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Vol. LXV, No. 47
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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BROWN EYES: Princeton University defensive back Khamal Brown eyes the ball in a game earlier this fall. Freshman Brown was one of several young players who stepped up for Princeton this fall. The Tigers fell 24-17 at Dartmouth last Saturday to end the season with an overall record of 1-9 and 1-6 in Ivy League play.

PU Football Falls to Dartmouth in Finale; Sees Hope Despite 2nd Straight 1-9 Season

Bill Alden

Despite going 2-18 in his first two seasons guiding the Princeton University football team, Bob Surace can see the light at end of the tunnel.

Surace, in fact, draws inspiration from one of the foes who has beaten Princeton twice during his tenure as Tiger head coach.

“Lehigh is 10-1 this year, they are in the top five or six and are headed to the playoffs,” said Surace. “A few years ago they were like us, playing a lot of young players and losing some close games.”

Last Saturday in its season finale at Dartmouth, Princeton took its youth movement to a new level, starting six freshmen on offense, including quarterback Quinn Epperly, receiver Matt Costello, and lineman Spencer Huston together with running backs Chuck Dibilio, Jonathan Esposito, and Will Powers.

“We had packages,” explained Surace. “Huston has been starting as has Dibilio and Costello. Esposito has earned a starting spot at fullback. The three-back package was working against Yale. Will Powers has been doing a good job.”

Going with Epperly at quarterback meant that senior tri-captain Tommy Wornham lost his starting job on the eve of his final college game.

“From the standpoint of having been with Tommy the last two years, it was a tough decision,” acknowledged Surace.

“We have made changes with other guys. I thought about it last Saturday after the Yale game and told the staff on Sunday. I decided to sleep on it Sunday night. To Tommy’s credit, he is such a mature guy and he handled it well. We talked about it and he said he would support the guys and help them prepare.”

The young guys justified Surace’s faith in them, performing admirably as Princeton ended the fall by losing 24-17 to the Big Green in dropping to 1-9 overall and 1-6 in Ivy League play.

Epperly rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns and hit on 9-of-19 passes for 93 yards and was later named the Ivy Rookie of the Week. Dibilio ran for 66 yards to give him a total of 1,068 rushing yards this fall, a Princeton freshman record and the sixth-highest total in program history. Powers gained 27 yards on just three carries.

Princeton jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the first of Epperly’s touchdown runs and later had a 14-9 advantage after the quarterback’s second TD. But an Epperly interception led to a Big Green touchdown and Dartmouth led 15-14 at halftime.

The Tigers regained the lead early in the third quarter, going ahead 17-15 on a 46-yard field goal by Patrick Jacob. Dartmouth answered back with a scoring march that culminated with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Connor Kempe to Justin Foley to go up 21-17.

The Big Green tacked on a field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 24-17 and then held off the Tigers. Princeton did advance to the Dartmouth 19-yard line with just over three minutes remaining but an interception of a Connor Michelsen pass ended that threat and the Tigers never got the ball back.

Surace was disappointed to see his team come short in the crisply played contest.

“There were a lot of runs and short passes for both teams, the game was going very quickly and the ball was not hitting the ground,” said Surace.

“We regain the lead, they have a couple of good drives and score and we didn’t. We got inside the 40 three different times.”

In Princeton’s last foray into Dartmouth territory, a tactical wrinkle backfired on the Tigers.

“On third and long, our game plan was for Connor to go in because he has the strongest arm,” said Surace. “He goes in for his first play and doesn’t see the linebacker and drills it right to him.”

Although the record might not reflect it, Surace believes his squad is playing better football in the trenches.

“We are better off at this point than last year when we couldn’t run the ball or stop the run,” said Surace.

“I think our rushing yardage is up around 70 yards a game (201.8 yards a game in 2011 versus 119.7 in 2010) and we are stopping the run better (giving up an average of 126.0 yards in 2011 as opposed to 223.5 in 2010). Dartmouth had just one sophomore on defense, the rest were seniors, and we gained 230 yards running on them. Most of the nine losses came down to a few plays not going our way.”

One of Princeton’s biggest weaknesses this fall was its failure to make game-changing plays on both sides of the ball.

“The glaring thing is the turnovers, we were minus 15,” said Surace. “We only forced eight and committed 23. We did everything we could to improve in that area; we did turnover circuits and drills where we strip the ball. We forced 15 fumbles but only recovered five. We only made three interceptions; we need to disguise things better.”

In Surace’s view, the team’s seniors made a valuable contribution, helping the Tigers keep up a constant effort despite the disappointing record.

“They held this together, they kept working,” said Surace. “They handled things socially and academically. I am proud of the progress they made. Losing is frustrating to the coaches, players, alums, and my bosses. To act so maturely is going to help them down the road.”

Surace is looking for his returning players to show a similar maturity going forward.

“We have got to grow up,” said Surace. “We have a good front seven on defense, we need to fix the back and not just the defensive backs. We gave up plays on underneath routes. We have a good core of runners, good receivers, and good linemen. We have to find out who our quarterback is, we have some good talent on hand and some good talent coming in so that will be a good competition. Every yard we gained Saturday except for an Isaac Serwanga reception for 10 yards was from younger players.”

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