BY JAY GREENBERG
At the end of Turnaround Year, the Tigers arrived at the corner of Winning and Non-Losing with one arm, quarterback Connor Michelsen’s, tied behind their backs. After only three plays Saturday, when Quinn Epperly suffered an apparent separated throwing shoulder, they were practically down to no arms at all.
Thus their best remaining weapon, after the shovel pass, would have been the head butt, even if—no ifs ands or buts about it—a ghastly series of mistakes evaporated a 14-0 second-quarter lead into 35-21 loss to Dartmouth on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.
Nevertheless, the Tigers were doomed almost from the start. Michelsen, saying he was good enough to go, tried to lie his way into the game but the statistics told the ultimate truth: Dartmouth (6-4, 3-3) almost doubled the time of possession (39:35 to 20:25) and ran 32 more plays, which was far more than the Tigers could afford to give Dartmouth quarterback Dalyn Williams, even if they made some second half stops to keep the game from turning into an humiliation.
“He’s a great player, making throws while getting dragged to the ground,” said Mike Catapano, who had two sacks, three-and-half tackles for losses, and multiple tips of the hat for the freshman Big Green quarterback. Williams threw for 284 yards and ran for another 82 while the Tigers, playing catch-up, had no real means to overcome their errors.
Epperly hung in there into the first series of the fourth quarter, when he threw a lollypop five yards short of Shane Wilkinson, picked off by Garrett Waggoner.
”You saw it, he had nothing on it,” said Coach Bob Surace. “I should have made the adult decision and let Kedric (Bostic) play more.”
But the freshman struggled, too, until putting together an 8-play 73-yard drive, which he capped with a 9-yard run off an impressive play fake. Surace’s second-guess notwithstanding, there weren’t enough throws in Tiger arms yesterday to get into a fair fight with Williams, who was mercilessly harassed by Caraun Reid and Catapano and still exploited freshmen corners Matt Arends and Anthony Gaffney on two bombs in the course of throwing for three touchdowns.
“Cat chased that sucker all over the field, like Rocky (Balboa) chasing [chickens] and couldn’t get him down enough,” said Surace. “He is so quick and can throw the ball.
“Hope he goes pro or we have to play him for three more years.”
It shouldn’t take the Tigers, who finished at 5-5 after consecutive 1-9 seasons, three more years to end a losing streak—it became three games Saturday—to Dartmouth.
“We made some dramatic improvement,” said Catapano. “Everybody thought we would be last in the league, we had to overcome a lot and we fought every play. That’s what I am most proud of.”
Thus there was considerable consolation in a first non-losing season in six, but according to senior captains Catapano and Andrew Starks, none at all in Penn hanging on to beat Cornell, 35-28 to win an Ivy League title that the Tigers might have shared with a win and a Quaker loss. Winning yesterday would not have gotten Princeton any better than second.
“I didn’t even know what time that game (in Ithaca) started,” said Starks. “To be honest with you, we just wanted to win this last game.
“[Penn’s loss] doesn’t relieve any of the [disappointment] right now.”
Starks was asked if he still felt like attending Saturday night’s bonfire to celebrate the wins over Yale and Harvard.
“We really don’t have any choice but to want to go to the bonfire,” he said. “This campus and this community have looked forward too much to this to not go out there and enjoy this thing.
“It would be a slap in the face the support they gave us, just be wrong. This is a way to finish out the four years of the senior class. You don’t want to lose a game, especially your last one, but we have to a quick bounce back and go out there and have a good time with the guys tonight for the last time.”
The 24 seniors, who lost 24 of their first 30 games, all-but one member of the coaching staff that recruited them, and three good players to life-threatening conditions in their four years at Princeton, want to be remembered as the class that turned the program back around. That’s will be up to the three underclasseses of course. But for a while it had looked like these Tigers might do even better than a move to middle, actually go from worst to first.
Four straight wins in midseason and Harvard’s second loss last week lost had built a case that Princeton, which had won a cliffhanger over the Crimson and dropped two toughies to Cornell and Penn to come into the final game at 4-2, were as good as anybody in the league. But not with two crippled quarterbacks.
“We lose our right handed quarterback the game before and then we lose our left-handed quarterback the third play of the game, just couldn’t overcome those things,” said Surace. “We needed to have a bigger lead at halftime.”
Epperly, who took a painkiller after getting hit on a run in the initial series, completed two roll-and-throws to wide open Shane Wilkinson and Tom Moak and then ran the ball in himself from the four to stake Princeton to a 7-0 lead. Seth DeValve’s punt block, bounced perfectly up into the hands of freshman John Hill, who ran it in from 23 yards to make it 14-0. But the joy didn’t even last through the extra point.
An overly enthusiastic Starks ran onto the field to celebrate, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was tacked on to the kickoff, and even getting called for an illegal block call didn’t keep Dartmouth from decent field position. A tipped pass thrown to a short guy landed in the hands of the long guy, Victor Williams, which with the aid of a roughing the passer penalty on Greg Sotereanos, set up a 7-yard touchdown pass to Justin Foley. The lead was cut in half.
Epperly, with more guts than velocity, found Wilkinson for 22 yards on a fourth-and-two and then ran the ball to the two on second down. But Alex Powell, in the game at tight end because senior starter Mark Hayes would miss his final game with a torn knee ligament suffered at practice, got called for a hold.
“I guess nobody holds our two NFL D-linemen on running plays but we get called,” said Surace sarcastically. On third-and-goal at the 17, Epperly nevertheless almost made it, only to get bent back at the two and have to come off the field again. The Tigers decided to settle for three and didn’t even get that when Jason Tiemeier again mis-snapped, this one high over the head of holder Tom Moak.
“He had done such a good job for three years, continues to be so good in practice, it’s shocking when that happens,” said Surace. “Even if we wanted to make a change our backup, Sotereanos, had an elbow injury and was out of the game.’
Catapano sacked Williams to foil a Dartmouth drive right before the half, but 14-7 did not feel nearly as good as 21-7 or even 17-7 would have. The Tigers unraveled stunningly in the third quarter.
On the first possession, Dominick Pierre made two yards on fourth down at the Dartmouth 46. And just one play later, Williams threw a lateral pass to Ryan McManus, Arends abandoned deep responsibilities and Bo Peterson was 20 yards behind any Tiger for a 54-yard touchdown that with the conversion tied the game.
From there Princeton had just three touches before Dartmouth was up 28-14. Epperly fumbled to set up a 53-yard touchdown drive, Will Powers coughed up the ensuing kickoff, and Dartmouth converted again from just 25 yards out.
“Will Powers didn’t fumble because we didn’t have a quarterback,” said Surace. “The bad snap has nothing to do with Quinn playing hurt.
“Nobody really cares that Mark Hayes wasn’t playing but the coaches. We have to make plays.”
The Tigers made many this year to improve by four wins, plenty to promise that the worst is over, but not enough to get a cut of the title or have a winning season. Ultimately, however, the losses against Penn and Cornell were more haunting than this one. Catapano said that bonfire ignited at Cannon Green was symbolic of more than just wins this season over Harvard and Yale, but the re-lighting of the program.
“It’s great to win historic games,” he said. “Obviously today stinks but we’ll light it up and use it as a burning drive for these guys for next year.”
RT Kevin Mill, who never returned after Princeton’s first play of the Harvard game, will need knee surgery. “I spent 38 seconds this week talking about the bonfire,” said Surace. “We were focused on Dartmouth and our guys played very hard. I told them I was proud of them.”