In the wake of the Princeton University football team’s miraculous fourth quarter comeback in its recent win over Harvard, Bob Surace sounded a note of caution.
As he reflected on the rally which saw the Tigers overcome a 34-10 deficit to pull out a 39-34 win in the October 20 contest, Princeton head coach Surace said that his squad needed to play error-free football and be extra sharp on the fundamentals in order to stay atop the Ivy League race.
Last Saturday at Cornell, the Tigers failed to follow that blueprint by making four turnovers and ended up paying the price as they fell 37-35 to the Big Red before a crowd of 4,420 at Schoellkopf Field.
The defeat left Princeton at 4-3 overall and 3-1 in Ivy play, dropping it into a three-way tie for first place in the league with Harvard (5-1 overall, 3-1 Ivy) and Penn (3-4 overall, 3-1 Ivy).
While Surace was pleased with the intensity his players showed, he acknowledged that it wasn’t their sharpest performance.
“Our effort was very good throughout the game,” said Surace. “The league is pretty balanced and you see these type of games every week. It comes down to small details and they were a little better on the small details and that haunted us. We have to be a touch cleaner. We executed extremely well on 75 of 84 plays.”
The Cornell passing attack, on the other hand, executed well all day long as quarterback Jeff Mathews hit on 35-of-51 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns with Grant Gellatly making 12 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown and Luke Tasker contributing 10 receptions for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
“For the second week in a row, we faced a terrific QB combined with some great receivers,” said Surace, whose team battled Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple and tight end Kyle Juszczyk a week earlier.
“We knew they had that ability. The QB is in the top 5 in passing in the nation and their back-up threw for 500 yards in a game when he had to start. We blitzed, we played different formations, we tried to give Mathews different looks but he has started 26 games and he has seen everything. He is like an early version of Peyton Manning and it is hard to beat him on different looks.”
Early on, it didn’t look like the game was going to become a wild shootout, with neither team scoring in the first quarter.
The fireworks started in the second quarter when Roman Wilson scored on a three-yard run as Princeton took a 7-0 lead with 11:19 left in the first half to culminate an 11-play, 92-yard scoring march.
Mathews, though, started to find the range at that point. The junior hit Tasker for a 54-yard touchdown pass to make it a 7-7- game. Minutes later, he found Gellatly for a 76-yard scoring strike as the Big Red forged ahead 14-7.
The Tigers answered back with a 75-yard drive that ended with quarterback Quinn Epperley running two yards for a touchdown as Princeton knotted the game at 14-14 heading into halftime.
Things really heated up in the third quarter as the teams combined for 34 points in the period. The outburst started when Mathews hit Tasker for an eight-yard touchdown pass to give Cornell a 21-14 lead.
Princeton tied the contest at 21-21 after Epperly ran six yards for his second touchdown of the afternoon.
Mathews then hit Luke Hagy for a 23-yard touchdown pass to make it a 28-21 game with 8:26 left in the quarter. Less than a minute later, the Tigers drew even at 28-28 as Connor Michelson hit Wilson on a 72-yard touchdown pass.
The Big Red got the last points of the quarter as Silas Nacita ran two yards for a touchdown. The kick failed and Cornell led 34-28 as the teams headed into the final 15 minutes of regulation.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Princeton finally regained the lead as Epperly found tight end Mark Hayes for a six-yard TD pass. Nolan Bieck’s kick was good and the Tigers went ahead 35-34.
Princeton stopped Cornell on downs on the next possession and took over on its own 23. The Tigers picked up three first downs as they looked to get an insurance score. But the Big Red made a clutch play on defense, forcing a Dre Nelson fumble and taking possession with 2:57 left in the quarter. The sizzling Mathews hit big passes to Tasker and Gallatly to get Cornell to the Princeton 11. With 50 seconds left, John Wells hit a 23-yard field goal to put Cornell ahead 37-35.
The Tigers made one last gasp but a Michelson pass was intercepted to seal the Cornell win.
In Surace’s view, the combination of big plays from Cornell and the miscues by Princeton led to the Tigers‘ first loss in league play this fall.
“They made some extraordinary plays, the turnovers hurt us,” said Surace. “We started the second half, saying that we needed to be plus two in turnovers and we ended up minus four.”
Princeton quarterback Connor Michelson made his share of extraordinary plays in a losing cause as he had a career game, hitting on 29-of-35 passes for 390 yards and a touchdown.
“Connor threw the ball extremely well; we had three drops but he still29-for-35,” said Surace,
“His accuracy was terrific; his decision-making was great. It was probably the best we have blocked on the line since I have been here; we protected him well and kept him clean.”
As Princeton girds for a pivotal clash with visiting Penn this Saturday, Surace knows his team must block out any bad feelings from the loss on Saturday.
“Everybody gets a little better this time of year,” said Surace. “We can’t mope or let disappointment linger. We need to have the exactness from play to play.”
Princeton will have to play a little better in order to overcome a tough Quaker team that features battle-tested senior quarterback Billy Ragone and a rugged defense.
“It is always a large game, you have to match up physically,” said Surace, reflecting on the series which has seen Penn win the last five meetings.
“They make plays and they are well coached. We have a lot of respect for them. When I came into the league, I looked at programs, there is no honor code, you see things you want to copy. I admire how they operate and how they are fundamentally sound and play the game the right way.”