BY JAY GREENBERG
NEW YORK -- As if to erase fears, two years old and fast building again, that another Princeton football season was going downhill fast, freshman Anthony Gaffney took the opening kick off at the six-yard line and headed upfield like a guy unencumbered by the past.
“We practice special teams a lot,” said Gaffney. “And we felt we were ready for a big play.
“I saw a lane open up and everybody held their blocks.”
Gaffney ran 94 yards down the left sideline untouched by any Columbia Lion, by consecutive 1-9 Princeton seasons, past any doubt that finally, the Tigers were going to have their day.
“Great way to start the game,” he understated. Outrunning the last defender with his back turned to a Princeton bench going berserk with joy, Gaffney really had no idea just how great.
There remained 59:46, when much could go wrong for a team that too often has made a habit of it. But not Saturday at Wien Stadium. With a defense that held Columbia to only 39 yards rushing, that had two interceptions (both by Gaffney), that limited Columbia’s dangerous senior quarterback Sean Brackett to a couple of successful big first half screen pass gains that were desperate attempts to slow a relentless Princeton rush, the Tigers recorded their first win of the season with a cathartic 33-6 romp.
"It's one thing to say we can actually do it, another to go out and do it,” said Captain Mike Catapano. “It just feels so good.
“That first play set the tone for the whole game, gets the juices going and takes some pressure off, too. Now, we can play our game.”
So far the Tigers have won just the one game they have the past three seasons, which they also had recorded by Game Three in 2010 and 2011. One of their touchdowns was scored on the kickoff return, the other on a second touchdown pass in two weeks by holder Tom Moak (to tight end Des Smith) out of another bad Jason Tiemeier snap.
Despite the 33 points, a Tiger offense still prone to stopping itself on promising drives left on the field too many points that probably would have come back to haunt them against a better opponent.
Then again, maybe not, considering the way a defense that held ranked Lehigh scoreless in the second half, that probably would have put away Georgetown but for a marginal roughing the passer call against Catapano on the excruciating final drive, performed here. The Tigers played Saturday like a unit coming into full realization of just how good it can be.
Even after Coach Bob Surace called off the dogs and put in the second team, Elijah Mitchell recorded two sacks that foiled Columbia’s last possession. The defense, that made Brackett throw under pressure all day, that forced Lion receivers into some hearing-footsteps drops, never let up.
For almost three quarters it appeared it wasn’t going to be permitted any letup, too.
The Tigers never got much running game going. They also stopped themselves on 1) first-half drops by Shane Wilkinson and Seth DeValve, 2) on a false start, 3) on an interception at the Columbia 28 on a ball Connor Michelsen never should have thrown, one play after passing up a wide open Des Smith for a too-well covered DeValve in the end zone, and 4) a Di Andre Atwater fumble at the Columbia 23 killed another opportunity set up by the first Gaffney interception.
But behind Quinn Epperly, who replaced Michelsen after the early third-quarter interception, an 80-yard drive kept alive with a third-and-five completion to DeValve turned into the only real offensive touchdown of the day. Roman Wilson, 10 yards behind the last defender, scored it on a 44-yard Epperly touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.
Freshman kicker Nolan Bieck, inconsolable after missing his first three collegiate field goal attempts in the 21-20 loss to Georgetown, bounced back beautifully with a four-for-four from 34, 20, 29 and 24 yards.
“I’ll admit for the first one I was a little shaky,” smiled Bieck. “Once I got that first one out of the way...
“One of the best attributes of a kicker, as they say, is a short memory.”
That also goes for long snappers. After setting off a second “Fire!” drill in two weeks on what was supposed to be Bieck’s first attempt, (from 31) Tiemeier also fought off his yips. One subsequent snap was a little high, but workable for Moak. And the others were perfect, as they were to Joe Cloud for his punts, too.
“I called Jason over said ‘we’re going to need you,” said Coach Bob Surace. “ You are such a good player, take deep breaths, and settle down. And he did.”
That would be one major anxiety the Tigers may have put behind them Saturday. The secondary, too, seems to be a work in fast progress, which still leaves quarterback.
Not all the problems of Michelsen (11-for-19, 109 yards) were of his doing, but his first interception of the year – allowing Marquel Carter to jump a Connor Kelley sideline route -- was excusable only for the reason of the sophomore signal caller’s inexperience.
“We had a nice lead and probably were going to focus a little more on the run,” said Surace about the quarterback change. “Quinn does such a good job on those [43 yards on six rollouts] and broke some tackles.
“Other than the one [Michelsen interception] and one [Michelsen] threw incomplete [in the end zone with Smith wide open for a first down deep in Columbia territory] we made good decisions.”
The best one made was by a coach not hesitating to find ways to use a freshman who is the team’s best all-around athlete. Gaffney jumped one route on one interception, was the beneficiary of a tip on the second, and had himself a day, as did all the Tigers at last.
Turns out, most of the fear of a third straight season again going very bad was in the stands, not on the bench. “There actually were guys walking the sideline before the kickoff saying we were going to break one,” said Moak.
That said, the senior philosopher Catapano knows the difference between believing and actually doing. Nothing succeeds like success.
“I heard some of guys say at the end of the game how this feels so much better than two years ago on this field (a 42-14 Columbia route),” said Surace. “For our seniors, there also was three years ago (a 38-0 Lion bludgeoning on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium).
“We have lost some tough games. To get off to a good start, I thought there was a different look to our guys.
“[Assistant head coach] Steve Verbit sent me an email yesterday talking about Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile. So many years and nobody could do it and then he does and the next year [numerous other] guys break it.
“There was a belief that started with Anthony’s kickoff return. And then we kept shoveling, so good to see.”
Atwater was poked in the eye on a fourth-quarter run, will be reevaluated Sunday, as will reserve guard Jack Woodall, who walked to the bus with an air cast on his foot. . . Starting right tackle Kevin Mill was lost in the first half to what appeared to be a non-season-threatening knee injury. “By the time the game was over, he was walking off the field faster than me,” said Surace. . . . RB Akil Sharp, apparently not completely recovered from an ankle problem, never got on the field, yielding the starting tailback position to Will Powers (13 carries, 42 yards) . . . Joe Cloud nailed a 68-yard punt in the first quarter. . . Tigers close the non-league portion of the schedule at Lafayette Saturday night.