Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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GENERAL MILLS: Princeton University running back Brian Mills runs to daylight last Saturday in Princeton’s 24-21 win over visiting Columbia in the Ivy League opener for both teams. Sophomore running back Mills rushed for a career-high 117 yards to help the Tigers snap a program-record 10-game losing streak. Princeton, now 1-2 overall, plays at Hampton University (2-2) on October 8.

Princeton Football Snaps Losing Streak; Edging Columbia 24-21 in Ivy Opener

Bill Alden

It looked like the Princeton University football team was headed for a recurring nightmare.

After taking an early 3-0 lead over visiting Columbia last Saturday evening in the Ivy League opener for both teams, Princeton gave away its advantage on a miscue. A Tommy Wornham pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown as the Lions jumped ahead 7-3.

Princeton’s penchant for critical turnovers over the last two years has been a major reason why the Tigers came into Saturday mired in a program-record 10-game losing streak. A week earlier, Princeton produced one of the worst examples of that trend, committing six miscues in a 34-9 loss to Bucknell.

But as the Tiger offense gathered to go back on the field after the Columbia pick six, Princeton head coach Bob Surace sensed a new resolve in his players.

“When we threw the pick for a touchdown, there was a different mindset,” said Surace.

“I went over to Tommy and I just loved his fire. Usually, he has a look that is not so good. He said ‘I got it, we are going to score on the next drive.’ That is the attitude I want in our guys and I was really proud of him.”

Senior quarterback and tri-captain Wornham proceeded to engineer one of the best drives of his career. The Tigers marched 62 yards in seven plays with Wornham hitting two crucial passes on third down before finding tight end Mark Hayes for a five-yard touchdown pass as the Tigers regained the lead at 10-7 with 10 seconds left in the first quarter.

Wornham, for his part, was determined to make amends for the interception.

“I didn’t really think about it; we had a missed communication on the route that threw me off,” recalled Wornham.

“I didn’t make a good throw but I knew we were ready to go. We came out of our locker room fired up. I saw it in the offense, they wanted it. So it was just guys getting stuff down and us really wanting to play today.”

The Tigers never relinquished that lead, going on to post a 24-21 win before 6,168 at Princeton Stadium.

A beaming Surace was relieved as he reflected on the win, the first Ivy victory of his two-year tenure and the team’s first triumph since beating Lafayette 36-33 on September 25, 2010.

“Obviously it is much nicer to come up here off of a win and to see the guys be so resilient,” said Surace, whose team improved to 1-2 overall and 1-0 in Ivy play.

“We made a lot of mistakes and we will correct those like we continue to try to do but we fought hard all game long. I thought our defense played exceptionally well.”

While the Tigers did commit three turnovers, the team executed much better on offense, piling up 227 yards rushing and 194 in the air.

“I thought we threw the ball accurately,” said Surace, in assessing the offensive performance which saw Wornham hit 19-of-28 passes for 194 yards and rush for 55 yards on 16 carries.

“Any time you have four backs running as hard as they did, that’s a pretty good day. When we can run the ball against a pretty good team like that, that’s a good thing. When you outgain a team by 150 yards and the score is a 3-point margin, obviously there are some issues in turnovers.”

Sophomore running back Brian Mills, who produced a career-high 117 yards rushing in the triumph, hopes the win will start a nice run for the Tigers.

“It is a great feeling to start play in the Ivy League with a win, especially against someone who dominated in the game last year against us,” said Mills, referring to Princeton’s 42-14 loss at Columbia last fall.

“It is a great feeling. All the players came out with a whole new attitude; the coaches came out with a whole new attitude. We just played hard, we stuck with what we knew and we played our game and it brought us through.”

Mills’ classmate, star linebacker Andrew Starks, said the defense adopted that same mindset as it overcame the Tiger turnovers.

“We have been talking about that since summer camp, just rolling with the punches and swarming to the ball,” said Starks, who had a team-high nine tackles on the evening to lead a Tiger defense that produced two turnovers with a fumble recovery and an interception.

“There were a couple of times today that we had to show that on the field. We talked about it in practice, saying things are going to happen in the game that you can’t control. You have to go out there and enjoy that struggle. That’s tough to do when you get put in the red zone right away. Our guys really embraced that concept this week and I felt like it showed up on the field.”

The contest turned into a struggle as Princeton started the second half clinging to the 10-7 lead it built on its first quarter drive. The Tigers made it a 17-7 game as Mills scored on a two-yard touchdown run to culminate a 7-play, 74-yard scoring march.

The Lions responded minutes later, recovering an errant Princeton snap to get possession on the Tiger 28-yard-line. On the first play after the fumble, Columbia quarterback Sean Brackett connected with Paul Havas for a 28-yard scoring strike to make it 17-14 with 8:20 left in the third quarter.

Later in the quarter, Princeton freshman star Matt Costello returned a punt 14 yards to the Columbia 26. Wornham took advantage of the short field, hitting Tom Moak with a beautiful pass in the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown as Princeton went ahead 24-14.

Things got dicey down the stretch as Brackett struck again midway through the fourth quarter, throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Hamilton Garner to narrow the gap to 24-21 with 6:43 left in regulation.

The Tiger defense stiffened up, stopping Columbia on a fourth down and five with 2:20 left and then sealing the win with a turnover as Harrison Daniels made an interception in the waning seconds of the contest.

In the view of head coach Surace, the seeds for the win were sown by the team’s response to the Bucknell defeat.

“I thought it started to come together in the locker room last week, nobody moped,” said Surace.

“It is not acceptable to turn it over six times and play sloppy the way we did. We are better than that; we practice better than that. I thought our coaching staff really held it together.”

Wornham utilized some coaching advice to hold things together. “I took it pretty hard on myself, coach Perry [offensive coordinator James Perry, a former star quarterback at Brown] came up to me on Sunday and he told me about a game in his career where he threw three picks and and he was down,” said Wornham, noting that he had also received an encouraging e-mail from Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters during the week.

“He came back the next week and threw the ball 52 times and they absolutely annihilated the team that they played. He came at me with that mindset all week and I got in and worked hard and I trusted myself. I played as hard as I possibly could.”

With Princeton facing a hard test as it plays at Hampton University (2-2) on October 8, Surace is looking for his players to keep up the good work.

“Win or lose, it is no different at 4 tomorrow; we have to move on to the next one,” said Surace.

“I am going to have fun tonight and we are going to enjoy it in the locker room but the bottom line is that a good team moves forward. The good teams that I have studied, do that. I want to see this team be the best it can be, I think I can get more out of them.”

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