Dre Nelson was determined to give the Princeton University football team a spark as it hosted Davidson last Saturday, looking to bounce back from an opening day loss to the University of San Diego.
Taking the opening kickoff, the junior speedster darted down the sidelines for an 89-yard return for a touchdown.
“Coach [Andrew] Aurich, the special teams coach, talks to us everyday about getting the game started right,” said the 5’5, 175-pound Nelson, who also competes in track and holds the Princeton record for the 60-meter dash at 6.84.
“Every time he talks about the kickoff, he always wants me to house the first one. The guys picked up the blocks; everyone was around when I scored. They were blocking hard. Everybody did their job and we got a touchdown. It is 11-on-11 so there is one guy and I have to beat him. It was one-on-one, I made the move and had the score.”
Nelson’s scoring jaunt was the opening salvo of an explosive night for Princeton as it rolled to a 56-17 win over the Wildcats before a crowd of 15,205 at Princeton Stadium that was treated to a postgame fireworks show as part of the program’s Community and Staff Day festivities.
In Nelson’s view, the Tigers ratcheted up the intensity in the wake of the 39-29 opening day loss to San Diego.
“Practice was the same as far as what we do but everybody was angry about the loss,” said Nelson. “We had to take it up another level as far as our effort and how intense we were from the top down. We practiced harder, that was a big difference.”
Nelson’s hard running led to another score in the second quarter as he raced for a 23-yard TD gallop.
“The line blocked really well and coach [Sean] Gleeson, our running back coach, has been on us, especially after last week’s performance, about running hard, breaking the first tackle, breaking arm tackles, and running through defenders,” said Nelson, who piled up 203 all-purpose yards in the win with 146 yards on returns, 28 yards rushing, and 29 yards receiving.
“So all of us, D’Andre [Atwater], Will [Powers], [Joe] Rhattigan, and me had our mindset to run hard this week and that is kind of what happened on that touchdown.”
Senior quarterback and co-captain Quinn Epperly, for his part, credited the win to an up-tempo mindset.
“We had a lot more energy with this week of practice and it definitely carried over into the game,” said Epperly.
“That was something we have always tried to pride ourselves on, especially last year. It is something we didn’t do a good enough job in San Diego; you could see that we were way too flat. I think that just playing hard was big. Coach [Bob Surace] tells us all the time that will solve a lot of problems. You may not execute perfectly but if you are hitting hard and coming off the ball hard and you are just doing everything as fast and hard as you can, good things will happen.”
Princeton head coach Surace saw some very good things from his team last Saturday evening.
“We really looked fast; where if I watched the film last week, we looked not fast,” said Surace.
“We looked faster, explosive, we finished. I saw linemen downfield doing the things we have done, finishing our blocks and picking the runner up. There was so much more energy coming from those guys. That was really fun to see.”
It was fun watching Epperly on Saturday as he displayed his all-around talents, rushing for 118 yards and four touchdowns and going 15-of-18 passing for 176 yards.
After Davidson responded to Nelson’s TD return with a field goal to narrow the gap to 7-3, Epperly took over. The 6’3, 215-pound quarterback scored on touchdown runs of four yards, six yards, and one yard as the Tigers built a 29-3 lead by early in the second quarter.
Wildcat running back David Rogers made it a 29-10 game as he sprinted for a four-yard touchdown run. The Tigers answered with Nelson’s touchdown run and a 31-yard field goal by Nolan Bieck to take a 39-10 advantage into halftime.
In the third quarter, Davidson put together a 23-play, 75-yard march that took nearly 11 minutes and culminated with a 12-yard touchdown pass from J.P. Douglas to William Morris to make it 39-17.
The Tigers scored 17 unanswered points to put the finishing touches on the rout. Bieck hit a 40-yard field goal late in the third quarter and Epperly scored his fourth TD of the evening early in the fourth quarter. Senior Will Powers rambled for a nine-yard touchdown run with 3:24 left in regulation to close out the scoring.
For Surace, the victory was a testament to his team’s character and resilience.
“We looked heavy-legged and lethargic when we got to the game in San Diego,” said Surace, who got some heavy hitting from linebacker Rohan Hylton in the win over Davidson as the sophomore standout made 11 tackles and was later named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week.
“We didn’t finish like we needed to finish. That was a big point on all three sides of the ball, that this doesn’t look like a championship team or a special team. This looks like an average team. I thought it was really great to see us respond. There is a lot of pride in that locker room and we hit on those words, pride and mentality. To see the seniors and upperclassmen do things that way, you felt that energy. The crowd was awesome, that is a big boost.”
The Tigers took their cue from Epperly when it came to playing with pride. “You didn’t see him this week pouting or throwing his helmet, he never does that,” said Surace.
“He just goes and plays football. You see a guy who just enjoys it. There were two or three runs where he was the hammer. It is just fun to see because he loves playing. He defines himself as a football player, who happens to throw the ball extremely accurately. You just love the leadership of our guys and the way he came out. It is not by rah rah, it is by how you finish and how you execute as a quarterback.”
Epperly, for his part, is motivated by Princeton’s poor execution in the defeat to San Diego.
“That is still unacceptable, we should have never lost,” said Epperly. “There is not going to be any letup with anything. We realize practicing hard just gets us to this point. We are going to face more adversity in the season so we have got to keep that mindset up and never let that taste out of our mouth.”
With Princeton heading to Columbia (0-2) on October 4 in the Ivy League opener for both teams, Nelson believes that tasting victory can get the Tigers rolling.
“It is a great win,” said Nelson. “I feel like we started to get our rhythm and get some great plays going. It is good to get a win and it is always nice to have a big win like we did today.”