As his Princeton University football team battled Lafayette to a standstill in the first half last Saturday evening, Bob Surace had a flashback to his days with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It reminded me of an AFC North game with the Steelers or the Ravens and some really good defense,” said Princeton head coach Surace, who served as an assistant on the Bengals staff for nine seasons before taking over the Tiger program prior to the 2010 season.
“You might gain some yards but it is hard to score points. It was two teams playing hard and not turning it over.”
With the teams locked in a scoreless tie heading into the last minute of the first half, Princeton broke the ice as Akil Sharp scored on a 10-yard touchdown run with 53 seconds left in the quarter.
Sharp’s scoring jaunt culminated a nine-play, 86-yard drive. Using some trickery on the extra point attempt, the Tigers increased their lead to 8-0 as the ball was snapped to Jason Ray and he ran in a two-point conversion.
“To score and get that two-point conversion, that was big,” said Surace, whose team took the 8-0 lead into intermission. “Having that 86-yard drive gave us momentum.”
Still, Surace knew that his team had to be sharper in the second half.
“We needed to finish drives better,” said Surace, recalling his halftime message. “We moved the ball but they got a couple of big third down stops. We were backed up in field position.”
In the third quarter, Surace may have had visions of the dominant Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s as Princeton produced one of its better quarters in recent memory.
Utilizing an opportunistic defense and a balanced offense, the Tigers outscored Lafayette 21-0 in the quarter on the way to a 35-14 rout before a crowd of 6,812 at Fisher Field.
The victory improved Princeton to 2-2, marking its first two-game win streak since topping Lehigh and Columbia on successive Saturdays early in the 2008 campaign. It was the Tigers’ first win over a team with a winning record since week seven of 2007 when Princeton defeated a 4-2 Cornell team 34-31.
The defense triggered the Tigers’ third quarter explosion as an interception by senior linebacker Andrew Starks set up Princeton’s first score. Five plays after Starks’ pick gave the Tigers the ball at the Lafayette 45-yard line, sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly ran 23 yards for a touchdown as Princeton jumped ahead 15-0.
On the ensuing Lafayette possession, the Tiger defense struck again as junior safety Philip Bhaya picked off a Zach Zweizig pass and ran 34 yards for a touchdown as Princeton increased its lead to 22-0.
“Our defense was swarming to the ball; we were so close to making turnovers,” said Surace, whose star defensive end Mike Catapano was later named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week after recording eight tackles in the win, including three for loss, and a career-high 2.5 sacks. “That play by Andrew was a big momentum shift and then Phil makes a good read on his interception.”
The Tigers got another big play late in the third quarter as junior receiver Roman Wilson scampered 34 yards for a touchdown on a rushing play to give Princeton a 29-0 advantage with 12 seconds left in the quarter.
The balanced Princeton rushing attack made a huge difference for the Tigers as they pulled away from the Leopards. Five different players gained at least 30 yards as Princeton rushed for 262 yards on 54 attempts. Senior star Sharp led the way with 60 yards rushing and two touchdowns while Wilson had 55 yards and Will Powers chipped in 48 with quarterbacks Epperly and Conner Michelson gaining 45 and 30 yards, respectively.
“Once we got rolling last year, we knew that Chuck Dibilio could get the ball 25 times for 150 yards and we had two or three guys to get that last 100,” said Surace, noting that sophomore Dibilio was at the game Saturday as he continues to recover from a stroke that sidelined him this fall.
“Now we have so many guys who can get yards for us. Wilson had a big run. Powers had some good runs and Akil made some nice carries. Epperly had that big run and some other good ones.”
Surace was concerned to see Lafayette make some big plays in the fourth quarter as former Allentown High star Ross Scheuerman ran 65 yards for a touchdown early in the period and Marc Ross scored on a 29-yard pass play with 6:54 left in regulation.
“We can’t turn the on and off switch,” said Surace, whose team’s fourth quarter tally came on a one-yard plunge by Sharp.
“What we learned is that when the game is in hand, I want us to keep our foot on the gas pedal. You only get 600 minutes in a season and you need to take advantage of every moment. You can’t throw away seven or eight minutes. But teaching lessons off a win is a lot better than teaching them off a loss.”
Putting the Lafayette win in the rear view mirror, Surace didn’t waste any time starting to prepare for this Saturday’s critical clash with visiting Brown, which is 3-1 overall and 0-1 Ivy League.
“Brown plays good, solid football; you know they are going to give an honest effort,” said Surace, whose team has a 1-0 Ivy record by virtue of its 33-6 win at Columbia on September 29.
“When I was on the bus at 10:30 on Saturday, I was looking at my Brown notes. As soon as the sun was up on Sunday, I was in the office getting the good taste from Lafayette out of my mouth and looking at Brown. They are going to be the best team, by far, that we have played to this point.”
As Surace looks to get the best from his team, he will be following the formula that has served the Tigers well the last two weeks.
“Every step we take from here is going to be a bigger step,” said Surace. “We have to continue to work hard and focus.”