Make No Mistake, The Defense Has To Get Better
BY JAY GREENBERG
If you do the math on Bob Surace ’90’s mantra that his players strive to improve 5 percent every day then over 101 of them, camp-to-finale, each Tiger is trying to become five times the player at the end of this season that he was at the beginning.
Since actually it only seemed like the 2016 defense, riddled for 73 points and 1037 yards in splitting its first two games with Lafayette and Lehigh, was 500 percent better in allowing just three touchdowns in the final four games. This is what needs to be understood: Even for a Princeton student, it is all about the pursuit of perfection, not the unlikely actuality attaining it.
Speaking of pursuit – specifically by the defense – it wasn’t particularly good at Bucknell and has to get better by whatever percentage when Columbia comes to Powers Field Saturday to open the league play.
“First off, we’ve got to tackle better,” said captain Jake Strain. “Guys were a little too eager, not playing the way we practiced.
“This week we’re working on angles and swarming to the ball as fast as we can.”
It’s too early to note any irony about an offense missing its 2018 stars so far not missing a beat even while the defense with eight returning starters gave up 398 yards to 0-4 Bucknell. Also, it is too soon judge any team by its record since after two weeks, win-loss is almost all about difficulty of schedule.
Not early at all, however, is a sense of urgency to get messes cleaned up before they become habits. This year’s Princeton team has inexperience at linebacker and on the second unit of the defensive line but still plenty of talent in both places, along with a mandate to grow up quickly.
“We’re going to have to tackle better,” said Surace. “We are going to be challenged this week.
“Columbia’s running backs are big and fast. They have a good receiving corps; speed actually at all the skill positions. (Wideout) Josh Wainwright has been All-Ivy since he got there and Ronald Smith hurt us (10 catches including a 63-yard game winner) two years ago. In terms of speed, this is a different element than we have faced so far this season.
“Columbia (1-1) had a tough go last week (in a 24-10 loss to Georgetown). A tying touchdown was called back for a hold and a personal foul penalty stopped what would have been a field goal. Both calls, I thought, were iffy. If those don’t happen, it’s a different game.”
It’s a different Columbia program – coming off consecutive winning seasons – since Al Bagnoli brought the wisdom of his nine titles he won while at Penn. No longer are the Tigers all but guaranteed a 1-0 Ivy start. Two seasons ago, the Lions, who had previously won only twice at Princeton in the Ivy era, hit the pass to Smith over a blitz for Princeton’s only loss in a 5-1 start that was a true reflection of that team, before the defensive line got hopelessly worn down by injuries.
With six turnovers already committed by this year’s Lions, Columbia skill level is not typecast by the mediocre numbers it has accrued splitting two games between St. Francis and Georgetown. Besides, Bagnoli probably is asking for 5 percent improvement every day. While we are on the subject of turnovers, the Tigers have forced only two, neither being a fumble, which almost always are a byproduct of hard tackling.
The absence of enough hard, clean contact at Lewisburg was the essence of an unnecessarily long day for the Tiger defense on a hot field. This resulted in some hot-under-the-collar Princeton coaches when the video started rolling in the meeting rooms on Sunday.
“Not good,’ said Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit. “We made mistakes good teams don’t make in alignments, assignments, running to the ball at proper pursuit angles and then getting people onto the ground.”
When you still win by 33 points, it can’t be all bad. Highlights included nickel back Sultaan Shabazz being in perfect prevent position to pick off an overthrow that set up a Tiger touchdown and a 14-point lead at the half.
Matt Jester had a tackle for a loss on 3rd down to foil Bucknell’s first possession, and a swarming stop by half the defense on a 4th and 1 turned the ball over on downs. Strain snuffed a 3rd and 2 and Sam Wright had an athletic, off-balance sack on 3rd down, all of the above occurring while the game still was close. Bucknell converted only 6 of 15 3rd down opportunities on the day.
Then again the Bison completed seven consecutive passes on their first scoring drive, hitting two big plays on its second. Perhaps most annoying was the Bison being 4 for 4 in the red zone, including three touchdowns.
It was hot, so second teamers were on the field more than usual in the first half, but many second teamers are first-teamers to be. Bucknell was successful with quick drops and outs, of which Princeton is certain to see a steady diet until proving they can stop them.
“We had some moments,” said Jeremiah Tyler. “And we left a lot of room for improvement, too.”
The guys still around that experienced 2016 saw just how much better that can get. That defense started on its way to becoming one of Princeton’s greatest by holding Columbia to just 11 first downs in a 48-13 victory.
- Kickoff is at 1 (ESPN+ and WPRB (103.3)
- This is the 89th meeting between Princeton and Columbia, the Tigers leading the series 71-16-1.
- The first meeting was in 1874, five years after the birth of college football with Princeton vs. Rutgers.
- After meeting only nine times between 1902 and 1946, the two schools have played every year since 1952.
- The Tigers cracked the STATS FCS poll at No. 25 this week, moved up to 23rd in the coach’s poll.
- Collin Eaddy has not been stopped for a loss in 119 carries.