November 7, 2018

Coming from Behind to Win Ivy Showdown, PU Football Edges Dartmouth 14-9, Now 8-0

TRENCH WARFARE: Princeton University offensive lineman Brent Holder, right, battles Rocco Di Leo of Dartmouth last Saturday in a clash of Ivy League frontrunners. Princeton rallied to pull out a 14-9 win over the previously undefeated Big Green to improve to 8-0 overall and 5-0 Ivy League. The Tigers play at Yale (5-3 overall, 3-2 Ivy) on November 10. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

It was a clash of unbeatens that took on the aura of a heavyweight title fight when the Princeton University football team hosted Dartmouth last Saturday.

After the rivals, who both entered the day with 7-0 records, traded touchdowns on their first possessions to  make it a 7-7 game, the two teams slugged it out in between the 20s with a second quarter safety by Dartmouth being the only additional points scored heading into the final period.

Princeton broke through with the knockout blow as senior quarterback John Lovett bulled into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown run with 6:33 remaining in regulation to provide the margin of victory as the Tigers prevailed 14-9 before a crowd of 8,041 at Princeton Stadium.

Reflecting on the battle, Tiger head coach Bob Surace tipped his hat to both squads.

“It felt like Rocky I with two teams slugging it out,” said Surace with a relieved chuckle.

“We have tremendous respect for them; it is the same on both sides. That was a slugfest; it lived up to everything everybody said it was going to be. Our team talks about heart and passion and I know they talk about the same things. We have played some great games against them, and for this to be an outcome we are one play better. I can’t thank our senior leaders enough.”

Surace is thankful to have senior star Lovett on his side. “He is incredible, he is incredible to coach,” said Surace of Lovett, who played the game with a cast on his injured left arm. “It is just full go on every play and everything he does in life. He just attacks with enthusiasm.”

Lovett, for his part, never lost his enthusiasm even as the Big Green repeatedly stymied a Princeton offense that was leading the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in scoring with 50.7 points a game coming into Saturday.

“Coach Gleeson (offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson) does an incredible job of instilling confidence in our offense and our guys,” said Lovett, who rushed for 54 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 161 yards in the victory.

“He believes in us 100 percent and we believe in each other. For us to be facing adversity today and for us to put together drives at the end of the game when it counts shows the senior leadership we have on our offense. It is a credit to our defense for keeping us in the entire game the whole time.”

The Princeton offense started to find a rhythm when it went on a 91-yard march later in the third quarter into the fourth even though the drive ended with the Tigers being stopped on fourth and inches.

“That was a big drive,” said Lovett. “The goal is to score on every single drive so that was failed goal but I think that was a good drive for the team. It gave us confidence.”

After the Princeton defense forced a three-and-out, the Tigers got a short field taking over with the ball at the Big Green 34. Four plays later, Lovett made his game-winning TD run.

“I know my number was called and I needed to get into the end zone,” recalled Lovett. “That is all I was thinking about.”

Lovett credited Princeton’s offensive line for giving him room to operate.

“We stand by those guys in the trenches; they are the heart and soul of our offense,” said Lovett. “All of us have full confidence in all of those guys and we love playing with them.”

Princeton senior linebacker and co-captain Tom Johnson led a defensive charge that battled a senior-laden Dartmouth offensive line whose starters averaged 295 pounds a player.

“It was a credit to coach Verbs (defensive coordinator Steve Verbit) and our defensive staff,” said Johnson, who made a team-high 10 tackles in the win.

“Our plan was to be gap solid and not to do anything too crazy. All of our stress was being where we needed to be and doing our jobs. We were able to do that on most plays today.”

The unit was primed for the challenge of holding the fort after Dartmouth stopped Princeton’s 91-yard march.

“The same way these guys are expected to get that one yard, we are expected to, if that doesn’t happen, get out there and compete,” said Johnson. “It is awesome, we love it.”

Surace, for his part, loved seeing the patience exhibited by his players in outlasting the Big Green.

“There was a great calm offensively that if the defense could continue to play like they were that we were going to have opportunities, and that at some point we had to get one in,” said Surace.

“We were probably a play better; it wasn’t like these two teams were miles apart. Sitting there watching that game, it was ‘holy cow that group we are going up against, they are outstanding.’ There is not a big weakness. As the game went on, we were a little bit thicker on our blocks. At times, we won some, they won some. A team like that can break you and our guys didn’t break.”

With Princeton, now ranked No. 11 in the FCS Coaches Poll, playing at Yale (5-3 overall, 3-2 Ivy) on November 10, Lovett vows that there will be no break in the team’s concentration on the task at hand.

“Every single Ivy League game has the same amount of importance by the nature of us not being able to compete in playoffs,” said Lovett.

“It doesn’t matter if you are playing the best team in the league or the worst team. Every game has the same amount of importance so we are attacking practices the same way throughout the entire year. That is what has led to our success this far and we are not going to change that mentality.”