Plus We Get to See It Again Live

  • November 7, 2019

BY JAY GREENBERG

Both in setup and delivery, nothing Princeton ever has done in 63 full seasons of formal Ivy League play topped its 14-9 win over Dartmouth in 2018. It is even conceivable nothing ever will, unless it comes in the sequel Saturday, perhaps the best shot fans of these two programs ever will get to seeing something better.

Yankee Stadium as a gathering place for big alumni parties for both schools adds attendance and attention, but isn’t needed at all to magnify the stakes.  Dartmouth’s 9-1 season in 2018 earned it little but sympathy that one of best teams in Ivy history came along in the wrong year.  For the Big Green seniors, who have triumphed in 24 of their last 27 games and yet have insisted all season they have won nothing yet in their careers, a final-play escape last week at Harvard has given them this precious opportunity.

Princeton, hit more heavily than Dartmouth by both graduation and other losses from last season’s first 10-0 finish since 1903, has been less dominant, but just as gritty, efficient and opportunistic in building its winning streak to 17 games. Nevertheless, it finds itself a slight underdog Saturday, just in case any additional motivation be needed. It really isn’t, though.  It has not occurred to either team it could lose this one and get lucky with a stumble by the winner in the final two games to open the door again to a championship share.

Fifty two weeks following a game that delivered to its grand circumstances both a lot and only a little has changed. Here is what has and hasn’t:

MUCH THE SAME

Princeton had to run the ball 50 times last year to make 149 yards.  John Lovett ’19, the touchdown machine, was stopped on a 4th and 1 in the 4th quarter to end a 23 play, 91 yard drive at the Big Green 5. After the Tiger forced a 3 and out to get the ball back with a short field, the next time down Lovett had to use every bit of his speed, power and instincts to barely squeeze through a hole for the winning points.

Dartmouth’s All-Ivy run stopper, Rocco Di Leo, has graduated. Jackson Perry and David Chalmers have become double team demanding monsters of the D-Line. The Big Green has given up just 123.9 rushing yards per game and leads the FCS in red zone defense.

A year ago Lovett threw one interception that loomed large into the 4th quarter, principally because his 22 for 30 passing day netted just 161 yards. Against a secondary led by Bushnell Cup winner Isiah Swann and a linebacking core anchored by the sideline to sideline dominance of Jack Traynor, the longest Princeton run of the game was 14-yarder by Ryan Quigley, the longest play a 17-yard catch by Jesper Horsted ’19.

“Great instincts,” says Bob Surace ’90 about Swann. Traynor received the highest praise this week a college football player can receive from an opposing coach: “It seems like he been there since I’ve been coaching here,” smiled Surace. Indeed, you can’t wish commanding players into mortar boards soon enough.

Only one offensive line starter on Dartmouth has returned, but like Princeton, it subs the second unit liberally, and virtually all the skill players are back, and until last week, running wild. Thus through experience and diversity Dartmouth’s big play capabilities have increased. Quarterback Jared Gerbino, who missed the second half of the Harvard game but was confirmed by Coach Buddy Teevens on Tuesday as expected to play Saturday, tore up what was left of an injury-ravaged Princeton defense for 202 yards, 6.3 per carry, in the 2017 finale won by Dartmouth in the final seconds.  A year ago, he was held to only 36, which essentially was the game.

This season, Gerbino has run for 279 yards, mostly on set running plays while Drew Estrada has been a game breaker out of the backfield, from the slot, on the edge, and as a punt returner (an extraordinary 20.9 yard average).  An accomplishment just as significant as shutting down Gerbino in 2018, was holding Estrada to two catches and receiver Hunter Hagdorn remains nearly as dangerous.

Dartmouth did not lose a fumble or throw an interception in the game a year ago. However, there were two crippling false start penalties, one when the Big Green appeared about to extend its lead to 9-7 at the half, and another to help the Tigers get a stop and the ball back before the winning drive.

Princeton had no help on its two drives – three, actually, since field position gained on the third led to the second touchdown. This season Gerbino and Derek Kyler, who delivered the Hail Mary against Harvard, have combined for just four picks in seven games and Dartmouth has lost just five fumbles. Kevin Davidson has thrown two interceptions and Princeton has turned over a fumble just once. Both teams continue to take care of the ball, Princeton a little better.

A Tiger secondary that gave up 6.2 yards per pass attempt a year ago lost a key starter, Ben Ellis, but has given up 6.4 this time.  Dartmouth 5.42 per opponent’s attempt is at 5.37 through seven games, all numbers a virtual wash until these teams put each other through the wringer. Harvard scared both of these teams, but the Tigers and Big Green made fewer mistakes than the Crimson and survived.

AND WHAT’S DIFFERENT:

The Princeton offense considerably. Lovett, one of the greatest option threats in Ivy history, is gone as are the twin fast and giant wideouts – Horsted and Stephen Carlson ’19, now both on NFL practice squads. In their places are guys who run precise routes and catch balls almost perfectly delivered by a quarterback who leaves little to risk.

The Tigers have run up some big scores against struggling defenses, but obviously their explosive play capabilities are diminished. Despite that, the Princeton offense ranks in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency (4th), scoring (7th) and total yards (9yth), and anyway, big plays didn’t win last year’s game as much as painstaking execution did.  Jacob Birmelin, Dylan Classi, and Andrew Griffin make big catches without need for inch advantages or large steps of separation.

As good as Charlie Volker ’19 was in running back tandem with Collin Eaddy, there has not been a dropoff in the combo of Eaddy and Ryan Quigley. While Princeton has not used Davidson in goal line or short yardage situations, he has scrambled to a couple of big 1st downs when necessary.

Dartmouth, tougher than ever against the run, is not nearly at the sack pace it kept last season towards a total of 24.  It has but eight so far but tackling the quarterback does not measure the number of hurries.

The Princeton linebacking core suffered huge graduation losses of first team All-Ivy selections, Tom Johnson ’19 and Mark Fossati ’19, plus the preseason loss of captain John Orr, who had started while Fossati missed virtually all the 2017 season with an injury.

Sophomore Daniel Beard, projected to play the outside, was moved to the middle and has improved every game, as has Tom Johnson’s little brother James.  Week by week a Tiger defense ravenous for turnovers (13 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, and while we are at it, 21 sacks) gets closer in efficiency to the one that held Dartmouth to two 1st downs in the second half a year ago.

Like Perry, Traynor and Swann, Jeremiah Tyler and Sam Wright are defensive Bushnell candidates and the Princeton secondary’s tackling skills are above the norm in college football. The result has been that only No. 1 ranked North Dakota State and Dartmouth have allowed fewer points than Princeton.

TIGER TAILS

Kickoff is at 3:30 (ESPNU, WPRB 103.3)

Dartmouth is the home team, having agreed to give up its every other year turn to host the game in Hanover in order to celebrate the 250th year of the founding of the college.

Dartmouth leads the series with Princeton 49-45-4.

Since the start of formal Ivy play in 1956, Dartmouth has 38-24-1 advantage and is 7-2 in the last nine meetings but the Tigers have won two of the last three.