These Were the Plays and Players of 2019
BY JAY GREENBERG
Eight wins to follow ten, a couple of school offensive records set, plus another Bushnell Cup nomination were reflections of a season when seniors who had awaited their turn stepped in superbly, helping to bring along droves of talented underclassmen on both sides of the ball. The 2019 Tigers passed the torch, in addition to the ball very well.
Our thanks to Bob Surace ’90 and assistant coaches for their input.
Best Offensive Players: Quarterback Kevin Davidson had the toughest of acts, John Lovett ’19’s, to follow and did so without a blink, playing with almost impeccable efficiency, making NFL-level throws, and graduating with Princeton’s third-best completion percentage (.658) in history. Still Davidson wasn’t clearly better than Collin Eaddy, who ran for 88.8 yards per game on 44 fewer carries than Ivy leader Karekin Brooks of Penn (111 ypg), and scored 12 touchdowns.
Best Supporting Offensive Player: Ryan Quigley averaged 5.5 per rush, scored six touchdowns, caught nine passes out of the backfield, blocked well, and put away both Columbia and Penn with tackle-breaking 4th quarter touchdown runs.
Best Single Game Performances by an Offensive Player: Davidson threw for a school record seven touchdowns and 383 yards at Bucknell. Andrew Griffin caught four of those TDs, tying a school mark, and totaling 200 yards that day. Jacob Birmelin had 186 yards and two touchdown catches at Brown, 11 of his 12 receptions coming in a 51 point 1st half. Eaddy ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns at Penn.
Best Deep Throw: Davidson pinpointed a bomb almost 50 yards in the air to an anything but wide open Zach Kelly on a post pattern at the goal line against Brown. Perfect. That pass wins by one yard over a similar Davidson heave to Dylan Classi on the goal line earlier in the game.
Best Throw Under Duress: Davidson escaped the Harvard rush, stepped over a defender and threw on the run to Dylan Classi, who stretched out on fingertip catch in the end zone for what proved to be the winning 4th quarter touchdown. Only because it decided a close game is that one the choice over Davidson’s across the body pinpoint dart on the run to Griffin into coverage for a 27 yard touchdown at Bucknell.
Best Throw NFL Scouts Need to Watch Before April: Davidson threw a two-point conversion to Birmelin at Penn with a defender hanging on his other arm.
Best Win – Penn. 2nd half execution against Harvard was clutch in producing a comeback victory over what was a serious title contender at the time. Coming off consecutive losses, one by an embarrassing score to Yale, the collective mindset going to Philadelphia was to finish a good season well. The Tigers imposed their will, 28-7, on a rival seeking a fourth straight victory. It was a triumph that sent seniors out the door and underclassmen back to the weight room with a glow of accomplishment.
Best Catch: Classi, with one hand, over a ball Davidson delivered perfectly over two Columbia defenders on a 3rd and 10 for 27 yards to set up the 4th quarter putaway score against Columbia.
Best Yards After a Catch: Griffin left a defender on the ground on a 59 yard catch and run down the sideline at Bucknell to put Princeton up 14-7 in the 2nd quarter.
Best Toe-Tap Reception on the Sidelines or in the End Zone: Griffin had about an inch to spare to get his left foot down in a deep corner at Cornell. Princeton went up 14-0 with 22 seconds remaining in the 1st half.
Best In Air Catch: Again, Classi’s catch against Harvard. He broke off his route as Davidson freed himself and made a diving fingertip grab in the endzone.
Best Runs: Quigley ran through one tackle and spun 360 degrees away from another on his 31 yard touchdown to put away Columbia. Eaddy busted for 23 at Bucknell, running through a safety as if he didn’t exist.
Best Short Yardage Runs: Eaddy plowed through contact for 5, 3, and 1 yard touchdowns against Lafayette. He refused to be stopped all three times. Quigley ran over a defender at the goal line to finish off a 95 yard grinding drive at Penn and went in standing up.
Best Team Blocking on Running Plays: 2nd and 2 from the Brown 12, snapping before Brown was fully set, Alex Deters, Henry Byrd, and Sam Johnson sprang Quigley, who ran through a safety’s attempted tackle at the 1 for the score.
From the Butler 8, good down blocks from Graham Adomitis, Carson Bobo, and Byrd allow Deters and Niko Ivanisevic to pull around and easily kick out their defenders. Quigley went in untouched.
An outstanding double team by Johnson and Byrd moved the Penn defensive end two gaps over to spring Eaddy for a 14 yard gain.
Best Block: Holder drove his guy back 5 yards, then put him his back, on an Eaddy run against Butler.
Best Offensive Linemen: Center Alex Deters was elected first team All-Ivy by the league’s head coaches. Week after week, sophomore tackle Henry Byrd was graded highly by Surace and Princeton assistants who know best.
Best Play Call: Princeton has been only 3 for 10 on 3rd downs and Cornell, having just scored to cut the Tigers lead to 14-7 in the 3rd quarter, was all fired up for a 3rd and 5 blitz when Davidson threw a quick screen to Classi, who didn’t even need a significant block to go 49 yards and set up a touchdown that restored a two score game.
Best Drive: 95 yards in 13 plays, all but three on the ground, eating up 7:45 of 4th quarter clock, culminating in the off-tackle power run by Quigley to put away the Penn game.
Next Best Drive: Trey Gray had just been knocked cold on the 2nd half kickoff and taken off the field on a stretcher when the Tigers began a 15 play, 80 yard beauty that included three conversions on 3rd down – one on a 3rd and 11 Davidson to Classi pass – plus an Eaddy make on 4th and 1. Eaddy finished it off on a 2 yard run to extend the Princeton lead to 17-7.
And the Next Best Drive After That: Quigley’s spin-a-rama touchdown against Columbia concluded an 80 yard march in 10 plays that followed a field goal block by Joey DeMarco.
Best Performance by the Offense as a Whole: The Tigers had school record 51 points and 429 yards by halftime of a 65-22 win at Brown. Only a tipped interception prevented Princeton from scoring touchdowns on nine straight possessions and the Tigers didn’t punt until the 11th time they had the ball. At Bucknell, school records were both broken (seven touchdown passes by Davidson) and tied (four scoring catches by Griffin) in 56-23 victory, but performance at Brown was relentless from the start.
Best Offensive Newcomer: It is a reflection of the depth of talent in the program that the best two – Davidson and Griffin –were seniors. Sophomores who stepped into prominent roles were Carson Bobo and Andrei Iosivas. Though not a starter, sophomore offensive lineman Connor Scaglione seems on his way to becoming special.
Hardest Worker on Offense: “Jacob Birmelin’s energy level is off the charts,” said Surace.
Biggest Clutch Play on Offense: Classi’s fingertip diving catch in the Harvard end zone after Davidson’s escape came on a 3rd and 5 at the Harvard 13 with 3:16 remaining. “Both passer and receiver, to me that was the epitome of clutch,” said Surace.
In that same game, Tigers had been stopped on downs on both of the first two possessions in the 2nd half, when, immediately following a brilliant Daniel Beard interception, Davidson found Eaddy in a seam over the middle. None of five Harvard defenders could close in enough time to prevent a touchdown that put the Tigers ahead for good.
Best Offensive Performance off the Bench by Someone Not in the Usual Rotation: With Eaddy not dressed at Brown and hobbled Quigley needing to come out during the 2nd quarter, Tyler Campbell broke a 37 yard run up the gut on 4th and 1 from the Princeton 38. Campbell went on to 91 yards on 12 carries.
Best Defensive Games by the Team: Patriot League runner-up Lafayette had only seven 1st downs, 162 total yards and was only 2 for 16 on 3rd downs during Princeton’s 28-3 victory. Penn had 446 yards but was 1 for 7 on 4th down and 4 for 13 on 3rd down, failing to score on 1st and goals from the 2 and the 9 (twice).
Best Defensive Player: Linebacker Jeremiah Tyler led the Ivies with 18 tackles for a loss and was a Bushnell Cup finalist.
Best Single Game Individual Defensive Performances: Tyler had 11 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, plus a pass breakup, at Cornell. Sam Wright had 8 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble against Columbia. Delan Stallworth had 11.5 tackles and a 4th down goal line bat down of a quick out at Penn.
Clutch Defensive Play of the Year: The Tigers, trailing by four, had just been stopped for the second time in the 2nd half on a 4th down in Harvard territory when Daniel Beard tipped Jake Smith’s pass in the flat with the linebacker’s left hand and pulled it in as he was falling to give Princeton another chance at the Crimson 31. “The (sideline interception) by Mark Fossati ’19 (to put away the 2018 game at Yale) was one of the best I ever had seen,” said coordinator Steve Verbit P05. “But this one might have been better.” Davidson and Eaddy cashed in on the next play and Princeton never trailed again.
Next Best Interception of the Year: Harvard tried the same play quarterback Jake Smith had hit for a 73 yard touchdown to go ahead before the half, but Princeton was in a different coverage that Matt Winston executed perfectly, jumping the route at the Harvard 46 and tacking back Smith’s pass for 28 yards. This set up the Davidson to Classi classic for the winning points.
Defensive Sequence of the Year (Midfield Division): Tied 7-7 in the 2nd quarter at Penn, the Quakers were moving again at their own 40 when 1) Trevor Forbes discarded a block on a screen right to hold Owen Goldsberry to a 2 yard gain. 2) Tyler did the same to a screen left to Karekin Brooks for a 3 yard loss and 3) Tyler pressure forced quarterback Nick Robinson into the sure hands of Uche Ndukwe for a sack. Penn punted, the Tigers turned big plays on a sideline pass to Birmelin and an Eaddy ran, setting up a Tavish Rice field goal and Princeton’s dominance of the game had begun.
Best One-On-One Tackle: Beard on a 3rd and 6 screen from the Harvard 10 to run down DeMarkes Stradford and force a punt. “Tremendous pursuit,” said Verbit.
Best Ball Strip: Delan Stallworth of Andrew Bolton after a 1st down run at Brown. Tyler recovered at the Brown 40 and Tigers drove off the short field to open up a 44-19 lead. Textbook technique – Stallworth went for the back tip of the ball, just like it is taught – turned a negative play into a positive one.
Best Hustle Plays by Defenders: Wright, a defensive lineman, ran 40 yards with his linebacker-level speed to chase down Zane Dudek on the first scrimmage play of the game at the Princeton 40. Otherwise Dudek would have scored. The Bulldogs settled for a field goal.
After Brown’s Jakob Prall broke three tackles down the sideline, Matthew Jester came from the other side to run down the receiver at the 1, temporarily saving a touchdown.
Best Red Zone Defensive Plays: With score tied 7-7 in the 2nd quarter at Franklin Field and 4th and 2 at the Princeton 6, Stallworth reached around receiver Ryan Cragun to bat down a low and away Nick Robinson pass to turn the ball over on downs.
With perfect timing and technique, Sultaan Shabazz stepped in front of Owen Peters for an end zone interception at Cornell to preserve a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead.
Goal Line Stand of the Decade, Not Just the Year: Penn, trailing 28-7, 1st down at the 2 with Brooks in the backfield. 1) James Johnson tackle of Brooks at the 1. 2) Tyler throwback of Robinson on keeper. 3) Overthrow in the flat with Johnson rushing and Tyler waiting to make a tackle. 4) DeMarco and Johnson finish off a mammoth interior push to foil Brooks. Can it ever get any better than this by a defense to wrap up a season?
Best Stops (Out of the Red Zone Dept): On a 3rd and 5 with Princeton leading 14-0 in 3rd quarter, DeMarco and Carrington were waiting for Cornell’s Harold Coles on a speed option at the Cornell 40.
On a 4th and 2 at Penn 33, Princeton leading 17-7 in the 3rd quarter, Matthew Jester came off the edge to stop Brooks and Tigers subsequently converted a field goal.
Most Improved Players on Defense: Beard, a sophomore outside backer moved inside after captain John Orr was lost for the season, was good from the start and got better and better as the season went along. He finished with two sacks, five tackles for a loss and the interception of the year. Sophomore Ike Hall was elevated to starter when Tavaris Noel was lost for the season in game 1, and was a steadying force, having a couple tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery.
Most Improved Defensive Player Over Four Years: DeMarco beefed up 50 pounds to 270, moved to the middle as a senior, and, in a fair world, would been more than All-Ivy honorable mention for a second consecutive year. The nose guard takes on the blocks so that the defensive ends get the sacks, yet DeMarco still had five of them, 12 tackles for losses, and on special teams, a remarkable three blocked kicks.
Top Newcomers on Defense: Freshman Anthony Corbin moved into the rotation with the loss of Orr, becoming the starter when Beard couldn’t play the final two weeks and showed he will be the next in a succession of explosive Princeton WILL (middle) linebackers. Freshman safety Daiveon Carrington showed range and ball skills that will make him a playmaker.
Hardest Workers on Defense: Tyler and James Johnson.
Best Special Teams Player: Tavish Rice produced 45 touchbacks on 59 attempts, was 5 for 8 on field goals and 41 for 43 on PATs.
Field Goal of the Year: A career-long 46 yards by Rice against Harvard.
Best Special Team Plays: Two of DeMarco’s three field-goal blocks were at critical junctures: 1) Princeton was leading Columbia only 14-10 early in the 4th quarter, and then drove 80 yards for touchdown that put the game away. 2) Against Harvard, helping to preserve a 10-7 lead.
Best Special Team Play (Kicking Dept): George Triplett pinned Columbia at the 1 to begin its final possession that ended quickly with a TJ Floyd interception.
Best Special Teams Player (Non Kicker Dept): Dawson De Iuliis started on all of the core four blocking and coverage units, sometimes drawing double teams on the latter.
Best Special Teams Newcomer: Freshman punter Will Powers was second in the Ivy League with 40.2 yards per kick, forcing 16 fair catches out of 29 boots. He put seven inside the 20 yard line and nailed a 57 yarder against Lafayette.
Best Special Teams Tackle: The way Rice and Powers performed did not leave much opportunity. However, senior Phillip Frost, in his first usage of the season after replacing injured Will Perez, lit up Lafayette’s J.J. Younger after a 16 yard kickoff return. “First man down with exceptional speed, and delivered a first strike that knocked [Younger] back,” said Mike Mendenhall, the special teams coordinator.
Best Special Team Leader: Will Johnson was a constant voice and consistent performer for three seasons. “He had a lot of pride in being a special team player,” said Mendenhall. “The team respected his play and it became contagious for other players; their attention to detail improved greatly.”
Unsung Hero on Special Teams: Ryan McNeil. Didn’t get a single mention in our stories all season, highest tribute a long snapper can receive. Was flawless.
Most Improved Player on Special Teams: Freshman Joe Bonczek, smart and physical, finished the season starting on all four core units. So did senior Christian Sullivan, who with his defensive backfield role usage blocked by a talented secondary, embraced his role on kick teams.
Biggest Disappointment: Turnovers, which had not been a problem, helped create an early deficit in undefeated showdown against Dartmouth. Nevertheless the Tigers were in that game late in the 3rd quarter. It had to be Yale and not just because it was Yale. The 2nd quarter completion barrage by a high powered Bulldog offense was set up by a dropped punt but also two 3 and outs against a defense that gave up a lot of points this season. Not to say Dartmouth and Yale weren’t better, but lesser teams than Princeton gave the co-champs closer games.
Greatest Accomplishment: With a relatively inexperienced two-deep on offense and at linebacker, the Tigers were not built this year to overpower the better teams on their schedule, yet they stretched a winning streak to 17 games with execution at clutch moments, demonstrating good coaching and learning. They were challenged, hardly intimidated, by following probably Princeton’s best-ever team of the Ivy era.