When the Princeton University football team fell behind 17-0 at Brown in the first half last Saturday evening, some of its veteran players could have started feeling an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.
After all, two years ago, Princeton dug an early 17-0 hole at Brown on the way to a discouraging 34-0 whipping at the hands of the Bears.
But as Princeton head coach Bob Surace surveyed the scene, he didn’t get any sense that history was about to repeat itself.
“I looked at the guys on the sideline and they weren’t dismayed or shocked or awed,” said Surace. “I felt confident that we could get things together. I was thinking we have to get some things fixed and get back to playing good football.”
Surace’s confidence was increased when junior quarterback Quinn Epperly led the Tigers on a 15-play, 88-yard scoring march that culminated with an 8-yard touchdown run by Brian Mills with 2:05 left in the second quarter as the Tigers narrowed the gap to 17-6 at halftime.
In the dressing room, Surace reinforced his view that the Tigers were very much in the ballgame.
“At half, I went in and grabbed the guys and said we can’t score 20 points on one play, it is one play at a time,” recalled Surace. “I said keep executing and keep fighting and we will be OK.”
After the break, Princeton played a lot better than OK as it reeled off 33 unanswered points on the way to a 39-17 victory.
“The second half was about as well-played as it could be for us,” said Surace, whose team improved to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in Ivy League.
“We came out and got a score and we made one play after another. I think there were about 20 plays in a row that were executed well. On defense, we got some big three-and-outs. We had some great tackling. By the end of the third and into the fourth, we were able show depth and use our strength and conditioning.”
Epperly is showing that he may be the best player in the Ivy League as rushed for 99 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 233 yards in the win over the Bears. The 6’1, 220-pound native of Knoxville, Tenn., who has now rushed for 11 touchdowns and thrown for nine on the fall, was named the Ivy Offensive Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks.
“He is playing at a high level,” said Surace of Epperly, who ran for all three of his touchdowns in the second half, highlighted by a scintillating 39-yard scoring gallop early in the fourth quarter.
“His game management and decision-making have been great. He runs the play that is called. He is so big and strong that he is a force when he runs the ball up the middle. But you don’t realize how fast he is in the open field, he is very elusive.”
While some big plays went against Princeton in the first half as John Spooney sprinted 71 yards for a touchdown and Michael Walsh returned a blocked punt 18 yards for a score, Surace looked to his veterans to right the ship.
“We have a really good group of leaders,” asserted Surace. “Last year Mike Catapano and Andrew Starks were such great leaders. When people asked me who were going to be the leaders this year, I said ‘who isn’t a leader?’ We have such a good group of guys, they have been through ups and downs. They held steady and stuck together on Saturday.”
The Tigers will need that leadership this weekend as the team heads back to New England for a battle of Ivy leaders as Princeton plays at Harvard (5-0 overall, 2-0 Ivy) in a critical game this Saturday with Penn the other league frontrunner at 3-2 overall and 2-0 Ivy.
In Surace’s view, Harvard poses a formidable obstacle for the Tigers in their drive for an Ivy crown.
“They haven’t lost and there is a reason why,” said Surace, noting that the Crimson have won 15 straight home contests.
“You look at the statistics and they are great. When you watch them on film, they live up to the statistics. They have two quarterbacks and one is completing about 68 percent of his passes [Connor Hempel] and the other is completing 70 percent [Michael Pruneau]. Their tailback [Paul Stanton] is tremendously explosive and they are balanced at receiver. They have some big tight ends and their slot receivers are very good. They have a very good offensive line. On defense, they are in attack mode. They have forced 19 turnovers and have made 20 sacks. Zach Hodges reminds me of Javon Kearse [former NFL star], he is so long and so athletic; he is tough to block.”
In order for Princeton to prevail, the Tigers will have to be mentally tough. “They are going to make plays and we can’t make silly turnovers to help them,” said Surace, whose team stunned Harvard last year in a game for the ages, rallying from a 34-10 fourth quarter deficit to pull out a 39-34 victory.
“We have to do a good job of possessing the ball and make big plays when we have a shot. We have such high respect for them. We have to be focused for four quarters and 60 minutes. We have to make sure that we are exact in our alignments and assignments. We have to be focused on detail.”