BY JAY GREENBERG
Princeton needs more help to win a share of the Ivy League title than Penn likely is capable of providing against Harvard next week. But as the Tigers have fallen from the giddy heights of a miraculous win over Harvard to beating themselves twice in two weeks, it has become exceedingly clear that they have not fully learned how to help themselves.
Having overcome in just the first half:
a) A Jason Tiemeier high snap on a point after touchdown; b) a 53-yard runback of the subsequent kickoff, a blocked Nolan Bieck field goal; and c) a drive-killing facemask penalty on Joe Goss that wiped out a fourth-and-one conversion at the Penn 21, the Tigers thought to the end they still were going to beat Pennsylvania for the first time in six years; they just didn’t know how to seal the deal.
With Princeton holding a 21-14 lead and nine minutes remaining, Dre Nelson broke two tackles on an 18-yard run that put the ball at the Penn 23. As shaky as had been the kicking game, it looked like the Tigers might not need it to put Penn in a very bad position, if not quite put the game away. But on the next play Connor Michelsen, throwing off his back foot, went for the end zone and an open Roman Wilson and Penn’s David Twamley picked off the ball on the goalline.
Penn was still two scores away from its 28-21 win on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium, but everything changed on that interception.
“Will Powers had cramps, we were down three running backs,” said Bob Surace about the decision to throw. “And Connor underthrew it.”
The Tiger defense, playing the entire game without Caraun Reid, who suffered an undisclosed injury at Cornell, nevertheless forced one more stop after that, giving the Princeton offense one more chance for redemption. But starting from the Princeton 19, Michelsen’s quick pass off a three-step drop was batted into the air by a blitzing Daniel Ritt and C.J. Mooney caught the ball and ran it in.
Despite the Tigers doing nothing with their next possession, despite Joe Cloud punting for only 28 yards, the defense still was off the field again on Penn’s next possession, until it wasn’t. On third-and-three at the Penn 39, Lyle Marsh dropped a swing pass and Alex Polofsky still took four steps to unnecessarily pound Marsh into the ground and draw an unnecessary roughness penalty.
“Sure we would have punted,” said Penn coach Al Bagnoli. And for certain, just like a far more questionable roughing-the-passer call on Mike Catapano was the harbinger of doom against Georgetown, an opponent had been placed back into the driver’s seat.
Quarterback Billy Ragone ran for 17 and 11 yards for two first downs and then, from third-and-goal at the three, waltzed in against a Tiger defense with zero outside containment.
The Tigers still had 2:55 and two timeouts remaining. Two first-down passes to Wilson and one to Des Smith had Princeton at the Penn 6 when Steve Lias caught Michelsen’s arm as he cocked and Brandon Copeland recovered the fumble. The last of the air from the breathtaking Harvard win was out of the balloon.
“Obviously there is a lot of disappointment in our locker room,” said Surace. “We had some unfortunate errors that have to be corrected.
“We’re young. With Kevin Mill and Mark Hayes out, Tom Moak and Shane Wilkinson are our only seniors. Connor and Quinn (Epperly) are going through stuff that maybe Billy Ragone went through 3-4 years ago.
“I love Ragone, he runs their offense so well, runs it like an experienced guy. I think our guys will get to that.”
Michelsen, the first-year starter who had been thrown only three interceptions in his first six games, now has five in the last two weeks. With Chuck Dibilio not playing this season, Di Andre Atwater out and a good chunk of Akil Sharp’s season taken by an ankle sprain, the running game has been effective only in short spurts, leaving the Tigers throwing a lot and well but ultimately the last two weeks, not well enough to overcome errors both mental and physical.
Last week at Cornell, with the Tigers driving to extend the lead to at least four and perhaps eight, the freshman Nelson fumbled away a potential putaway drive. This week a high pitch by Nelson on an end-around to Wilson ended a Tiger fourth-quarter drive before it could start.
It’s not just the kids making mistakes, though. In addition to another high snap by senior Jason Tiemeier on the PAT, he also sent a wobbler than forced Nolan Bieck to hesitate before the block that kept the Tigers from going in at the half with the lead.
“Hard one to swallow,” said Phil Bhaya, whose 44-yard interception return set up the first Tiger touchdown. It was the only turnover Princeton forced, and the penalties were terribly timed and self-defeating.
“Maybe I’m not clear enough on my points,” said Surace. “I had warned them about all the taunting and personal fouls that Penn commits. Alex cannot put himself in that position.”
The less you have been on the field, the more excited you are going to become, the more possibility you will do the wrong thing at the wrong time. The Tigers have two winnable games left at Yale and against Dartmouth to get to 6-4, which would be awfully good coming off 1-9 in consecutive years. But in the most painful one yet of six straight losses to Penn, it became clear that worst-to-first is too much, too soon.
Surace said he expects Reid, who didn’t dress, back at practice Sunday. He has a chance to play at Yale Saturday. “I was hardly disappointed,” said Bagnoli about Reid’s absence. “You lose a dominant kid, obviously, it has an impact." . . . Mark Hayes has a subluxed shoulder and will be questionable for Yale. His replacement, junior Des Smith, had a big catch and run to set up first and goal on the Tiger’s final drive, but also took two penalties.