November 13, 2019

Princeton Football on Wrong Side of History, Falling 27-10 to Dartmouth at Yankee Stadium

BRONX BOMBER: Princeton University quarterback Kevin Davidson fires a pass a game earlier this fall. Last Saturday, senior Davidson threw for 210 yards and a touchdown in a losing cause as Princeton fell 27-10 to Dartmouth at Yankee Stadium. The loss to the undefeated Big Green snapped a 17-game winning streak for the Tigers, who dropped to 7-1 overall and 4-1 Ivy League. Princeton will look to get back in the win column when it hosts Yale (7-1 overall, 4-1 Ivy) on November 16. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For lifelong New York Yankees fan Bob Surace, making the pilgrimage to the Bronx is always special.

So when Surace brought his undefeated and ninth-ranked  Princeton University football team to Yankee Stadium last Saturday for a clash against undefeated and No. 13 Dartmouth to help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first game which pitted the Tigers against Rutgers on November 6, 1869, the trip was destined to leave a slew of memories.

“The entire week was great, with the celebration of the first game we played in, the Empire State Building being lit up the orange and red for us and Rutgers, and the number of alumni who flew in, who drove in,” said Princeton head coach Surace, a star center for the Tiger football program in the late 1980s.

“It was really incredible to see the support from everybody who has been a part of Princeton football for such a long time and then have the Yankee Stadium experience.”

Soaking in the scene, Princeton was primed to excel on the big stage. “We went up Friday to practice and did a walk through and got a chance to be on the field and see all of that,” said Surace.

“It was a great setting for us and everyone involved in terms of that. You want to be in these games that are truly nationally recognized. You want to win them, but to have a game that is on such a big stage and then to put it in such a great venue, I think that was terrific for everybody.”

The Tigers, though, left the Bronx Saturday evening with some less than terrific memories as Dartmouth jumped out to a 17-0 first half lead and held off a Princeton rally to prevail 27-10 before a crowd of 21,506 and snap the Tigers’ 17-game winning streak. The Big Green improved to 8-0 overall and 5-0 Ivy League while Princeton dropped to 7-1 overall and 4-1 Ivy.

Digging an early hole, Princeton fell behind 7-0 when Dartmouth defensive lineman Niko Lalos picked off a Kevin Davidson pass and rumbled 22 yards for a touchdown.

“We just made some uncharacteristic turnovers; for a long time we have been good with protecting the football and not making mistakes,” said Surace.

“I thought we had a great week of practice. Unfortunately, you are going up against a really good opponent. It is not practice any more. We missed a block on that defender on what should be an 8-10 yard pick up and he is right in the throwing lane. Right off the bat, we make a mistake.”

The Tigers responded by marching down the field to the Dartmouth 20-yard line, only to have the drive end on a fumble recovery by the Big Green.

“When we move the ball against that defense, we go about 75 yards and a play goes to review,” said Surace.

“I actually thought they were reviewing targeting because of the length of the review and we ended up losing the ball on a fumble. You got a chance right there to get a scores and we get a fumble. They did a good job of controlling field position.”

Late in the second quarter, Princeton forced a turnover as linebacker Ike Hall recovered a fumble on the Dartmouth 39. The Tigers responded with scoring march which culminated on a three-yard TD pass from Davidson to tight end Graham Adomitis. 

“We score right before the half to make it 17-7,” said Surace. “We weren’t great in third down but we were moving the ball. We had only four turnovers coming into the game and then we have three in the first half, which was really challenging.”

The foes began the third quarter by trading field goals, but Princeton needed more to put the Big Green on their heels.

“They come out in the second half and have a really good drive and kick a field goal,” said Surace.

“We march right down and it looks like we are about to score and then there is the only holding call of the game, which goes against us when we have the ball inside the five. It was just one of those days where you are going up against a good team where those little things matter. Kicking a field goal when you needed to get that back to a one score game there made it really hard.”

Over the rest of the contest, Dartmouth wore the Tigers down with its ground attack, as it totaled 225 yards rushing on 52 carries in the game.

“They ran the ball really well,” said Surace. “They put you in a lot of tough situations with an athletic quarterback in [Jared] Gerbino. He is either keeping it with a fake or handing it off to [Drew] Estrada or a running back. They really put you in these one-on-one situations and a few times we made a mistake. They didn’t even have 300 yards (293) on us on offense. The few times we made mistakes, they got 20-yard plays. What was hard is when we didn’t make mistakes, they were generating three and four  yards a pop and getting a manageable third down which they converted over 50 percent (7-of-12).”

Meanwhile the Tiger offense failed to gain a rhythm against the rugged Big Green front seven.

“They are the top-ranked defense in the country and in the top two or three in every category,” said Surace, as
Davidson passed for 210 yards but Princeton could only muster 36 yards rushing on 20 carries.

“They make it really challenging to move the ball, they don’t give up 30-yard plays. We had one (a 30-yard pass play from Davidson to Jacob Birmelin in the second quarter) and it was one of the longest plays of the year against them. They don’t give up big plays, so you have to execute one play after another. Whether it was a sack or a drop, it was just the little things that were a tiny bit off. In a game where we only have 10 drives, those little thing like penalties put us in some tough situations that kept us from converting. You just have to be so exact. A dozen straight plays to score against them and we didn’t do that enough.”

With a high-powered Yale (7-1 overall, 4-1 Ivy) squad coming to Princeton Stadium this Saturday, Princeton can’t afford to be off.

“Yale is terrific in their players and coach [Tony Reno]; they have always been an incredible challenge,” said Surace.

“They have an experienced group, a talented group, and a well coached group. That hasn’t changed over the years with them. They return just about everybody. It was really the one offense that scored on us last year (in a 59-43 Princeton win), we struggled against them. They return the quarterback [Kurt Rawlings], they return the receivers [JP Shohfi, Reed Klubnik], and the majority of the offensive line. The running backs, Zane Dudek and Alan Lamar, are great players in the this league. It is certainly going to be challenging. It is really what our league is.”

Vowing that the Tigers won’t dwell on the loss to Dartmouth, Surace believes his players will be up to the challenge.

“You are proud of the effort, there are things that we have to correct,” said Surace.

“If the character of this team is what I think it is, we will have great attitudes this week. The issue wasn’t our effort or our fight.”

While the Tigers displayed a great attitude last Saturday, Surace acknowledges that Princeton needs to clean up some things.

“I would like to see us play less sloppy; I would like to see some things on my end as a coach and get them in better position,” said Surace.

“The most disappointing thing is that I thought our practice week was our best practice week. We looked so sharp on Tuesday and we were exact on Friday with everything. For whatever reason, and Dartmouth forces some of those things on you, we made some mistakes that you just can’t have. It is hard to overcome that against a team that is legitimately one of the better teams in the country.”