October 13, 2021

Overcoming Windy Conditions, Tough Monmouth Team, PU Football Rallies for 31-28 Victory, Improving to 4-0

ROARING BACK: Princeton University football player Jacob Birmelin dives into the end zone in recent action. Last Saturday at Monmouth, senior star receiver Birmelin made nine catches for 109 yards to help Princeton rally from a 21-6 third quarter deficit to pull out a 31-28 victory over the Hawks. The Tigers, now 4-0, play at Brown (1-3) on October 16. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The Princeton University football team’s hopes for an undefeated 2021 season nearly blew away last Saturday in the gusts swirling around Monmouth’s Kessler Stadium.

Bringing a 3-0 record into the clash with 25th-ranked Hawks, the No. 24 Tigers found themselves trailing Monmouth 14-6 at halftime on a day which saw 20 mph winds blowing across the field all game long.

“You obviously want to get off to a better start and you want to do better,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace.

“You believe in your guys, you just keep playing. You make some adjustments and hope you can get back in it. We had a really good end of the half drive to cut it 14-6, it made it a one score game.”

Monmouth kept playing well in the third quarter, starting the half with a 16-play, 66-yard scoring march that culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by Juwon Farri as the Hawks increased their lead to 21-6.

“They had a great start to the second half, they converted a bunch of third downs,” said Surace.

“We were struggling to get off the field. Their quarterback [Tony Muskett] was doing a great job. They were running the ball, not for big yards but for two or three and then converting third and fours.”

With the wind at its back in the third quarter, Princeton responded by knotting the game at 21-21 as Tiger senior running back Collin Eaddy scored on a pair of one-yard TD plunges, one coming late in the third and the other with 11:55 left in the fourth.

“The bigger concern was that the wind was a big factor for both teams,” said Surace.

“We had the wind in that third quarter and they start off with an eight -minute drive basically and now there is only seven minutes left with the wind. Offensively we made some adjustments. We got a couple of scores in the last seven minutes when we got wind.”

Midway through the fourth quarter, Eaddy put the Tigers ahead 28-21 as he scored his third touchdown of the day on a four-yard run.

Monmouth, though, wasn’t finished as Anthony Budd picked off a Cole Smith pass and returned it 16 yards for a TD to make it a 28-28 game. Princeton showed its resilience, going on a 13-play, 57-yard march and winning the game 31-28 on a 36-yard field goal by Jeffrey Sexton with 10 seconds left in regulation into a 20-mph headwind

“There are going to be a lot of gray hairs,” said Surace, reflecting on the comeback which marked Princeton’s biggest rally since overcoming a 34-10 fourth quarter deficit against Harvard in 2012 and pulling out a 39-34 win.

“We have just got to keep fighting, staying together and competing. You do that each week, you put yourself in position.”

Senior QB Smith showed his fighting spirit, bouncing back from the interception to engineer the game-winning drive as he ended the day hitting on 27 of 41 passes for 282 yards.

“I switched the play during the time-out to a play action; in a vacuum it is a great call there is a guy wide open,” said Surace, recalling what led up to the Monmouth pick-six.

“But I have Cole rolling to his left against a 30 mph wind. I went over to apologize to him and say let’s keep going, that is my fault and he has got the whole offense over there, fired up about going in for the next series. It is a really good sign of maturity and leadership.”

That series showed the team’s collective maturity. “We ended up going down the field and we made the field goal but you had to get a lot of yards,” said Surace.

“Sexton hit a 46-yard field goal with the wind at the end of the second quarter, it would been good from 60. Against the wind, a 40-yarder was going to be tough so you had to get the ball somewhere around the 20-yard line.”

Freshman kicker Sexton, who also hit a 21-yard field goal in the first quarter, stepped up in the win.

“It was not the easiest game, his field goals are huge with  the timing of them and everything else,” said Surace.

“The other part, kicking off into that wind was a bear. He did an amazing job. We ended up forcing a fumble on one kickoff.”

Princeton got an amazing all-around game from senior receiver Dylan Classi, who made five catches for 64 yards, catching a two-point conversion that made it 21-14 and completed a 17-yard pass to Jacob Birmelin on Princeton’s next scoring march.

“Classi made a couple of those diving catches, you are going against a really good team, you are not going to be open by three or four yards,” said Surace.

“Those are contested catches where it is a perfect throw, perfect catch. He is just a football player. You ask him to block, you ask him to be a decoy, you put him in a tight spot in a key moment and you just count on him for everything.”

Princeton’s two other standout receivers, junior Andrei Iosivas and senior Birmelin, also delivered some key plays. Iosivas had four receptions for 76 yards, including a 30-yard catch and a 38-yard grab that helped set up two TDs while Birmelin made nine catches for 109 yards.

“On one of them, he got great separation; it was a nice ball, we had the wind and he got down to the half yard line,” said Surace, referring to the heroics of Iosivas.

“Then the other one came in a key moment with a guy draped all over him. It was just a very athletic play, Birmelin was just so active, I thought it was the best he has done route-running. He has always been a good route runner and he was really challenged by a good defender. He really created separation.”

Dealing with the challenge posed by Monmouth should steel Princeton for its Ivy League stretch drive.

“It is something we talked about the first day of camp with so many veteran teams and so many older, experienced players,  these games are going to come down to details, they are going to come down to the small things,” said Surace.

“In this case, there two teams with tremendous personnel and we have to make one more play than them. Standing there on the sideline and watching some outstanding quarterback play, great catches, hard runs, some brilliant defensive plays, we are not separated by a lot talent-wise. We had to make one more play than them. I think that is how most of the season is probably going to go.”

The Tigers, who are 1-0 in Ivy action, will have to make a lot of plays this Saturday when they play at Brown (1-3 overall, 0-1 Ivy), which is coached by former Tiger offensive coordinator James Perry and features high-powered quarterback E.J. Perry.

“I think the world of James as a football coach, he is as good as anybody, and I coached in the NFL, I have ever been around,” said Surace, who was an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals for nine years before taking the helm of Princeton for the 2010 season.

“He is really upped the talent level. His nephew, E.J., I thought was the best player in the conference offensively two years ago. This is the thing, having coached with James, every day you are around him, you get better. His team is going to get better. They had a nice win Saturday [31-10 over Colgate].”

Even though Princeton had a very nice win on Saturday, there is plenty of room for improvement.

“There are things we have to work on; we have to start better and I have to put them in better positions,” said Surace, whose team is up to No. 20 in the AFCA Coaches’, No. 23 in the Athlon Sports FCS and No. 25 in the Stats Perform FCS polls.

“I am kicking myself, there are some things we could have done better. I thought coach [Kevin] Callahan did a great job in how they managed the elements. He did better than I did. You learn, you grow, you kick yourself.  It was going to come down to a close game anyway. We both had our good and our bad. We are not NFL players, we are not at that level, but every NFL game just about comes down to a few plays. I feel like I am back in the NFL where every game is going to come down to little things.”