Tiger Football Finishes Strong in Beating Brown; Sets Up Pivotal Ivy Clash with Unbeaten Harvard
By Bill Alden
Entering the fourth quarter last Saturday, the Princeton University football team found itself in a 10-10 deadlock with visiting Brown and facing its bugaboo in recent seasons of coming up short down the stretch.
Just a week earlier, the Tigers blew a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter in losing to Colgate. Princeton senior linebacker Zak Keasey, though, wasn't about to let the Tigers falter again in crunch time.
Taking matters into his own hands, Keasey made a key interception early in the fourth quarter that gave the Tigers a first down at the Brown 21. Five plays later, Branden Benson plunged into the end zone as Princeton grabbed a 17-10 lead.
On Brown's next possession, Keasey had two tackles for a loss as the Tigers pinned the Bears deep in their territory and forced a punt. Getting the ball at midfield, the Tigers wasted no time in adding to their lead as Matt Verbit hit Brian Shield with a 50-yard scoring strike as Princeton pushed its advantage to 24-10.
With Keasey picking up a key sack later in the quarter, the Princeton defense shut the door on Brown as it won 24-10 before a crowd of 11,982 at Princeton Stadium.
In reflecting on the crucial win which lifted Princeton to a 4-1 overall record and 2-0 in Ivy League play, Keasey said his heroics were simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
"The coaches call the defensive plays and they try to put people in the right spots," said Keasey, who led the Tigers with 14 tackles on the day.
"I'm glad I can make the play when they give me that chance. The defensive line up front makes it happen, keeping guys off the backers so we can make the big plays."
The Tigers defense made a lot of big plays on the day as it held Brown (3-2, 0-2 Ivy) to 77 yards rushing, accumulated four sacks, and that Keasey interception.
In Keasey's view, the unit clicked on all cylinders for the first time this fall. "I'm proud of our defense, we did a great job today," maintained the 6'0, 240-pound native of Clarkston, Mich.
"I think we played our most complete game. We didn't have any penalties and everyone was in the right spot. Teams have been putting up points on us in the fourth quarter. Finally this week, we shut them down on defense. That was huge."
A pumped up Princeton head coach Roger Hughes didn't hide his emotions as he assessed the win. "I'm obviously proud of our effort today," said Hughes. "I thought our kids came to play today. As I told the team afterward, that was a team win."
Hughes acknowledged that his defense deserved a major share of the credit for the crucial triumph. "From the standpoint of defense, shutting down Nick Hartigan and holding him to 66 yards was huge," said Hughes, referring to Brown's workhorse back who came into the afternoon averaging 138.5 yards rushing per game.
"We came up with the turnover when we had to and we had no penalties other than the kickoff out of bounds. I was very pleased with our execution."
Princeton's crisp effort was the product of the special focus the team has shown this fall. "This is the most unbelievable team in terms of playing it one week at a time," declared Hughes with his voice rising. "There has not been any mention beyond the week we are in. It's a credit to the players and the senior leadership on making sure that we are on task with what we have to do."
The Tigers showed their ability to stay on task when they faced a crucial fourth down and one to go from the Brown two-yard line with the score tied at 10-10 early in the fourth quarter. While the safe decision would've been to take the field goal and get the lead, Hughes never considered that option.
"The thought of the field goal didn't cross my mind," said Hughes, recalling his thought process before Benson scored the go-ahead touchdown.
"I thought we were knocking them off the ball. We've got to play to win, to cut their heart out and go for the jugular as quick as we can. We lined up in an offense where Matt Verbit should've checked the play the other way. But the offensive linemen in the huddle said do not check this play, we're going to run it right now and we're going to score. It was major push off the line, it was sheer determination."
The Tigers showed determination throughout the contest. In the early stages of the game, Princeton had the upper hand in terms of first downs and yardage but could only muster a 3-0 lead at halftime. Early in the second half, Princeton lost that slim lead as Hartigan bulled in for a two-yard touchdown run to put the Bears ahead 7-3.
A scintillating 77-yard return by Greg Fields on the ensuing kickoff had Princeton knocking on the door at Brown's 16-yard line. Princeton regained the lead at 10-7 as Jon Veach scored on a three-yard run. A 27-yard field goal by Brown with 2:49 left in the third quarter knotted the contest and set the stage for Princeton's fourth quarter heroics.
Brown coach Phil Estes sensed the determination in Princeton. "I give credit to the Princeton football team, that's a good football team," said Estes. "They went out there and looked you in the eye. They wanted to play. They play hard, they play tough."
Hughes know his team will have to get even tougher as it hosts undefeated Harvard this Saturday in what shapes up as a pivotal game in the Ivy race. The Crimson have been a thorn in Princeton's side, having not lost to the Tigers since 1995.
"We've seen Harvard on tape and they have some of the best skill players in the league," said Hughes, whose club dropped a 43-40 overtime heartbreaker in Cambridge last season. "It should be a knock-down, physical game. Every time we've played Harvard, it's been a tight game. Hopefully we'll be there in the fourth quarter to win it."
Keasey is confident the Tigers can go the distance. "It's a huge game, we're going to prepare our butts off this week," said Keasey with a slight grin.
"It's crunch time now, it's all league games from here on out. You can't lose a game if you want to win the prize at the end."