While the naysayers may have been bashing the Princeton University football team after it blew a late lead in losing 21-20 to Georgetown on September 21 and falling to 0-2, Bob Surace wasn’t about to go negative on his squad.
“I decided to be as positive as I could when we practiced on Tuesday,” said Princeton head coach Surace.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go. The whole group responded well and I thought we practiced well all week.”
In fact, Surace felt his team was on the verge of a breakthrough even though his record stood at 2-20 in his tenure guiding the Tigers.
“We had played hard and with a lot of energy in the first two games,” said Surace, whose squad fell 17-14 at Lehigh in its season opener.
“We just lacked the small details and things like that hurt you against the good teams.”
Playing at Columbia last Saturday in the Ivy League opener for both programs, the Tigers certainly looked like a good team as they rolled to a 33-6 win over the Lions before 4,469 at R.K. Kraft Field.
It was Princeton’s first road win since the final game of the 2009 season and the 27-point margin of victory was the largest for the Tigers since a 30-0 win over Dartmouth in the 2005 season finale.
Princeton didn’t wait long to set a positive tone as promising freshman Anthony Gaffney returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
Surace had the sense that Princeton could produce something big on special teams.
“We had the players watch film of what they were doing well on special teams and they saw films of them making mistakes,” said Surace.
“Against Georgetown, we were so close on kickoffs. We were just a block or two away. The players went out and were positive.”
Early in the second quarter, the Tigers turned a special teams blunder into points as Tom Moak took a botched snap and hit Des Smith on a 43-yard scoring pass to give Princeton a 14-0 lead.
“You don’t want to have errors on the snap,” said Surace, whose team also scored a touchdown in the Georgetown loss in a similar situation.
“But we practice that since it might happen once or twice in a season. To see the poise and execution was great. Tom did a great job. Nolan [Bieck] blocked two guys and that is pretty hard for a kicker. Smith took a great angle to get open.”
The teams traded field goals over the rest of the quarter and Princeton took a 17-3 lead into the locker room at intermission.
Despite the advantage, Surace was still wary. “I didn’t think we played our best; we had a few too many mistakes,” said Surace.
Columbia narrowed the gap to 17-6 with a field goal midway through the third quarter. The Tiger defense stiffened after that, pinning the Lions back at their own 20-yard line after a bad snap on a punt. Princeton got a Bieck field goal and took a 20-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Tigers dominated the fourth quarter, scoring 13 unanswered points. Princeton took a 27-6 lead after Quinn Epperly hit Roman Wilson in a 44-yard touchdown pass with 13:20 left in regulation.
Princeton tacked on six more points as Bieck hit field goals of 29 and 24 yards to make the final margin 33-6. Freshman Bieck, who had four field goals on the day, was later named the Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the win was the solid performance Princeton got from its quarterback rotation of sophomores Connor Michelson and Epperly. Michelson hit on 11-of-19 passes for 109 yards on the day while Epperley went 7-of-10 for 101 yards and also rushed for 42 yards.
“They are good players; they work hard,” said Surace, whose team outgained Columbia 335 yards to 213. “They are making good decisions; I can count on one hand the bad decisions they have made in three games and that is pretty good.”
A consistent bright spot for Princeton this fall has been the play of its defensive unit, which is giving up 14.7 points a game this year after surrendering an average of 32.5 in 2011. On Saturday, the Tigers held the Lions to 39 yards rushing and got two turnovers on a pair of interceptions by Gaffney.
“I think the defense played really well,” asserted Surace, who had eight players with four or more tackles against Columbia. “The guys are tackling well.”
In Surace’s view, the manner of the win should help solidify the belief the coaching staff has been trying to instill in its players as the program looks to turn the corner after two straight 1-9 campaigns.
“I think some of the guys were looking not to lose; they were not in complete belief,” said Surace.
“This group of seniors really believes; they feel this group is different. We are seeing progress. Against Lehigh we had played well but they had beaten us pretty good the previous two years. This year we could have won; we just needed one more play. I feel we played OK against Georgetown; we left some things on the field. To win like we did on Saturday was nice to see.”
While the Tigers basked in the glow of the victory, Surace knows that his team still had plenty to prove as it plays at Lafayette (3-1) on October 6 before getting into the heart of its Ivy League campaign.
“We can’t get caught up in it,” said Surace, whose team is now in a four-way tie for first in the Ivy standings with Harvard, Penn, and Cornell.
“We have a tough Lafayette team coming up. Whether you win or lose, you still come in Sunday and work on fixing things. It is only three weeks into the season. We are feeling better about ourselves; I think this is something we can build on.”