The Greatest Talent of the Skilled ’92 Tigers Might Have Been An Ability to Work
Second of a Two Part Series
BY JAY GREENBERG
There probably has been no more ignominious defeat in Princeton football history than Columbia’s snapping of a 44-game losing streak at the Tigers’ expense in 1988. But the 1990 Lions’ one Ivy League win during the 1990 season had also been over Princeton at Wien Stadium, prompting what Princeton guard J.C. Stilley recalls as the “hardest Monday in the history of college football.”
Thus, more than just the history majors on the 1992 Tigers were aware the program was on a two-game New York losing streak when, at 5-1, they went to play yet another struggling (1-5) Columbia team.
Perhaps the long memories were fuel for Princeton’s longest touchdown drive of the season, 89 yards, on Princeton’s second possession. Finished on a 2-yard plunge by fullback Peter Bailey, the march apparently confirmed to Columbia Coach Ray Tellier suspicions that his team was overmatched. Taking his chances in single coverage against dynamic wideout Michael Lerch, Tellier had stacked the line against spectacular running back Keith Elias, who nevertheless ran for 53 yards on that drive, which put Princeton up, 7-0.
Through the passing of Chad Andrzejewski, Columbia had gotten over midfield on its first two possessions before punting. Tellier saw his only hope in ball possession. The next time the Lions had the ball, the coach ordered a short snap off a punt formation on a fourth-and-five. Unsurprised David Getson and Brad Grout ran down Des Wertham a yard short of the first-down marker, setting up Princeton at the Columbia 31.
More of Elias and two first-down completions to tight end Colin Nance moved the ball to the three, from where Elias scored on a pitch to boost the lead to 14-0.
Next series, the Lions had full intentions of punting, but the snap was fumbled and Princeton’s Shawn Colo recovered at the Columbia 28. When running back Erick Hamilton was stopped on a third-and-two, Jeff Hogg kicked a 28-yard field goal to extend the Tigers’ edge to 17-0.
Andrzejewski passed Columbia to a 12-play, 79-yard, touchdown drive just before the half but, on the first possession of the third quarter, Elias bounced off his lead blocker, Bailey, to run 13 for a touchdown, then added another, of two yards, one series later. Hogg kicked one more field goal, this one of 31 yards, in the fourth quarter, long after the result was decided.
With 115 yards in the 34-7 rout, Elias passed legends Cosmo Iacavazzi ’65 and Dick Kazmaier ’52 on Princeton’s all-time career rushing list. And, after having held Harvard to six net rushing yards a week earlier, this time the Tigers stuffed the Lions to zero.
“I remember they came at me pretty hard and I held up well,” recalls defensive end Matt McInerney, in the starting defensive front four because of the season-long injury absence of Brian Kazan, a likely All-Ivy repeater. After surrendering a combined 638 passing yards in outscoring Lafayette and Lehigh in Weeks Two and Three, the secondary’s play had improved. But Princeton’s ever-more dominating defense started up front, against the run.
Immovable Objects and Irresistible Forces
“Once we started to have success, there was motivation to build on it,” recalls McInerney. “We were pretty tough.”
Junior tackle Reggie Harris was, in the memory of defensive backfield coach Steve Verbit “unblockable.” Increasingly Harris was being doubled, to the benefit of his inside partner, junior Jim Renna, who was emergent himself as an all-league candidate. “Reggie made my job a lot easier,” recalls Renna. “Both he and I had low centers of gravity, making it hard to get us off the ball.
“The two [linebackers] behind us, Aaron (Harris) and Geno (Gene DeMorat) were great players. (Dave Patterson (’96) was the fastest linebacker sideline to sideline I ever saw at Princeton. But Geno wasn’t far behind.
“Aaron was dominating. If you thought you were going to run the ball down our throat, you were bleeping crazy.”
Recalls Defensive Coordinator Mark Harriman, “Gene played more to the wide side and covered a lot of ground. He was an extremely intelligent player who always picked up the check offs and was able to make any adjustments that his position called for.
“Renna was the strongest guy on the team. Reggie Harris was just a beast, so naturally strong, you could tell he came from a wrestling background. On the outsides we had McInerney, Steve Brown, and Nick Brophy. Kazan had been a huge loss for us but those guys came in and filled roles.”
The defensive line coach was the late Bob Dipipi, a four-decade veteran making his final coaching stop. “He had a lot of knowledge and an absent-minded professor’s kind-of-way of getting us to perform,” recalls Brophy.
“He also was the special teams coach. One day he was warning us about trick plays, and said, ‘Here’s one: The holder runs off field yelling, ‘I forgot the tee!’ and then they snap the ball and throw it to him. Somebody said, ‘Coach, they banned using tees on field goals and extra points three years ago. “Coach said, ‘Ah, how tricky!’
“Showing us something one day on the board, he used an eraser to illustrate a punt, kicked it, the chalk flying all over the room.”
Recalls McInerney, “Classic old school, but we had a lot of fun with how he would talk to us. You couldn’t tell if it was 1970 or 1992. He would forget my name one day and then forget Reggie Harris’s the next while remembering mine. Michael Lerch was usually, “The little guy.’
“But I also remember he had the line over to his house when the season was over. You could tell he cared about us.”
Chris Mallette was the linebacker generally on the strong side. “But there were times we had him funneling the wide receiver, too,” recalls Harriman. “Chris was versatile enough to do a lot of that.
“Against the passing teams, he might play only 8-10 snaps, but he did what he could to prepare us, even with the knowledge that his participation might be limited. With a lot of kids today, that wouldn’t go over very well.”
The secondary lent plenty of run support.
“(Strong safety) Keith Ducker was as athletic as they possibly come,” recalls Harriman. “He could get the ball and was very physical, setting a tone.”
Ducker was listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, not allowing for the one inch and 10 pounds by which rosters usually lie.
“I was an engineering student,” recalls Ducker. “That was a problem because I knew the math of the concentration of energy and the concentration of momentum and that the lack of my mass had to get translated into something else, like me getting hurt.
“I tell people now that it took until my junior year to get comfortable with the truth that no matter how big a guy was or how fast he was running, if you come at him fast and stick your facemask into his knee, he will fall down.”
“Besides, whenever I hit a kid hard, the beating I took was not as hard as I would take from Aaron and Gene celebrating,” recalls Ducker. “I feared that far more.”
Cornerback Brad Reed was from the same Indianapolis suburb, Greenwood, as Ducker. They attended different high schools but played like they came out of one mother.
“Keith was an animal,” recalls Reed. “He would stick his head into anything.
“In our drills for the option set, the strong safety would line up three yards off the line of scrimmage and fullbacks would line up normally in the backfield. They would run at each other from 12 yards, trying to knock each other down.
“Keith could take on a collision way better than the rest of us and was happy to do it. He loved pretending to be a linebacker.”
Still, Ducker isn’t so sure he was the most aggressive and sturdiest player in that secondary.
“In my opinion Brad Reed, pound-for-pound (170 of them), was the toughest guy on the team,” recalls Ducker. “He would come up and just lay the wood on the end sweeps.
“Anywhere you needed it, he was physical. It was impressive. And he had the best feet in the secondary, in my opinion. More than once he covered for me when I went for the ball and didn’t get it.”
“(Free safety Brian) Mangene same thing–a guy never out of position. Super fast, super smart and could be physical too. He taught us all to think about things situationally like, when we were up two touchdowns, to give up five or ten yards and not the big play.
“I don’t know if we played more than or two downs of man-to-man all season. Even when we blitzed we stayed in the zone on the back so, as a DB, I felt there were far too many times that tight ends were catching the ball for 15-yard gains. That said, after Lehigh and Lafayette, we had stopped giving up points.”
Recalls Reed, “The scheme was to force teams to throw the ball to beat us. It was not hard to hit passes between linebackers and defensive backs for 20 yards.
“So be it. Teams did not hit us for 40-yard pass plays.”
Penn Airs It Out
Pennsylvania (5-2, 3-1 Ivy) came to Palmer Stadium passing almost exclusively during an initial drive of 59 yards. From the Princeton 21, quarterback Jim McGeehan delivered the ball over the outstretched arm of Reed for the game’s first touchdown. Aaron Harris blocked the conversion kick, however, and a pinpoint third-down sideline lob by quarterback Joel Foote over coverage to wideout Steve Tufillaro got Princeton out to its 43.
Foote sneaked for the first down. But three plays later, on third-and-inches, guard Scott Miller started too soon, so the Tigers had to punt. Matt Golden hit a good one though, and, starting in the shadow of the goal posts, Penn went three-and-out, enabling the Tigers to start their next series at the Quaker 45.
Lerch made a leaping catch at the 18. Erick Hamilton ran up the middle to the 12. But on third down, Foote, trying to throw across his body on a rollout, passed behind Tufillaro, who couldn’t hang on. Hogg, hitting his sixth field goal in 11 tries on the season, drilled a 29-yarder to get Princeton on the board, trailing 7-3.
Despite the absence of McInerney, carted off with an ankle injury, the Tiger defense was starting to dominate the Quakers. A Brophy first-down sack foiled a Penn end-around on one failed series. Another Brophy sack on second down helped end the next drive. But the Tigers weren’t moving either. A holding penalty forced a Princeton punt and, on a third-and-one on the following Princeton possession, Elias was buried three yards deep in the backfield.
Golden punt was fair caught at the 15. On second-and-15, McGeehan rolled left. DeMorat, coming late and from the opposite side of the field, hurried the quarterback, who threw the ball right to Aaron Harris at the 13 before being leveled.
“I got a clean hit on the quarterback, the kind you don’t get very often,” recalls DeMorat. “It was my favorite play because we worked together to make it happen and it was against the team I disliked the most.
“Penn, the closest Ivy to me (in Millville, NJ) hadn’t recruited me much, not that I wanted to go there.”
On second down Elias followed Bailey between Stilley and tackle Chris Theiss, powered through two tackles, stepped out of another, and danced in to put Princeton ahead, 10-7, with three minutes remaining in the half. “Keith was like a little kid, so excited when a play worked,” recalls Theiss.
On first down after the kickoff, Mallette clobbered tight end Cache Miller for a pass breakup. Heavy pressure hurried a Penn screen that Terrance Stokes dropped. Miller was overthrown on third down and Penn had to punt. Starting at its own 25, Princeton had 1:52 to work, in the unlikely event Tosches wanted to use it.
“If you would have polled everybody in the stadium, they would have thought we were going to run the clock out,” recalls Tosches.
His reputation preceded him. “Coach Tosches wasn’t exactly Riverboat Ron,” recalls tight end Chris Beiswenger.
But the player who could have been most frustrated by the cloud-of-Elias-dust strategy was not.
“Coach Tosches has a legacy of being a very conservative coach and he definitely had leanings that way,” recalls Lerch. “In his defense, he had a great record (78-50) and great players like Judd Garrett (’90) and Keith so, typically, we would run the ball and that makes you more conservative sometimes.
“But as I think back, once they had confidence I was a playmaker, they were trying to make things happen. I remember reverses and we threw the ball deep a lot. I don’t recall running too many five-yard patterns.”
After a delay to Elias gained five on first down, Tosches and offensive coordinator Joe Susan decided to pass. “The play was to line up in the left slot, run down 15 yards, make a move to the sideline and then with the whole flow of the play to the left, the safety would chase,” recalls Lerch. “Then I would cut against the grain on a post.
“It’s the hardest pattern for a safety to cover. Anytime I had the opportunity to get into a foot race, I was going to win most of them.”
Foote faked a handoff and dropped straight back with plenty of time. “It was like breaking into an open bank,” recalls Susan. The ball, in the air for 47 yards, led Lerch perfectly. “Really well executed by Joel,” recalls Lerch, who was 10 yards behind the last defender on a 70-yard touchdown race to the flag that put Princeton up 17-6.
“It was a huge lift going into the locker room,” recalls Beiswenger.
But Penn took inspiration, too, when Stokes slipped a tackle on a 43-yard return of the second half kickoff, Lerch having to save a touchdown. Reggie Harris sacked McGeehan to leave the Quakers second-and-21. But with the Tiger secondary playing soft in the season-long plan, McGeehan completed a 22-yard throw in front of Mangene to Bill Cobb for a first down at the 35.
On fourth-and-five at the 30, Penn was too far away for a field goal and too sneaky to throw the pass everyone expected. Into the teeth of the best run defense in the league went Sundiata Rush, who broke Reggie Harris’ ankle grasp and made the first down at the Princeton 24.
Ducker and Reed made a stop on second down, Renna another on third. But on fourth-and-three at the 17, coach Al Bagnoli still wasn’t kicking. McGeehan ran play action and threw underneath to Steve Freeman who had turned around Jonathan Reid. From there, Freeman ran over Matt Reed before Aaron Harris led a gang tackle at the one but, one play later, Rush went off right tackle for a touchdown. Tony Hernandez was wide open for a two-point conversion pass and, midway through the third quarter, the Quakers trailed only 17-14.
Tosches and Susan were not out of tricks. On the first play of the next possession, Lerch ran 21 yards on a double reverse before Elias burst up the middle for 24 to the Penn 27.
Elias got only four on two carries, but on third-and-six, Foote nicely delivered over the rush a swing to Bailey for a first down at the Penn 15. On third-and-five, Miller missed a block and Elias was stopped well short. But Hogg confidently kicked a 30-yard field goal right down the middle and Princeton had extended its lead to 20-14 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Again, the Tigers were burned for a long kickoff return–Ako Mott to the Princeton 45. But Aaron Harris stopped a sweep on second down and, on third, DeMorat made another tackle. On fourth-and-three from the Princeton 37, Reid and Ducker held up Rush before Aaron Harris made the finish two yards short. Princeton still led by six.
The Tigers threatened again thanks to a first-down curl to Lerch on a third-and-12, before Foote made the sticks again with a roll-and-throw to Tufillaro. But Elias, having to grind his hardest yardage of the season, was stacked up on a run, then sniffed out on a screen before Hogg nailed the coffin corner and Brophy downed the ball at the four as the fourth quarter began.
When Freeman stumbled short of the marker on a third-down pass, Penn had to kick and Lerch returned it for a touchdown, only to have it called back.
“Best block I ever put on anyone, college or high school,” recalls Theiss. “I turned around, saw a flag and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ The guy said, ‘It’s on you 63.’ I went ballistic. All I did was knock the guy out of bounds.”
When Elias again was stopped on third down at the 38, Tosches punted once more. Reid fell down on a first down pass to Miller that was good for 22. After the next play Aaron Harris didn’t get up and had to be helped off the field. “I heard it snap, I was worried,” he would say.
Backup Robert Dykes went in and the Tigers flushed out a second down flea flicker that went nowhere. On third down Ducker hit Jared Delancey running a slant, just as the ball arrived and he could not hold on. The Tigers, still leading 20-14, had gotten another stop.
They would need more. When a third-down pass for Tufillaro was deflected, Penn took another punt, and on first down, a quick out to Fitz McKinnon on Reid’s side turned into a 26-yard gain down the sideline. When Mangene ran the receiver down, the safety tugged on the receiver’s facemask, and the penalty moved the ball to the nine.
Because it was a dead ball foul, Penn was first and-one. Rush made it easily to the five. But on first down Ducker blitzed and hurried a throw that bounced short of Freeman. On second down, McGeehan was flushed from the pocket and threw short to Miller, who was stopped by DeMorat at the eight.
Penn called its second time out of the half. Aaron Harris, who had limped back onto the field at the start of the series, exhorted the crowd to rise and help the Tigers home. On third-and-eight they blitzed and Renna sacked McGeehan, the ball coming loose but incorrectly ruled dead.
With a fourth-and-goal at the 17, this time Bagnoli didn’t have much choice but to kick. Marc Horowitz punched it wide right, however, and after a magnificent stop, the Tigers, still led 20-14, but remained in need of a drive to deny the Quakers one more chance.
On third-and-two, Elias leaped over penetration, cut back and danced for 32, then swept right for 18 and another first down. But two tries up the middle by Elias and Bailey accrued only four combined yards and, on third-and-six, Elias had the ball knocked out of his hands by Chris Johnson.
Foote fell on it at the 25 fortunately, but unfortunately out of the range of Hogg, who had not hit a 40-yarder all season. So on fourth down, Foote looked for Lerch on the sideline. He was well covered so the quarterback carefully threw the ball out of bounds.
Penn, still needing a touchdown, had 75 yards to go in 2:10 without any timeouts. Princeton was going to make the Quakers eat clock, 10-to-15 yards at a time.
McGeehan completed four over-the middle throws, three to Miller, to move the ball to the Princeton 38 with 40 seconds on the clock. Then the quarterback found Miller again at the 23 and hustled to the line to spike the ball, so Princeton called a timeout to give the defense a breather and make sure there were no communication lapses to haunt these defenders for the rest of their lives.
Few at Palmer Stadium remained in their seats. The Tigers dropped seven in coverage again, leaving McGeehan plenty of time but, on this down, nowhere to go with the ball before Reggie Harris stepped up to chase and forced the quarterback out of bounds with 15 seconds remaining.
Tosches called time out again, this time to get Lerch into the game. When the ball was snapped, he flashed outside left tackle Chris Fragakis without barely being touched and got McGeehan to the ground without a struggle.
The quarterback had to wait for frantic Penn receivers to race back to the line, and the snap came a half-second too late. Lerch, already leaping into the air before the officials were waving their arms to signal time had run out, disappeared into a pile of ecstatic, proud, and yes, relieved Tigers. They had held on for 20-14 victory that pushed them to 5-0 in the league with two games to play.
After surrendering a touchdown drive on Penn’s first drive of the second half, the defense had risen for five stops without allowing a point.
“We had some individuals with big games during that year, but considering the caliber of the competition, it was the most complete one that our defense played,” recalls Harriman. “We had some big rivalries but I always loved beating Penn. It was very satisfying.”
Also debilitating. McInerney was gone for the season. Aaron Harris had limped through the second half and was not going to be able to play the following week at 4-4 Yale, as the Tigers went for a guaranteed share of the Ivy title and the first bonfire (for beating both Yale and Harvard) in four years. In the place of the defensive leader would be Dykes, a senior relatively anonymous to the fans, but not his teammates. “A very good player, just unfortunately behind Aaron,” recalls Ducker.
Foote on Yale’s Throat
As if Elias, who had carried for another 153 yards against Penn, ever needed any further motivation, he received it in a call from a Yale student reporter. “He told me that I wasn’t the Ivy League leading rusher, that their guy (Keith Price) was,” Elias recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I had 299 yards against Lafayette and 273 against Lehigh.’
“He said they weren’t in league games, didn’t figure in the totals. The article came out and it was so condescending, said, ‘Someone should tell Mr. Elias only the Ivy League games count.’”
Every yard mattered to catch this Price guy, then Elias found out the count would begin late. After showing up a few minutes tardy for a position meeting Saturday morning at the New Haven hotel, Tosches felt he needed to make a point.
“You have rules, you have to make them accountable to them,” remembers the coach. He told Elias that he was not starting.
Elias recalls, “The clock in my hotel room was wrong. If you know me, I’m not late for anything.
“I had seen so much opportunity in that game, I went crazy. Aaron grabbed me and said ‘Dude!’
Without their star on the first possession, the Tigers mixed passes to Lerch plus runs by Hamilton and Bailey to get to the Yale 27. But a bad snap doomed Hogg’s 44-yard field goal attempt.
The second time the Tigers got the ball, Elias was pardoned by Tosches. “He went in with steam coming out his ears,” the coach recalls. On the third possession, Elias made first downs on third-and-nine and second-and-nine, and this time Hogg drilled a field goal from 34 yards to give Princeton a 3-0 lead.
The next time downfield, a Beiswenger touchdown catch was called back on an offensive pass interference call on C.J. Brucato and Hogg hit the upright. And then a fifth drive into Yale territory in the half ended with an Elias fumble at the four-yard line.
Yale got the ball off the goalline with a Price third-down run, but the Bulldogs got no farther, and a punt returned the ball to Princeton in the final minute. Nance was unbelievably open for a 34-yard sideline completion with nine seconds to go, enabling Hogg to hit his most impressive field goal of the season, from 38. But after having the ball for 20 of the 30 minutes, the offense went to the locker room leading only 6-0 and not happy with itself.
“I remember thinking, ‘How can we be on the field this much and only have six points?” recalls Theiss. “It might give Yale some confidence.
“It would be a big for us to come out and set things right.”
Yale helped by coming out and doing itself wrong. Following a leaping DeMorat sack on the first series, a snap by Tim O’Hara went well over the head of punter Scott Eidle. He ran it down and was tackled for a safety by Reid. It was 8-0.
On the first play following the free kick, Foote tossed to Elias, who gave it back to Tufillaro coming from left to right side, and the reverse, sprung by blocks by Foote and the pulling Theiss, suckered the smart guys from Yale for 52 yards to the six.
”Theiss made the Red Sea part and I had clear sailing,” recalls Tufillaro. “Then all of a sudden I see a flash out of my left eye and somebody dragged me down.
“It was a D-lineman. I have never lived that down.”
Elias broke two ankle tackles to score on the next play and Princeton led 15-0.
The Tigers were not finished keeping Yale in the game. When the Bulldogs went for it on fourth-and-two, Elias fumbled away another drive at the Yale 26, and a bad exchange between Foote and Bailey killed another chance at the one. But the Bulldogs could barely move the ball. And their penalties helped set up another Princeton chance. Foote lobbed a beautiful 25-yard pass into the end zone to Lerch breaking past two defenders for the 13th touchdown catch of his career to increase the lead to 22-0.
“By the end of the season, Joel was throwing the ball downfield and hitting Lerch in stride,” recalls Tufillaro. “I think that would have happened earlier if he wouldn’t have had that injury that cost him the two weeks.”
The rout was on. A center field Reid interception and a 44-yard bomb to Lerch set up a leap over the line by Hamilton to make it 29-0.
Reggie Harris forced a fumble, recovered by DeMorat, and on the first play Foote hit Lerch for 19 before throwing to Nance for a touchdown, but the play was called back due to offensive pass interference by Elias. “I was so mad that when we called for an option on the next play, I told Joel, ‘You HAVE to pitch it to me,” recalls Elias.
The quarterback followed orders. Elias stutter-stepped one tackler, juked another, and outran all pursuit to the flag, the 24-yard touchdown breaking the single-season rushing record of 1347 set by Judd Garrett in 1989.
It was 36-0. As the Yalies deserted the Yale Bowl, the Tigers were left to celebrate with just their friends.
“What I remember most about that day was looking around with the clock ticking down and seeing the empty stadium and how happy that made us,” recalls Theiss. “Knowing how it assured us of at least a share of the title was a great feeling, probably my strongest memory of that season.”
Like the stands, the benches, were emptied too, when the runback of a fumbled exchange gave the Bulldogs a touchdown in the final seconds. The Tigers, losing three fumbles and penalized for 113 yards, had made enough mistakes to blow two games but still overmatched Yale badly, 36-7.
At the gun, Elias jumped up and down like the contest had come down to a final play. With their sixth Ivy victory against no losses, the Tigers had earned at least a piece of their second championship in three seasons and by Princeton’s largest margin of victory over Yale since 1958. It also was Princeton’s first wins in successive seasons over the Bulldogs since a six-game streak from 1961-66.
There were further reasons to glow.
Elias and the Tiger run defense had left Price, the erstwhile leading Ivy rusher, in the dust, 147 yards to 58. Foote, the game manager who had been managing quite well–just one interception all season–had enjoyed his best passing day–finishing 16-for-24 for 233 yards. “Some weeks, there were situations for play action that put the ball in his hands more often,” recalls Tosches, “We always had confidence in Joel.”
Certainly that was true in the huddle. “Joel had that steely gaze that convinced you we were going to find a way to make any play work,” recalls center Ian Lombard.
There was much to celebrate, but no good place to do it. Reed took the long walk back to the visiting dressing facilities outside the ancient Yale Bowl and realized he was almost alone. Most of the players had lingered on the field to share their joy with supporters.
“I remembered traveling to Dartmouth the year before with a chance to get a share of the title and it didn’t happen,” remembers DeMorat. “[The 31-13 defeat] was just an horrific feeling. To finish this one like that, was just a complete team victory.”
Lerch thought back to Princeton’s last visit to the Yale Bowl. “Two years earlier, we had gone to Yale on a cold and miserable day and it was disastrously depressing (34-7) life event,” he recalls. “To go back up there when it really mattered and win the game was really redeeming.
“Tufillaro had an amazing day. So did Dykes (earning a game ball with eight tackles, including one for a 13-yard loss) and almost everybody who had worked their asses off to set up a day like that. It was a rewarding experience to have everybody have a great game when it really mattered.”
Aaron Harris thought it was his best day of the season and he had not even played. “Robert Dykes was my roommate,” recalls Harris. “I was very proud of him.”
The coaches were not going to let anybody forget there still was one contest–against Dartmouth at Palmer Stadium with an undisputed title on the line–remaining. Princeton had not won an outright Ivy championship since 1964, its last undefeated season.
“I don’t recall us spending a lot of time celebrating anything,” recalls Foote. “Part of that was Aaron being our captain.
“It had been one more game we had done what we were supposed to do. Outside of being happy anytime we won, we spent more time critiquing the things that went wrong as we did celebrating what went right.”
Not for a second did any Tigers believe there was more pressure on Dartmouth (5-1 Ivy, 7-2 overall) to get a cut of the championship. Just as badly, the Tigers wanted it all to themselves. The seniors hardly had to be reminded that they had yet to beat Dartmouth in their three varsity seasons.
“That (1991) game up there they beat us with the blueprint we wanted to have,” recalls Elias. “I don’t think our team necessarily needed extra motivation about anything. We wanted to win just for the intrinsic value of winning.”
Cornell, Dartmouth’s lone league conqueror, had fallen out of the race with a terrible stumble at 1-5 Columbia. Penn had suffered losses to both Dartmouth and Princeton. Only the Big Green had a chance to make the Tigers share their title.
The Bushnell Cup for the Ivy Player of the Year probably was on the line, too, by either Elias or Jay Fiedler, Dartmouth’s dazzling quarterback.
“Jay had outstanding arm strength, great timing, and sense of anticipation,” recalls Roger Hughes, then the Dartmouth offensive coordinator, later the Princeton head coach.
“We were behind six times at halftime that season and he brought us back. He was the first on the field, the last off, studied film like a professional already and was extremely tough.”
Judging a running back against a quarterback was apples versus oranges, to both Fiedler and Elias. This was all about Princeton versus Dartmouth, the two best Ivy teams of the era.
“There were players during my career that I liked watching from the bench as a fan,” recalls Fiedler. “And Keith was one of them.
“But even though the hype before the game was about the two of us, I never approached things that way.”
There were 24,120 at Palmer Stadium who bought into every angle this contest potentially possessed, Plus, one more: A Tiger defense that had allowed two touchdowns in only one of the last five games faced a Big Green that had been held under 30 points just twice–in its two losses to Cornell and New Hampshire.
“We had a big fullback named Neal Martin, his nickname was the The Diesel and he was a load at 240 pounds,” recalls Hughes. “Princeton was playing a seven-man front to stop the run and put pass pressure on Jay, so we tried to create an extra gap by playing two tight ends.
“If they brought a safety down, we could have Jay throw over the top.”
Fiedler was tops at throwing over the top. “Princeton was going to put some points up on the board; we had to be efficient offensively,” the quarterback recalls.
“We knew their interior rushing defense was very solid. Our game play was to spread them out, get the passing game developed early, get some runs and some options out on the corners to get their defensive linemen running.
“Reggie Harris was a force inside. But the way our offensive line was built with two big time tackles–Lance Brackee and Andy MacDonald–who could block one-on-one, that afforded us the ability to double Reggie on the inside.
“Aaron Harris was a tremendous player, too, but we thought we had enough speed to beat them to the edge and use play action to find some open zones. We knew they had some success with Lerch as a rusher and we had to deal with his speed around the corners. But we had tackles with reaches to get their hands on him and force him upfield around the corner.”
Dartmouth, which had surrendered only 122 yards per game rushing, felt it could concentrate on doubling Lerch, the receiver, without selling out to stopping Elias.
Foote recalls battling his usual pre-game nerves–a good thing, he believes–but Elias? He thought the Big Green had a lot of nerve to even show up. He was waiting for the Dartmouth busses as they pulled in.
“I did that more than once,” Elias recalls. “It sort of started my sophomore year against Colgate, my first home game, when I went into their huddle during the warm-up and said, ‘You might as well go back on your bus because you have already lost. You can’t stop me.”
Hearing much the same thing, shocked and ultimately snickering Dartmouth players restrained themselves from throwing the badly outnumbered opposition star under one of those busses.
“Who do you think you are?” one of them said.
“Let’s see, you know who I am and I have no idea who you are,” said Elias.
“So what does that tell you?”
Recalls Hughes, “I was standing right there. He had been on TV saying some things, our guys said some things back, and he made that comment about not knowing who our guys were.
“I didn’t know then what a tremendous person Keith was, like I learned on our post-season (Ivy League stars) Japan trip, and then, of course, I got to know Keith when I coached at Princeton.
“But at the time I’m thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ We had no bulletin board in the (visiting) locker room, couldn’t put his words up there. But it was more motivation, absolutely.
“We had great respect for what he had accomplished. He put that team on his shoulders. Every time he touched the ball that year he had the ability to go the distance. No disrespect to Princeton’s offensive line, but sometimes it didn’t matter if they blocked, Keith could break two or three tackles and be gone.”
The Big Green came out aggressively, of course. On Princeton’s first offensive play, Lerch was clobbered over the middle on what would have been a first-down catch. After Golden had nailed his 15th kick of the season inside the 20-yard line, Dartmouth, starting its second possession at the eight, began to move.
Greg Hoffmeister gained 20 yards on a reverse. On the option, Fielder ran out of the grasp of the hobbled Aaron Harris for 24. On third-and-14 from the Princeton 26 Fiedler threw over the middle for John Clifford, who bounced off Ducker, ran out of the grasp of Mangene and went in. Dartmouth had gotten a 7-0 jump.
Determined not to be beaten by big plays, the Big Green kicked short, but Lerch picked up the ball on a bounce and get it out to the 40. Foote kept on an option for a first down and the Princeton offense, helped on the following play by a penalty for grabbing Elias’s facemask, was moving.
Elias, cutting over the middle, took a pass away from defender Jim McGeehan and then gained seven more to a first down at the three. But, on a pitch, he took a hit and coughed up the ball and the scoring chance. Mike Holobetz recovered for Dartmouth.
On top of Elias’s two fumbles suffered the previous week in the rout of Yale, he remembered even more the two he had suffered at Dartmouth the previous year. But still trailing 7-0, his teammates picked him up. A Renna sack kept the Big Green on its goalline and thanks to a bad punt, the Tigers started their next series at the enemy 37.
On fourth-and-one, Elias ran up the middle for eight. On third-and-13, Foote risked a throw into coverage of Tufillaro on the goalline. The wideout leaped and could only tip the ball into the air, where Nance, made an alert, but very fortunate, touchdown catch one foot inside the end zone to tie the game 7-7.
Dartmouth drove right back on Fiedler completions of 16 and 34 yards. On first-and-goal at the three, Martin dove and was laying virtually on top of the pile when DeMorat put his helmet on the ball, knocked it loose, and then somehow found it amidst all those bodies. Now both teams had suffered turnovers inside the opposition five.
The bullet dodged, Elias eluded three tackles on a 22-yard run that got the Tigers to midfield, where, on first down, he took a dump-off from Foote and was promptly rocked back by linebacker Chris Doran.
“Hi, my name is Chris,” said Doran, who had not been properly introduced at the Dartmouth bus.
Foote suffered two overthrows, one of Lerch, the other towards Tufillaro. But when Golden punted into the end zone, at least the field position had been reversed. A holding penalty backed Fiedler into a third-and-20 at his own ten. But he drilled the ball just over the hand of Aaron Harris to Clifford, in front of Reid, for a 29-yard gain.
On third-and-nine, Fielder beat Reid along the sideline, then, on a third-and-seven at the Princeton 29, found Martin eluding nickel back Mark Berkowitz. Martin ran through a huge hole to the 11, and then, on an option pitch, Hoffmeister went into the end zone untouched. The drive, eating up 5:02 of the second quarter clock, put Dartmouth ahead 14-7.
With 2:27 to go in half, Tosches was just as intent on keeping the ball out of Fiedler’s hands as Dartmouth coach John Lyons was to prevent Elias from getting hold of it. On a fourth-and-one at the Princeton 44, Tosches went for it and Foote made it. The quarterback then took an unsuccessful shot deep to a well-covered Lerch, but Elias converted a third-and-ten on a well-executed draw.
Nevertheless, a rushed Foote had to throw away a first down pass, was hit on second down as he tried to find Bailey, and had a third-down pass for Lerch in the back of the end zone batted down. Too far away for a field goal, Tosches went for it again on fourth down, but Foote overthrew Nance along the sideline. Dartmouth’s 14-7 lead held through the intermission.
Happening upon Princeton assistants in the press box bathroom before the third quarter kickoff, Hughes recalls marveling with them at the pace and competitiveness of the contest. “You are talking about two of the premier players in Ivy League history on the field in one game,” he says today.
Elias didn’t want to be remembered as the other guy. On the second play from scrimmage of the third quarter, he followed his usual right-side escorts – Bailey Theiss and Stilley–leaped one tackle, broke another, and then stiff-armed a determined Holobetz, who dove in vain for Elias’s feet at the five yard line.
The electrifying 58-yard run, Elias’s 17th touchdown of the season, tied the Princeton record of Walt Snickenberger ’75. More important, it deadlocked the game 14-14.
“We’re in for a battle,” Fiedler recalls telling his teammates, just in case Dartmouth students weren’t smart enough by then to figure that out for themselves.
All they really had to know, though, was that if Princeton had Whatshisname, the Big Green had Fiedler. On the second snap of the next possession, the quarterback used play action to freeze an increasingly-less effective Tiger pass rush and drilled the ball to Matt Brzica, inside Reed, to the Princeton 40.
“We played zone all the time, when I always thought we were in position to man up on those guys,” recalls Reed. “I got frustrated having to come off receivers running a go route and come up on the guy running a 20-yard curl.
“With Fiedler throwing, the ball got there so fast. You had to do what you could, hope somebody made a play or he threw a bad pass, but I don’t think he threw a bad pass all game. He was so much better at knowing where the hole in the zone was going to be than any other quarterback we faced.”
Hoffmeister ran for 11 to the 29, and then drew a pass interference call on Ducker at the 18. Four runs later, Fiedler went in untouched on an option and Dartmouth had answered Elias’s run to go back up 21-14.
“Back and forth, it was living up to the hype,” recalls Fiedler.
On the next series, a holding penalty backed up the Tigers first-and-20 at their ten but another draw to Elias got back ten of the yards. Dartmouth was penalized for hitting Lerch out of bounds. Two Elias runs, plus a roll-and-throw by Foote to Tufillaro got the ball to the Dartmouth 34.
More hard work by Elias–a reception and a run through three more tacklers–moved Princeton ever closer in addition to moving Tosches and Susan to go to Hamilton for a few plays to freshen up their star. The Dartmouth defense looked more fatigued than Elias. Hamilton broke two tackles to the 14, then bulled on the next play to the 10.
The first-down play, a pitch to Elias, was supposed to go wide. But he came to a virtual stop and ran out of a grasp. Staying on his feet as another defender hit him low, the running back stumbled forward into the end zone, a ten-yard touchdown run as spectacular as the 58-yarder that had preceded it.
As he limped off with a hip pointer, Elias recalls thinking. “Tied. Again.” And then it wasn’t. Hogg, nine-for-16 on field goals for the season, but 23-for-24 on PAT’s, hooked this one right. “We had worked so hard to get it tied, I thought that drained us,” remembers Elias.
Not all his teammates recall being so let down. “I didn’t feel like that,” remembers Theiss. “I just figured next touchdown, we go for two.”
But down 21-20 with 5:56 to go in the third quarter, the Tigers first needed to get a stop. Thanks to a Brophy sack, a Dartmouth personal foul penalty, and a rush by Brown that disrupted Fielder as he threw, Princeton forced a punt, a short one that started the offense at the Dartmouth 44. Bailey ran a dump-off pass to the 24 and a first down. But a false start and a sack took the Tigers out of field goal range and they had to punt.
Thanks to a huge third-down play by Ducker–he ran through a block to tackle Devon Arsenault a yard short–the Tigers held once more and Lyon decided to punt as the third quarter ended. But on third-and-three, Gerry LaMontagne ran over Princeton guard Scott Miller to overwhelm Foote before he could exercise his option and Princeton had to boot it away once more.
Dartmouth started to move again. Hoffmeister got outside containment for 17 yards. On a third-and-seven, Lerch went into the game for a kill but Fiedler rolled away and, throwing across his body, found Clifford, again on Reid’s side, for a first down.
Fiedler says he cannot remember a strategy of picking on Reid, but it was clear that was the Big Green’s intent. “You had an all-conference corner on one side (Reed) and a sophomore on the other,” recalls Harriman. “It’s what anybody would do.”
On the next completion, neither Reid nor Ducker was within four yards of Clifford when Fiedler delivered a first down at the nine. Nobody was helping inside Reed when Fielder hit Brzica on a crossing pattern for the touchdown. But on a two-point conversion attempt, the quarterback’s least well-thrown ball of the day sailed too high for Hoffmeister in the flat.
Princeton not only still was very much alive, down 27-20,with 9:01 remaining, but also quickly back in business when Mark Ross ran back the short kickoff 38 yards to the Dartmouth 48.
Elias, playing with a painful hip, went over 200 yards with a conversion on third-and-two. But he was buried four yards short of the line of scrimmage and the drive broke down badly. A chased Foote missed Tufillaro and the pocket totally collapsed on third down, forcing another punt.
There was 8:06 to play as Dartmouth started at its 24. Harris, who had missed a series, limped back in for what figured to be the Tigers’ last stand.
Martin picked his way for five. Ducker shot through on a blitz, beat his block easily and forced Hoffmeister to fumble, but the ball didn’t bounce far and the running back recovered it quickly.
Ducker rose clenching his fists near his head. “I was two yards the other way,” he recalls. “But somebody else coming in would have fallen on it for us.
“I remember it vividly, thought about it a lot for ten years. Another missed opportunity.”
Dartmouth faced third-and-13, time for Lerch. But again Fiedler rolled left and got the ball away in time over the middle to Brzica, a yard in front of Reid for a first down.
Fielder kept for another first down and Martin carried for two more. “We changed it up a little with (Hoffmeister) sweeps, just to keep them honest, but the bulk of that drive was Martin off tackle left, then off tackle right,” recalls Fiedler. “By the time we crossed midfield, we knew our running game was going to have success. We were wearing them down.”
On the opposite bench, the offense watched with growing exasperation. “I remember feeling helpless,” recalls Tufillaro. “We had weapons that were being kept off the field.”
With the clock under four minutes, Tosches started to call time outs, trying to save a tiring defense and buy time for a comeback. On a second-and-six at the Princeton 30, Fiedler started to roll, but the whistle blew as Dartmouth had put a twelfth man on the field. The walk off and automatic loss of down put the Big Green in third-and-20 at the Princeton 45, Fiedler’s worst third-down dilemma yet. But, to the quarterback, the first option was not to pick up some yards to make fourth down, or a field goal, manageable.
“We did have some underneath crossers in the playbook, but in those situations I was always looking for the opportunity to make the first-down play,” recalls Fiedler.
“Third-and-twenty is not something you come across that often. But on third-and-10 or third-and-12, we had a staple play to Brzica, a tremendous receiver who could go across the middle with no fear.”
This time, Harriman did not insert Lerch. The rush was minimal as Fiedler dropped straight back and fired just over the outstretched hand of Harris to Brzica five yards in front of Reid and Ducker. The Dartmouth receiver ran four yards to make the chains by two at the Princeton 23.
“A curl route, just like the last one, 20 yards downfield,” recalls DeMorat. “He was different than the other quarterbacks we played against, had throws with extra zip to get it into a small window.”
Remembers Harriman. “Maybe we were thinking, bend but don’t break. Against him, it wasn’t the right mindset.”
The ninth third-down conversion in 13 attempts by Dartmouth in the game was the fifth one from 13 yards or more.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that, against Fiedler, we were better off at third-and-one than third-and-20,” recalls Elias. “Really. On third-and-one, there was at least a chance they would run.”
Dartmouth did from there. Martin went up the middle for seven, then another seven for a first down. At the six, he seemed stopped for no gain but kept driving, carrying seemingly half the defense into the end zone with 53 seconds remaining.
It turned that the third-and-13 and third-and-20 were the only passes Fiedler threw on The Drive, as the 14-play, 76-yard masterpiece is remembered in Hanover. In moving to the putaway touchdown of its 34-20 victory, Dartmouth had eaten up 7:13 and the Tigers’ hearts.
“It was the top, or top two, games of my college career,” recalls Fielder, who went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL. “Probably, it was first because it meant a championship,”
Remembers Hughes. “Each team used every club in its bag, hit every shot they practiced. Being able to finish it the way we did, with the pressure of having to win to get a championship, was tremendously gratifying.”
Despite Elias’s 212 yards, the Big Green, Ivy League champions for a third-straight season (two shared), had outgained Princeton on the ground, 266 to 263. Fielder had thrown for 272 yards against Foote’s 98. And the mostly double-teamed Lerch had been held without a catch on minimal balls thrown his way.
“It was frustrating because I did not get involved,” he recalls. “I don’t think we played our best game; certainly I didn’t.
“We showed up. They just had a better game that day. It still sucks to lose. There was no silver lining to it, losing at home, losing the last game, and ending in a tie with the team that beat you. And that was the last game I ever played, except for some all-star games.
Recalls Aaron Harris, another senior, “To me, it wasn’t so much the loss as it was the end.
“A thing unique to Princeton is that we felt a little ostracized because we were only here because we played football. That brought us closer together. So, yeah there was a sense that Fiedler was good and would play in the pros and we got beat by a better guy, but also a sense that I don’t get to play with Jim Renna or Keith Elias anymore.
“Keith was the only guy who was going to play pro. I had come to the end of something I had dedicated myself to for four years, something we had all been doing since we were little kids.
Compound that with a loss, it was a tough day.”
Probably in part because Elias had another year to go, he took it less hard. “It didn’t hurt,” he says. “I felt like they just beat us.
“A year later, against Penn, we had eight fumbles and lost. I want to play that game again. But Dartmouth, you tipped your hat. It was my favorite game that I was ever on the wrong side of.”
Intellectually, his teammates agreed. But it didn’t salve the pain. It would take time for them to appreciate their share of the title.
“We certainly didn’t feel like Ivy League champions,” recalls Theiss. “I was really bummed out.
“Twenty-five year later, we look at ourselves as co-champions. We have the rings to make it official, so it’s not as much of a gut punch. But it hurt. When you put it all out there and it’s just not enough, that’s a bitter taste.”
Asked how long it took him to get over it, Beiswenger says, “I don’t know if I am yet. Keith was amazing and we felt we were that good, in position to play with anybody.”
Recalls Tufillaro, “Dartmouth turned out to be the one team we didn’t beat in my three varsity years. That is one of my deepest regrets.”
To this day, Harriman admits he still thinks about calls he could have made and instructions he somehow could have made clearer. “I wouldn’t say I’m haunted, just do it occasionally,” he says. “It was an opportunity to get a rare undisputed championship.”
A Silver Lining on the Silver Anniversary
Tosches, who would go on to get another shared title in 1995, was always big picture in outlook and told his players to concentrate on the same. “It was a bitter defeat, but that’s the way it was,” he says. “No playoff, no broken tie. We got rings and moved on.
“We went on the road recruiting the next month and boasted that we won an Ivy League championship, the same way everybody does who ties.”
A large number of the 1992 Tigers, maybe the most talented Princeton team of the Ivy League era, earned post-season honors. Elias became Princeton’s first All-American since Charlie Gogolak and Stas’ Maliszewski in 1965.
Lerch, Elias, Theiss, Aaron Harris, Reggie Harris and Ducker were voted first-team All-Ivy by the league coaches. Beiswenger, Lombard, Stilley, DeMorat and Reed were named second team and Bailey and Renna were honorable mentions. The 11 first- and-second-team members were the most in Princeton history and remained so until the 2013 team placed 13.
Three nights after the Dartmouth loss, following a rain postponement of two days, the victories over Harvard and Yale were celebrated with only the seventh Princeton bonfire in the 36 years since the Ivy League was formed. “I expected some little campfire,” recalls Ducker. “Wow.”
But some of the players remember that the student body enjoyed the event more than they did.
“It felt strange to me that there was a second title,” recalls Elias. “I didn’t really buy into it; thought it was just one more thing I had to go to.
“It wasn’t until we had another one my senior year that I realized what an awesome tradition it is, something that was going to go on long after me. Senior year I took in every moment. There are classes that don’t get to do this.”
Indeed, it was just the fifth Ivy title in Princeton history. There have been four since.
“As time goes on you realize how difficult it is, how few players get a piece of it,” says Reed. “It is special, just took a while until it felt that way.”
Most of the players contacted for this series say they have rarely worn their rings. Beiswenger’s was stolen in a 1988 break-in to his Cleveland home, but the football office connected him with Jostens, the manufacturer, so it could be remade. “And I still don’t wear it much,” he says. ”Maybe my son will be interested in doing that long after I am gone.
“I think about that Dartmouth game and it still burns. But there is a pride in winning a championship that nobody can take away from you. My daughter just lost a state championship basketball game as a sophomore. I keep telling her what an amazing accomplishment it is just to play in a championship game.”
Lerch counts two Princeton titles, one as a freshman (his ’93 class was the next-to-last to be ineligible for the varsity), another as a senior.
”If you can walk away with that, then you contributed to an amazing history of players like (Dick) Kazmaier, Cosmo (Iacavazzi) and Jason Garrett.” Lerch says. “My senior class represented itself well, on and off the field at Princeton, and in society for the last 25 years. I count that, not my touchdowns. That’s what Princeton is supposed to be about.”
Says Tufillaro, “When I go to Princeton Stadium with my three sons, we look at the banner in the corner and see ‘1992.’ There isn’t that many years up there, although it is growing. That banner is the kind of thing that helps it sink in. You know you are in elite company when, in the grand tradition of Princeton football, you still are one of a relatively small number.”
The 1992 team made big plays, but won just as much on their large hearts and oversized dedication.
“As you reached out, I was thinking about the characteristics of the team and what made it what it was,” says Beiswenger. ”I don’t know how others feel, but to me there was very much a workmanlike ethic.
“Ours was not the closest class. When the new stadium opened (in 1998) I went back for the game. When everybody marched onto the field I was the only one there from ’93. There have been others of us who have shown up for other events, sure. But that was weird, to have a championship team and still be so unconnected.
“JC Stilley was a dear friend and I have not talked to him in 10-15 years. Tuff, Reed, Theiss–I have been in touch with those guys but, surprisingly, it is not a tight class. The junior guys (’94) were much tighter, I believe. But that 1992 team still was successful because it was all business.
“We had guys who were leaders, what you would expect at Princeton. Aaron and Chris were very quiet but there were other leaders in each position group that made guys step up, help the sophomores get better. A diffuse leadership group made that team what it was.”
Asks Lerch: “Were you a good teammate? Did you set good examples for the younger guys? What did the sophomores think of me as a senior? Was I just trying to do my own thing or facilitating their development? The guys on our team were very good at that and that’s not always the case.
“We had seniors who had spent their lives getting to a certain point on the field only to have it taken away from them when Keith came along as a sophomore. It didn’t affect their attitude. The guys I played with were good teammates, mentors and people.”
As one of their coaches, Harriman says he felt that ethic everyday. “I don’t remember there being one time coming off the field thinking, ‘We didn’t practice well,’ he recalls. “There was an extreme commitment.
“There were a lot of diverse personalities. But when it came to caring about football they were a fantastic group.”