At about 2 last Saturday afternoon, things were falling into place for the Princeton University football team.
The Tigers had jumped out to a 14-0 lead over visiting Dartmouth and Penn was trailing Cornell 13-7.
A Princeton victory combined with a Penn defeat would secure a share of the Ivy League title for the Tigers and the final chapter in their heartening worst-to-first campaign.
But by 3:30, things had fallen apart as Dartmouth had jumped out to a 35-14 lead and Penn had pulled out a dramatic 35-28 win to clinch outright the Ivy crown.
The afternoon ended with Princeton dropping a 35-21 decision to Dartmouth as a crowd of 8,327 left a Princeton Stadium covered in shadows with night approaching.
While Princeton head coach Bob Surace was disappointed with how things turned out, he was able to see the silver lining in a season that saw Princeton end up 5-5 overall and 4-3 in Ivy play, a marked improvement after two successive 1-9 campaigns.
“I told the guys in the locker room how proud I am of them and what they accomplished and getting us to play a meaningful game at the end of the year,” said Surace.
“We had distractions and things we had to overcome from what happened in January with Chuck [Dibilio] to Khamal [Brown] to all the different things that go on this week. They just remained focused and practiced hard. We just ran out of gas. You lose your right-handed quarterback [Connor Michelson] in the game before and he is not able to throw. Your lefty [Quinn Epperly] gets hurt the third play of the game and we just couldn’t overcome some of the things.”
With Princeton’s lead down to 14-7 at halftime, Surace sensed trouble on the horizon.
“We needed to have a bigger lead going into halftime,” said Surace. “We have had our foot on the pedal all year and we just couldn’t continue to get anything momentum-wise and give credit to them and their quarterback [Dalyn Williams]. I don’t know how many times that we had him in our grasp and had a shot at him. He found a way out of it and made plays and executed so it was a really good job by him.”
The game got away from Princeton in a four minute stretch of the third quarter which saw Dartmouth reel off 21 unanswered points.
Princeton senior co-captain and star linebacker Andrew Starks believed that the Tigers could weather the storm.
“Obviously when things happen like that, that’s us making mistakes,” said Starks, who had a team-high 16 tackles on the day.
“Not taking anything away from Dartmouth, they played a tremendous game and made a lot of great plays. When you are playing a team that has some athletes like they do, you can’t make mistakes like that. With that being said, I wouldn’t say we were unraveling. We made mistakes but I think at that point we still thought we were going to win the game. The offense would get going and the defense would stiffen up. We would make some plays and eventually turn things around. Unfortunately it just didn’t happen that way today.”
In the view of senior co-captain and defensive line standout Mike Catapano, the way Princeton turned things around this fall was reflected by its fighting spirit to the end on Saturday.
“We made some dramatic improvements and I am really proud of the guys,” said Catapano.
“We had some setbacks and some injuries with Khamal and things of that nature. This team never quit. Everybody thought we were going to be last in the league and this team really rallied together as a family and as a brotherhood. We fought every play of every game and that is what I am most proud of. We are going out that way too.”
In the early going on Saturday, it was Princeton that was making the big plays. After a scoreless first quarter, the Tigers got on the board first as they scored on a four-yard touchdown run by Epperly to take a 7-0 lead.
Minutes later, Princeton doubled its lead on a big play by special teams as John Hill scooped up a punt blocked by Seth DeValve and raced 23 yards for a touchdown as the Tigers went up 14-0.
Williams, though, struck for the first of his three touchdown passes of the afternoon, hitting Justin Foley for a seven-yard scoring strike to make it a 14-7 game.
Princeton responded by marching 73 yards to the Dartmouth two-yard-line. The drive stalled and the Tigers attempted a field goal but the snap sailed high and Princeton came up with nothing as its lead remained at 14-7 at halftime.
The third quarter quickly turned into a nightmare for the Tigers. The Big Green took the opening kickoff and tied the game at 14-14 on a 54-yard option pass from receiver Ryan McManus to Bo Patterson.
Princeton’s first possession of the half ended with a lost fumble and Dartmouth quickly capitalized. Williams hit McManus for a 37-yard pass and then found Mitch Aprahamian in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown pass as Dartmouth forged ahead 21-14.
The Tigers took the ensuing kickoff and fumbled the ball away. Once again, the Big Green cashed in as Williams scored on a two-yard touchdown run, extending the Dartmouth lead to 28-14. All told, the Big Green scored 21 points in a span of 4:03 as it broke the contest open.
Dartmouth added some insurance early in the fourth quarter as Williams hit Michael Reilly with a 37-yard scoring pass to go up 35-14. The freshman quarterback ended the day hitting on 20-of-35 passes for 284 yards.
Princeton did score the final points of the afternoon as freshman quarterback Kedric Bostic, seeing action with Michelson and Epperly ailing, scampered for a nine-yard touchdown run to make the final margin 35-21.
While losing the finale was disappointing, Catapano was proud of the excitement the Tigers generated around campus this fall as they made their unlikely bid for a league title.
“That was the goal of the seniors, that was the goal of our whole team — to bring pride back to this university and this football program” asserted Catapano.
“These guys work so hard 365. It is not just a fall sport, we go so hard in the summer time, so hard in the spring. A lot of people don’t see that but I think they got a much greater appreciation for what we did this year and trying to lay a foundation for something even better to come. That is what I am most proud of; that is what the seniors are most proud of.”
As a result, the Tiger seniors were determined to put on a brave face later that evening as they celebrated the bonfire they earned with wins over Harvard and Yale.
“To mope through an event that is so difficult to acquire would just be wrong and wouldn’t be the way to finish out the four years the senior class has had,” said Starks, who gave an impassioned speech at the
bonfire celebration on Cannon Green.
“Obviously this loss hurts right now. You never want to lose, especially when it is your last one. I think you have to have a quick bounce back period and go out there and have a good time with guys one last time.”
Surace, for his part, had a good time working with his Class of 2013.
“When they were building some of the buildings over there, I used to take pictures of the guys with hard hats and lunch pails going to work,” said Surace.
“I thought it was really neat; here you are at Princeton and when we go to work out at 6:30 in the morning, you have got these guys that are going to work with their hard hats and lunch pails. That’s what the group was. Whether we made mistakes, we played hard. Even today, I thought we played extremely hard.”
That tenacity helped spark this fall’s turnaround and should pay dividends as the Princeton program looks to keep progressing.
“We move forward; the reality is when I dismiss the seniors from our 3:15 meeting and it is just underclassmen, we have got to get going again,” said Surace.
“The reason we got to this point is guys like Cat, Andrew, and the other seniors just took the approach the correct way. I am confident we have built something where guys will continue to do that.”