday, just one day after a great win, these guys had a great practice. And they have been spirited and energetic all week.”
The Tigers need to be. Never trust a Yalie; this year, they are cleverly disguised as also rans. The Bulldogs’ two losses in the Ivies include a 41-18 defeat to Dartmouth in Week Four in which they had the ball for nine more minutes than the Big Green and a 17-10 defeat on a rainy and windy day at Columbia in Week Seven, when they outgained the Lions by 268 yards.
“Their offensive stars of a championship team are back, a good reason they were picked to repeat,” said Surace “They were relatively young on defense when this season began, and to me that made them a team building toward the end of the year.”
The end of the year at Yale means Princeton followed by Harvard, which can almost make your year, once a title became out of the question. The recent history of the Tigers and Bulldogs since Princeton began this string of seven consecutive non-losing seasons has been largely of blowouts, totally reflective of which team’s turn it is to run out of bodies by Week Nine.
Three weeks ago against Penn, Yale lost quarterback Kurt Rawlings, who threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns against a decimated Tiger defense last year on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium. But last week Coach Tony Reno unveiled freshman Griffin O’Connor, who threw four TD passes in a 46-16 win over Brown. O’Connor completed 30-of-38 passes for 436 yards without an interception.
“In addition to having accuracy, arm strength and all the traits you want in a quarterback, he showed poise,” said Surace. “He didn’t flinch, didn’t blink and got the ball out on time, things that for a freshman were very impressive.
“(Running backs) Alan Lamar and Zane Dudek (180 yards, 47 of them on one of three rushing touchdowns a year ago) are both elite players and (freshman) Spencer Austin is on the verge of becoming that guy, too. Dudek has exceptional quickness, Lamar is explosive, has vision and they all catch the ball well too.
“The two outside receivers (JP Shohfi and Reed Klubnik) have season numbers like Jesper (Horsted) and Stephen (Carlson). They are not quite as tall as our guys but still big and strong and fast. It’s a very balanced offense.”
You would have to be unbalanced to believe that O’Connor faced a defense in a debut against winless-in-the-Ivies Brown that was as challenging as he will see this week.
While Dartmouth quarterback Jared Gerbino ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Yale, the Tigers limited him to just 36 yards. Princeton has allowed only 73 points all season and leads the Ivies in scoring defense, total defense (262 yards per game), pass defense (158.4 per game) plus is second in rushing defense (103.6).
Since a Week Two win over Monmouth, the Tigers have allowed just one rush of 20 or more yards and in just one game, vs. Harvard, a pass of greater than 30. The linebackers and secondary have been swallowing ball carriers, runners and receivers alike, with ravenous hunger.
When All-American candidate Kurt Holuba was lost before Game One, the strength of a relatively inexperienced defensive line needed to be in its numbers and putting the right guy in the right spot on the right down. But now a second D-lineman who can both stuff the run and rush the passer has joined Joey DeMarco as an every down kind of a player, perhaps on the way to becoming another in a recent line of Princeton monsters.
“Sam Wright is explosive,” said Surace. “He broad jumps 11 feet, an NFL-type number.
“He’s always had the tools from a strength and quickness standpoint. That’s a hard position to play early because technically it takes more time. But in his second year Sam is coming along very well technically.”
It’s still early to call Wright another Caraun Reid, Mike Catapano or Holuba. It’s even early to say Wright has developed the supreme motivation that made the above exceptional.
“Even when Mike and Cat were age 19 or 20, they weren’t sure who they were,” said Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit. “Sam is still trying to figure it out but I have a great deal of respect for the way he is working on a daily basis.
“When he’s banged up a little he still gives it his best on the practice field. He is headed in the right direction to be a very good football player.”
Wright has had quite the teacher. The day after Holuba got the awful news, he vowed to nevertheless be there for the whole defense for the whole season.
“Kurt is still our leader,” said Verbit. “He is absolutely magnificent for those guys.
“He has been able to spread his confidence across the defensive front. He is their man, is there for them to help answer questions and motivate them, give them any tidbit he has.”
This started when Holuba was a teammate, before he became a surrogate coach in what was to be his medical redshirt year. Each freshman on the team is assigned a mentor and a year ago Wright was fortunate enough to draw Holuba.
“There is a silent communication between the two of us,” said Wright. “I look to him and he gives me either a sign of approval or something I should do differently.
“He is a guy I look up to, has shaped me on and off the field. There have been so many lessons, but honestly, at the top of the list is loving your brother. This is our family out here. You stand by them while you are here because those will be relationships that last even when you leave.”
Whoa, not so fast. Every D-lineman getting appreciable time will be back next season. But 2019 is as taboo as thinking about Penn next week. It’s all about the process, not the reward.
“Yale has the best offensive line we have seen so far,” said Verbit. “Dartmouth was good, this is better.
“Three of these guys started against us last year. They know each other, are good with their power schemes, play with great leverage and with an edge.”
Following behind the bulldozers is more speed than Dartmouth and more ways to beat you, not to diminish what Princeton faced a week ago at all. This D-line met a huge physical challenge and won. Without a truly dominating player, it still has dominated and considering the wow factor of the Tiger offense in contrast, rather noiselessly, too.
“They are all workmanlike, do their job with energy but they are all on the quiet side,” said Verbit. “It’s still a young group; a voice hasn’t quite stepped up but they are good among one another, urging each other on.
Warning each other too, that success is a lure, and, with Yale still to go, a trap.
“We have a big motto,” said Wright. “Don’t take the cheese.”
A win would guarantee a share of Princeton’s 12th title, its second in three years and third in six seasons, and the first nine-win season since 1964, when Princeton played only nine games… Tigers have moved up to 11th in the FCS coach’s poll… 12:30 kickoff will be televised on ESPN+ (Jack Ford and Josh Hess). Radio is WPRB and TuneIn (Cody Chrusciel and Craig Sachson).