BY JAY GREENBERG
In will be a long 42 weeks for Princeton to reflect on being overmatched by all three of the teams that took the Ivy League race to Week 10. But the reality is the Tigers need every working day of it.
It won’t take any re-dedication to get them back into contention for the title won outright this season by 10-0 Harvard, just more luck with injuries and more development, particularly along a young and talented defensive line.
Expectations for 2014, mostly fueled by having an incumbent league offensive player of the year returning at quarterback, proved too high, especially considering the entire defensive front had to be replaced, but there is nothing wrong with keeping that bar elevated. Greater standards once lifted this program from a 2-18 start by this regime and it certainly can again from 5-5, but confidences have to be built and so does depth.
Perhaps only against Colgate, a non-league contest lost by a point, would one or two plays have brought the 2014 Tigers another win. Otherwise, they won the games where in talent and in record they were superior and lost the ones – like Saturday’s 41-10 defeat by Dartmouth on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium-- where they simply weren’t good enough.
|Princeton Was Able Control the Game in the First Half, But Ultimately Let it Run Away in the Second Half|
“We can make all the excuses, but a 5-5 fourth place team is what we are in a really good league,” said Bob Surace. “And we have to really improve on a number of things.”
Back to the weight room the players will go the Monday after Thanksgiving while Surace hits the road recruiting and pondering what has to change.
“As we move forward and get some time to think about what we have to do better, on the list is getting our guys to be more exact,” said the coach.
“You can throw all the excuses -- we were injured or there was an officials call -- but the bottom line is a lot of those explosive plays we gave up, turnovers we weren’t able to force, I didn’t get our standards up to the level needed against teams as tremendously talented as these teams.
“We played two tremendous teams in Dartmouth and Harvard and a very, very good one in Yale.”
Princeton had the weapons on both sides of the ball to play with them all a year ago. But an entire D-line graduated before a returning first-team all Ivy offensive lineman, Spenser Huston, was lost for the season; the best running back (DiAndre Atwater) missed three games; and the most dynamic downfield threat (Seth DeValve) was absent for eight while Quinn Epperly sat out three contests and limped his way through the finish line.
With no defense-stretching downfield threat, and Epperly’s run-reads compromised by his health, the offense that broke Ivy League records a year ago was reduced to bubble screens, throwbacks, quick outs and shovel passes that this season would produce five or six yards at best on most occasions. The smoke and mirrors worked a lot better when Princeton had big play threats and when well-coached athletic defenses like Harvard’s and Dartmouth’s had not had one more year of Princeton's film to study to learn not to be fooled.
“They were a little banged up up-front, too (Princeton lost starting offensive tackle Britt Colcolough in the second quarter),” said Dartmouth defensive end Evan Chrustic. “A lot of their stuff relies on people biting on fakes and stuff like that so you have to make sure all 11 guys are on the same page.”
The Big Green, which held Princeton to 228 total yards, only 125 in the air, was too smart to bite and too big, strong and quick to move.
“We obviously were compromised a lot on the offensive line against that defensive front, but it was even tougher sledding than I expected,” said Surace. “We lost the line of scrimmage today, that’s very disheartening.
“We always have had trouble with them because they are big and strong but the athleticism they showed in their pass rush the last few weeks has made them the equal, if not better than, Harvard.”
The Tigers longest pass play Saturday was a 21-yarder from Connor Michelsen to Matt Costello. The longest run was 20 yards by Joe Rhattigan.
“We lost the battle of explosive plays week after week,” said Surace. Without DeValve and with Epperly far less than his best, Princeton needed all three downs to move the chains and nine or ten almost perfectly-executed plays to score. It was awfully tough sledding.
Surace and his staff can coach exactness for two hours of every practice and they do. But the speed to break plays on offense was gone and despite opportunities, few game-changers were made by the defense, particularly against the better offenses.
Dartmouth’s superlative quarterback, Dalyn Williams, had to lead Bo Patterson, stride for stride with Jakobi Johnson, perfectly to produce a 58-yard touchdown pass on the first possession, but once again a play wasn’t made on the ball, a year-long recurring pattern that went well beyond a nickel back like Johnson.
On Dartmouth’s second touchdown, Ryan McManus was lost in the back end of the end zone on what appeared to be a blown coverage, after Williams had all the time he needed to inevitably break that coverage down. The first of freshman Kurt Holuba’s two sacks of Williams was one of very few this season that didn’t result from a blitz.
That was the season in nutshell: Not enough pass rush, begging too many blown coverages, leading to third down and fourth down and red zone conversions. The secondary, which returns every starter in 2015 that performed so much better in 2013, must improve on what they showed in 2014 and Surace vowed it would.
“We lost (free safety) Phil Bhaya (to graduation),” said Surace. “I probably didn’t account for that as much as I should have.
“He was tremendous getting them organized back there. We weren’t as organized back there as we should have been.
“That unit has so much pride and guts. We will get that fixed, no question in my mind.
“We knew the defensive line was going to be young. That group is going to be tremendous next year. They are such a good group of workers, my expectations are sky high for them and we will be back to the days when we were really good up front on the defensive line.”
Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale all got better this season. Princeton regressed in many areas, one of them being good fortune. The Tigers, incredibly healthy a year ago, probably were pushing their luck.
“Last year we played Yale without Varga, this year they had him and we were missing some guys,” said Surace. “You can go on and on and on but you have to find a way to overcome that.
“At the end of the day nobody wants to see excuses. Whether it’s building a deeper team or getting guys more reps from the beginning of camp, it’s all those things.”
There is a lot with which to look forward, perhaps some consolation to the seniors who at least leave with a ring on their fingers, the best memento possible for their huge roles in elevating this program to the point where 5-5 was a huge disappointment.
“It’s emotional now because of them,” said Surace. “Guys like Mike Zeuli (16 tackles, two for losses Saturday), Quinn, (Connor) Michelsen, Connor Kelley and Will Powers and the list goes on and on, they have given their all for this program.
“For what they have given to it, the disappointment is mostly for them.”