For DiAndre Atwater, getting a shot at playing running back for the Princeton University football team as it hosted Georgetown last Friday night was special on many levels.
Freshman Atwater, who had only seen special teams duty in Princeton’s opening day 17-14 loss at Lehigh, got his first taste of carrying the ball in a college game. To make the evening more memorable, his older brother, junior Stephen Atwater, was on the field at the same time as a Georgetown defensive back.
“I was really excited, especially because my brother was on the other team,” recalled Atwater, who brings a special football lineage to the field along with his brother as their father, Steve, played 11 years in the NFL, including 10 with the Denver Broncos, making eight Pro Bowls in the process.
“I just tried to keep doing my job and doing what I knew best and working hard.”
It didn’t take long for Atwater to do some good work as he ran six yards for a first down in his second carry. On the next series, he made gains of 46 and 27 yards on two pass plays only to see both jaunts called back due to Tiger penalties.
The upbeat Atwater was undeterred. “Everyone makes mistakes out there,” said Atwater. “We knew we just had to correct them on the sidelines and get back out there.”
In the fourth quarter, the 5’8, 205-pound resident of Duluth, Ga. made an electrifying run down the sidelines, dashing 53 yards for a touchdown to put Princeton ahead 20-18 with 14:45 left in the contest.
“I knew the line made a huge hole; it was a read play to the right so when he gave it to me, I knew that I was going to go for at least 10 yards,” recalled Atwater. “Then the safety missed and it was off to the races.”
Unfortunately, Princeton couldn’t hold off the Hoyas as Georgetown put together a 72-yard march in the waning moments of the contest that produced a game-winning field goal with 14 seconds left in a hard-earned 21-20 victory over the Tigers.
While Atwater, who ended up with 92 yards on 15 carries, was disappointed by the final result, he was proud of his contribution.
“We have been working real hard in practice and camp so I was really glad to get out there on the field and show what I could do,” said Atwater.
“A lot of it was the linemen; I can’t take credit for it. A big part of it was them.”
Princeton head coach Bob Surace was bitterly disappointed to see his team’s good work go for naught in the end.
“You have to make plays to win a game and we didn’t,” said Surace, whose team dropped to 0-2 before a crowd of 6,792 at Princeton Stadium.
“I don’t know what happened at the end but we didn’t get the stop. We should have had them off the field. We had chances to win but we didn’t do it. You have to make the plays when you get the opportunities.”
The manner in which Atwater took advantage of his opportunity was a major bright spot for Princeton in a crushing loss that brought to mind the Tiger men’s basketball team’s heartbreaking 50-49 defeat to Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA tourney.
“We have been excited about DiAndre and those young backs,” said Surace. “You saw last night the next man up theory [in the New York Giants’ 36-7 win over Carolina where reserves made key contributions],” said Surace.
“Akil [Sharp] went down with an injury and Will [Powers] went down and DiAndre’s turn was called. He ran real well. He really gave us a spark and we got Dre [Nelson] in there a little bit. I saw at the end of the game that we had a freshman at running back and two freshmen corners. I am thinking this is like a JV game except that those are mature guys and they can handle it.”
Senior linebacker and co-captain Andrew Starks, who produced a career-high 16 tackles in the Georgetown loss, believes the Tigers will show maturity in bouncing back from the disappointment as they prepare for their Ivy League opener at Columbia on September 29.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we will watch film on Sunday and we will get those mistakes corrected in time for the Ivy League,” said Starks.
“You want to win all the games but those are the games that count. For us to still have a chance at the Ivy championship, that’s what drives us and will help us bounce back from this game.”
In the clash against Georgetown, the Tigers displayed their ability to bounce back as they rallied from an early 3-0 deficit. Princeton took a 7-3 lead as receiver Tom Moak took a wide snap on a field goal attempt and hit Mark Hayes on a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Princeton opened up a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter when Will Powers scored on a two-yard touchdown run to culminate a 12-play 50-yard scoring march.
The Hoyas narrowed the Tigers’ lead to 14-6 on a 26-yard field goal by Matt MacZura with 4:03 left in the first half. Princeton took possession at its own 22-yard line after the ensuing kickoff. On second down, a bad snap started a nightmarish sequence that will haunt the Tigers. Quarterback Connor Michelson failed to handle the snap out of a shotgun formation and the ball squirted into the end zone. Several Tigers had a shot at it but the Hoyas recovered the ball for a touchdown to narrow the gap to 14-12.
Surace took blame for the way his players handled that situation. “A veteran group takes a safety there, you can’t allow a touchdown,” said Surace, whose team lost one other fumble on the evening and committed seven penalties for 70 yards after getting flagged for just one violation in the Lehigh loss.
“That is my fault. We have to be clear in our preparation on that type of play. Young guys try to do too much sometimes.”
The teams traded punts for much of the third quarter before Georgetown broke through a Nick Campanella 7-yard touchdown run to take a 18-14 lead with 17 seconds remaining in the period.
Two plays into the fourth quarter, Atwater took off on his 53-yard touchdown dash and the Tigers forged ahead 20-18.
On its next possession, Princeton drove to the Georgetown 18 but failed to get any points out of the march as a Nolan Bieck 35-yard field goal attempt sailed wide.
The teams exchanged punts and Georgetown took over at its own 12 with 5:34 remaining in regulation. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty on Princeton and converting a 4th and 3, the Hoyas got to the Tiger 16. With 14 seconds left, MacZura hit a 33-yard field goal that proved to be the margin of victory as Georgetown improved to 3-1.
As hard as it might be, Princeton needs to put the Georgetown loss in the rear view mirror as it heads to New York City this Saturday to play at Columbia (1-1) in the Ivy League opener for both teams.
“It is really disappointing; we are going to come back on Sunday and be ready for Columbia,” said Surace. “Columbia is going to be ready for us; we are going to have to play a great game on the road.”
Atwater, for his part, believes that Princeton can come up with a great effort against the Lions.
“We have to correct the mistakes we made and come back hard against Columbia,” said Atwater. “We need to come back with energy and strength and do what we do best.”