Another Year, Another Meat Grinder, and Tigers Thrive Again, 21-10.
BY JAY GREENBERG
Princeton is a demanding place, where indeed, the nation’s finest undergraduate education necessarily might be the toughest, too, when a win of 33-points by its football team requires some further, uh, instruction, not necessarily of the gentle kind.
Following last week’s sloppy victory at 0-4 Bucknell, it was a long week for the members of the defense in anticipation of a long, hard day against the Columbia Lions, who, if dressed in green rather than powder blue yesterday would have easily passed for that 9-1 Dartmouth team that had their hearts broken – barely – by the brilliant 10-0 Tigers of last season.
This test of a Princeton team still young in a lot of key spots was of that level of intensity. And the confidence gained by these new Princeton playmakers on both sides of the ball on Saturday became a far better jump start than just 3-0, although that’s not bad either.
Held to just 107 yards rushing, their biggest play for just 25 yards in a three-quarter death struggle, the Tigers stayed with it just like a year ago against Dartmouth and pulled away in Epic Battle II for the victory, 21-10.
“You are not going to run over those guys,” said Bob Surace ’90. “We are not going to score 45 points against that defense; just not going to have the ball that much.
“We had to show a lot of resiliency.”
The defense took the criticism to heart and held Columbia to 67 yards rushing and only the one big passing play – a circus 24-yard touchdown catch by Ronald Smith that gave Columbia its 10-7 halftime lead. Minus starting corner Delan Stallworth this week, the Tiger secondary held the dangerous Smith, Josh Wainwright and Mike Roussos to 197 yards receiving which really isn’t that much to complement an average gain on the rush is only 1.1.
“Our coaches always want the best from us,” said Jeremiah Tyler. “We felt challenged.
“We focused on pursuit this week and that was the key. We were surrounding the ball.”
Tyler, with 10 tackles, was the most visible defender all day, unless it was James Johnson with 11. “JT was everywhere,” said Surace. Still, the most telling statistic probably was this one: 56 of the Tigers’ 82 tackles were assisted.
Swarm the Tigers did, time and again at the line of scrimmage on 1st and 2nd downs, and then around quarterback Josh Bean on 3rd down, when the harried Lions converted only three of 14 times.
True, they were 4 for 4 on 4th downs, which only showed how hard they had to work for everything they gained. After going to the locker room up three and clearly jacked, they were never allowed to make a big play in the second half, when the Tigers finally did.
A few of them, in fact. The hardest of the 62 yards gained on 21 exhausting carries by Collin Eaddy Saturday was on 3rd down from the half-yard line on Princeton’s first possession of the second half to put Princeton ahead, 14-10. Just as on the first two plays of the sequence, which started at the six thanks to his own reception of an 18-yarder from Kevin Davidson, Eaddy was stopped yet kept his legs going, in a metaphor for yesterday’s entire team performance.
Up by four the Tigers forced a 3 and out but couldn’t move and a 27-yard Will Powers punt gave Columbia decent field position. A 22-yarder from Bean to Smith in a deep seam, plus another grinding completion of an out to him, left Columbia poised to go ahead until Christian Brown and Ike Hall combined for a 3rd down stop.
On 4th and 3, Columbia Coach Al Bagnoli decided to go for three and pull the Lions within one. The Tiger rush up the middle was so strong that the film will need to be watched more than the Zapruder one to determine who got the block. Joey DeMarco got credit that coach Mike Mendenhall’s whole unit should share.
Still, at that point you could only say the block, which left Princeton up four instead one, had the potential to change the game. There still was a virtual quarter to play, and five snaps later the Tigers were 3rd and 10 from their own 31 when Davidson put the ball between two defenders to Dylan Classi, who pulled it down one handed. The 27-yard catch was highlight-film worthy, the throw of scouting reel quality for NFL evaluators.
Davidson converted another 3rd down, this time to an open Carson Bobo, and then came the reason why you should never abandon a good running game even on its most tested day. Ryan Quigley ran left through probably the widest hole of the afternoon, broke a tackle, spun away, and ran in unchecked from 31 yards for the breathing room, it had looked like the Tigers might never get.
Columbia, down two scores, still had time to make it a game again, but Jake Strain and Sam Wright met at Bean on 1st down and Columbia had to punt. Needing a couple 1st downs to put the game away, Davidson pulled the ball down and hoofed it for 10 yards on 3rd and 5, moved the chains again on another throw to Bobo and the Tigers probably would have scored again had not Graham Adomitis been called for a hold on another 1st down run into the red zone.
No matter, George Triplett lofted a nine-iron punt perfectly to the one, T.J. Floyd picked off the last desperate heave by Bean and the Tigers, pressed to the end for first time this season, handled it as well as the Dartmouth grinder a year ago, this time with a much-changed cast.
“The (Lions) have All-Ivy receivers and we really did a good job of being where we should be,” said Surace. “As the game went on, we got better and against a veteran team.”
The Tigers had made enough mistakes in the first half to put themselves in a potential jackpot. Davidson was picked, for the first time this year, on the third play of the game by Ben Mathiasmeier, leading to a 51-yard Alex Felkins field goal.
A running into-the kicker-penalty on Will Johnson gave the Lions an easier convert on a 4th and 1 that they turned into an 85-yard touchdown drive, finished off by Smith, the same guy who ran under the heartbreaker in Columbia’s late win here in 2017.
A sack of Davidson in the final seconds of the half took the Tigers out of a medium range Tavish Rice field goal attempt and the 47-yarder he had to take on the final play of the half went wide. The Princeton deficit was only 10-7, but three points were a lot when there was no wiggle room.
“I was harder on them at halftime of the last two games when I thought we had gotten sloppy,” said Surace. “Today, we had been off a little bit on some blocks, maybe a few coverages, but I thought our effort right was terrific.”
“We really did a good job being where we should be. And as the game went on we got better and against a veteran team.”
The first two games told us only that the Tigers might be more explosive than expected. The one Saturday demonstrated they expect as much of themselves as ever and are capable of delivering it.