With the Princeton University football team having lost the season opener in each of his four years at the helm of the program, Bob Surace sensed that things would be different this fall.
As the Tigers prepared to kick off the 2014 campaign at the University of San Diego last Saturday, head coach Surace liked what he was seeing from his players in the build-up to the contest.
“We had a good week of practice,” said Surace. “We got on the bus after Friday’s practice, feeling good. In practice there had been very few corrections.”
But practice didn’t make perfect as the Tigers shot themselves in the foot on several occasions in falling 39-29 to San Diego before a sun-splashed crowd of 3,324 at Torero Stadium.
The Tigers dug an early 14-0 hole, forcing them to fight an uphill battle the rest of the afternoon.
“We get off to a slow start and gave up a 90-yard drive, that hurt,” lamented Surace.
After the teams exchanged punts in the first two possessions of the contest, San Diego got rolling as quarterback Keith Williams hit Reggie Bell for an 82-yard pass play that got the Toreros to the Princeton 11-yard line. Two plays later, Williams hit Brandon White for a 10-yard touchdown.
Princeton went three and out on its next possession and Bell struck again with a 55-yard punt return that gave San Diego the ball at the Tiger 31. Williams ended up scoring on a one-yard quarterback plunge as the Toreros extended their lead to 14-0.
With senior quarterback Quinn Epperly finding a rhythm, Princeton went on the march. The reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the year hit 4-of-8 passes and then ran 12 yards for a touchdown to complete a 15-play, 78-yard march as the Tigers narrowed the gap to 14-6 in the waning seconds of the quarter.
It seemed like Princeton was righting the ship in the second quarter. Getting the ball at the San Diego 36, the Tigers started moving again. Connor Michelson came on in a multi-quarterback set and hit Epperly with a 12-yard pass to get the ball to the Torero 11. Two plays later, Joe Rhattigan found paydirt for the Tigers on a 12-yard touchdown scamper to make it a 14-12 game.
The Toreros answered two possessions later as Williams hit White with a 25-yard pass and then found that man Bell again for a 26-yard scoring strike to push the San Diego advantage back to 21-12.
Princeton fought back putting together a 58-yard drive that culminated in a 34-yard field goal by Nolan Bieck and cut the Torero lead to 21-15 at the half.
Surace, for his part, was happy with what he saw after the shaky start. “We were playing well in the second quarter, we had more consistency,” said Surace. “In the first quarter, we didn’t tackle well but after that we had only a handful of missed tackles. We played better on all three sides of the ball.”
Building on the progress in the second quarter, the Tigers nosed ahead 22-21 early in the third quarter. Dre Nelson returned the second half kickoff 35 yards to give Princeton the ball at its 36. Running back DiAndre Atwater then broke loose for a 54-yard gallop to get the ball to the San Diego 10. Two plays later, Epperly hit Matt Costello for a 4-yard TD pass and Bieck hit the extra point to make it 22-21 in favor of the Tigers.
But the Princeton offense sputtered from that point, doomed by a series of mental miscues.
“We got the ball back and had a third and one and they stuffed us,” recalled Surace.
“We had six drives in a row without a first down. It was a number of errors. One time it was a missed block, then it was a missed throw, and then a missed catch.”
While Princeton stalled, Bell kept rolling, scoring on a 48-yard touchdown pass with 5:25 left in the third quarter as San Diego regained the lead at 29-22.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Toreros got their advantage back to double digits as Williams hit D’Angelo Barksdale for a five-yard touchdown strike as San Diego extended the margin to 36-22. Minutes later, the Toreros added a field goal to make it 39-22.
The Tigers kept battling and Epperly found Seth DeValve for a 22-yard TD pass with 2:25 remaining as Princeton closed the gap to the final score of 39-29.
“We better concentrate on detail or we are going to struggle,” said Surace, reflecting on the loss which marked the eighth straight opening day defeat for the program.
“To go into a game and not play the coverage the way we played in practice, that makes no sense to me.”
Although disappointed by the result, Surace did see some positives coming out of the afternoon.
“There were a number of things,” noted Surace, who got 237 yards passing for two touchdowns from Epperly with DeValve making nine catches for 123 yards and Atwater rushing for 80 yards.
“We didn’t have the typical first game penalties. We stopped the run very well, they averaged 2.2 yards. The effort was good, not great. DiAndre and DeValve ran hard.”
The Tigers will need to take care of the little things as it hosts Davidson (1-3) in its home opener with a big crowd expected at Princeton Stadium as the program celebrates community and staff day with a postgame fireworks display to cap off the festivities.
“We need to fix things; we need to work on being more exact in the details,” said Surace.
“The veterans did some things that were uncharacteristic. It will be good getting that game film. We need to make a good leap from the first to the second game.”