Tiger Football Rally Comes Up Short in Loss at Cornell; Needs to Topple Penn to Stay Alive in Ivy Title Race
By Bill Alden
Roger Hughes has repeatedly insisted that his 2004 Princeton University football team possesses a special focus.
The Tiger head coach has gone out of his way to explain how his players hone in on the task at hand, whether it be a weightlifting session, a practice, or the next game.
Last Saturday, though, the Tigers' attention strayed early in the third quarter of their game at Cornell as the Big Red scored on touchdown passes of 24 and 80 yards to go from being tied at 7-7 to ahead by 21-7.
Princeton responded with a 61-yard scoring march, culminated by a three-yard touchdown run by Jon Veach. Early in the fourth quarter, Greg Fields returned a Cornell punt 47 yards and six plays later scored on a six-yard run to bring Princeton within 21-20.
The Tigers, however, lost focus once again as a Cornell lineman Matt Pollock deflected Derek Javarone's extra point attempt. Princeton didn't recover from that lapse as it went down to a disappointing 21-20 loss before 5,842 at Schoellkopf Field.
In assessing the frustrating setback which dropped his team to 4-3 overall and 2-2 in Ivy League play, Hughes acknowledged that his team had suffered breakdowns on both sides of the ball.
"We had a number of players who just didn't make plays," said Hughes, whose club was outgained 382 yards to 329 by Cornell (2-5, 2-2 Ivy). "Some of our best players in the secondary didn't play well. Our offensive line was tentative at the start, we didn't deal well with their stunting."
The one silver lining was the resolve the Tigers demonstrated after they had fallen behind 21-7. "It was still upbeat," said Hughes, referring to the mood on the sidelines after the last Cornell score. "We thought that if we could get a break, we would be back in it. The kids played hard and we had a chance to win that game."
In their final drive of the game, the Tigers continued to show fight. Facing a third down and 15 situation with just over three minutes to go, quarterback Matt Verbit ran 11 yards to set up a fourth and four play. Verbit then hit Jay McCareins with an eight-yard pass to give the Tigers a first down at the Cornell 39.
Princeton, though, couldn't get any closer and surrendered the ball on downs with 1:26 remaining. Cornell then ran out the clock to secure the victory.
Hughes credited Verbit and Fields with helping spark the Tigers' rally. Verbit hit on 19-of-39 passes for a season-high 260 yards while Fields gained 224 all-purpose yards.
"Matt had a good game overall, he made some nice reads," said Hughes. "Fields just need to touch the ball more, good things happen when he gets it."
Good things didn't happen Saturday when Princeton tried to run the ball against the stingy Big Red defense which came into the game ranked second in the Ivy League against the rush.
"We needed to run the ball more effectively," lamented Hughes, whose club rushed for a season-low 69 yards with Branden Benson gaining 50 yards and Veach mustering only 21. "We had five runs for losses and that hasn't happened all season."
Hughes believes his team will do whatever is necessary to avoid a repeat of Saturday's spotty performance. "Our players have a sense of pride and they were embarrassed by how they played," acknowledged Hughes, whose club has lost two straight after getting out of the gate with a 4-1 start. "They were in watching the tape at 8:30 this morning. I sense a rekindling of their spirit."
The coaching staff plans to throw in some wrinkles this week to help reinforce that spirit. "We're going to practice more ones versus ones this week rather than ones against the scout team," explained Hughes. "There is a change of speed when the starters go against the scout team."
The Tigers will need to pick up the pace this Saturday when they host Penn. The Quakers are 6-1 overall and 4-0 in Ivy play, having won 19 straight league games. Princeton hasn't beaten Penn on the field since 1995. (Penn had to forfeit its 1997 win over Princeton due to using an ineligible player.)
Hughes is hoping his club can emulate the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Steelers when it comes to streakbusting. "No one has beaten Penn in the league since 2001," said Hughes, whose club was walloped 37-7 last year by Penn in Philadelphia. "You've got to hope they are due for a loss."
The parity across the league which was demonstrated graphically last Saturday by undefeated Harvard's 13-12 escape against winless Dartmouth and Penn's come-from-behind 20-16 victory over 4-3 Brown give Hughes cause for optimism.
"We're taking our three games one at a time," said Hughes. "We think the league is as evenly matched as it has been in years. Anything can happen."
But if Princeton is to make something good happen against Penn, it must regain its special focus.