Nelson’s Heroics Help PU Football Get Back on Track As Tigers Pull Away to 47-21 Victory Over Cornell
FULL NELSON: Princeton University running back Dre Nelson eludes a foe in action this fall. Last Saturday against visiting Cornell, senior star Nelson returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and was credited with 174 all purpose yards to help Princeton prevail 47-21 over the Big Red and snap a two-game losing streak. The Tigers, now 5-2 overall and 2-2 Ivy League, play at Penn, 4-3 overall and 3-1 Ivy, on November 7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Dre Nelson has distinguished himself as a top sprinter for the Princeton University men’s Ivy League champion track team, starring in the 60 and 4×100 relay.
Last Saturday, Nelson’s track experience came in handy on the football field early in the fourth quarter as the senior star took a Cornell kickoff three yards deep in the end zone and proceeded to zigzag through and past the Big Red for a scintillating touchdown return.
“I told the guys on the sideline it felt like a 200 in track; it was a long way,” said Nelson, who was credited with 100 yards on the return as yards inside the end zone aren’t recorded in the college game.
“Just knowing how to run from track helped. We all have a plan and coach Aurich (special teams coordinator Andrew Aurich) draws it up and everybody trusts that it is going to work. I trusted that the guys were going to make their blocks; when it works out it is great. When I cut it back, I was thinking I have just got to run, I can’t get caught. On every return, we have the mindset that we want to score or give the offense very good field position. When I see a hole or a lane open, I just try to run and hope we can get into the end zone.”
Leading 17-7 coming into the second half, Princeton opened things up down the stretch of the contest, pulling away to a 47-21 victory before a crowd of 4,528 at Princeton Stadium, snapping a two-game losing streak and improving to 5-2 overall and 2-2 Ivy.
In the early stages of the contest, though, Princeton’s offense sputtered and the teams headed into the second quarter in a 0-0 tie. The Tigers scored on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Chad Kanoff to Scott Carpenter with 14:01 left in the half and then added another score on a John Lovett three-yard TD run to make it a 14-0 game. The Big Red drew with 10 in the third quarter as they made it 24-14 but the Tigers cruised from there, outscoring Cornell 23-7 over the last 25 minutes of the contest.
“We definitely started slow,” said Nelson, who also scored a rushing touchdown in the third quarter and piled up 174 all-purpose yards in the win.
“I think it was very encouraging to see that we can still fight back and we didn’t sit on or dwell on it,” said the 5’5, 180-pound Nelson, a native of Stone Mountain, Ga.
“We kept eying the prize. They are a very tough team and we just wanted to come in and play Princeton football and hopefully impose our will and we think it worked.”
Princeton head coach Bob Surace credited Princeton’s bend-but-not-break defensive effort in the first quarter with keeping the Tigers from getting into a hole. The Big Red outgained Princeton 146 yards to 65 in the first 15 minutes of the game. Cornell spent much of the quarter in Princeton territory but came away with nothing as it had one field goal blocked, missed another three-point attempt, threw an interception, and was stopped on downs.
“It is not ideal, we are not telling them to do that,” said Surace, reflecting on the defense’s ability to hold the fort.
“Cornell made some really good plays. We are very resilient, we kept fighting. We have a very good field goal block team; we have blocked four this year and we have been doing a great job. Even the ones we have missed, it has hurried the kicker and things like that. We know if we can just keep tightening down at some point and make a couple of plays, we have a chance to keep points off the board. I thought our defense did a really good job of that.”
While the Princeton offense didn’t do a good job early on, it started clicking when Kanoff found tight end Carpenter on a 16-yard pass for its initial first down late in the first quarter.
“I think it was three or four outs in a row; we just needed to get a first down,” said Surace, whose team ended up with 464 yards total offense and 20 first downs, highlighted by a career-high 127 yards rushing from junior running back Joe Rhattigan.
“It wasn’t even scoring touchdowns, it was let’s get a first down, let’s get moving, let’s get some tempo and once we got the first first down, it was like we can play football. We started executing really well. I was really happy with that. I don’t know if we really got stopped that much after the first first down, it seemed like we had one punt the rest of the game. I think with our offense and our tempo, you get a first down and we are right back on the ball and you are going and you are going. You don’t get that first down, you are not right back on the ball, the punter is coming in and we are not happy and we have to make adjustments. I thought that was really good; it meant a lot.”
Bringing a two-game losing streak into the contest, it meant a lot for Princeton to get back into the win
“I thought we practiced really well this week,” said Surace. “I said it to the team yesterday, let’s translate that into the game.”
Surace saw Nelson’s heroics as key in helping to change the course of the game.
“Dre’s return and other returns got us good field position,” added Surace.
“They were really, really good; I thought that ended up being a big factor.”
Another factor in Princeton’s success against Cornell was the players’ business-like approach as they juggled game preparation with academic pressure.
“This was midterms week and typically midterms week has been a tough week,” said Surace.
“Charlie Thompson, our trainer, grabbed me on Thursday and said I have been here doing this a long time and not one guy missed an appointment. It made me, think, alright man, this is a mature team. Our guys get it because we are coming off two losses and they understand the importance of commitment, accountability, and those things.”
With Princeton heading to Philadelphia this Saturday for a clash at Penn, 4-3 overall and 3-1 Ivy, Nelson believes that things are heading in the right direction for the Tigers.
“Football is a momentum game at times and when you can get a win under your belt at home, it definitely can carry into the next week,” said Nelson.
“We are focused on Penn now. It is one week at a time; have a great week of practice and hopefully we can get a win next week too.”