November 3, 2021

Utilizing Ground Attack, Opportunistic Defense, Tiger Football Tops Cornell 34-16, Moves to 7-0

NO JOKING AROUND: Princeton University football player Matthew Jester enjoys the moment in a game earlier this season. Last Friday night, junior linebacker Jester had three tackles and a forced fumble to help lead the defensive effort as Princeton defeated Cornell 34-16. The Tigers, now 7-0 overall and 4-0 Ivy League, play at Dartmouth (6-1 overall, 3-1 Ivy) on November 5. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Playing at Cornell last Friday night, the Princeton University football team could have found itself in a trap game.

It was a short week and a long trip for Princeton and it was greeted by some rough weather as a chilly rain pelted Schoellkopf Field in Ithaca, N.Y.,

With a clash at once-beaten Dartmouth looming, the undefeated Tigers could have taken a one-win Cornell squad lightly.

Instead, 15th-ranked Princeton kept its focus, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and helping off a feisty Big Red squad for 34-16 win as it improved to 7-0 overall and 4-0 Ivy. It marked the third straight season that the Tigers have started 7-0, the first time the program has done that since 1901, 1902, and 1903.

“We talked about it early in the week, we always prepare for things,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace.

“We knew there was a chance for bad weather so with our game plans and whatever you are going to wear on the field, you prepare for it. But is the same for both teams.”

In addition to being prepared, Princeton showed character in dealing with the adverse condition and overcoming an upset-minded foe.

“Every week we have shown it, whether it is Monmouth and we throw a pick-six on a bad call by me and come back and score,” said Surace, referring to a 31-28 win over the Hawks on October 9.

Against Columbia (a 24-7 win on October 2), it was the runs at the end of the game. The first two games were outliers (a 32-0 win over Lehigh on September 18 and a 63-0 victory over Stetson on September 25). I feel like every week, they really have a great bond. They don’t panic, they play hard, and they play together.”

The Tigers ran hard against the Big Red, rushing for 137 yards on 47 attempts. The ground attack was augmented by backup quarterbacks Niko Vangarelli and Blake Stenstrom.  Freshman Vangarelli rushed for two touchdowns and sophomore  transfer Stenstrom gained 14 yards.

“Fortunately we play a JV schedule and Niko was terrific, he got that freshman learning experience,” said Surace.

“We were able to get him true game action and have been looking to find some opportunities for him here each week. Blake has been practicing great. We have extended (starting QB) Cole [Smith] in some situations at times. We just have to be smart, he is not 230 pounds like John Lovett or Quinn Epperly. He doesn’t have that body type. The good thing is that Blake can sling it too, it is not like he is just in there to run.”

Senior linebacker Jeremiah Tyler came through after Vangarelli ran for his first TD of the game as he gathered in a fumble and raced 36 yards for a touchdown as the Tigers went ahead 14-0.

“It was a great job by a couple of guys defensively, Matthew Jester and Daniel Beard forcing the fumble and JT scooped it,” recalled Surace. “We have  a saying, ball finds energy and JT has a lot of energy.”

Princeton increased its advantage to 21-0 as senior tight end Carson Bobo caught a 10-yard TD pass from Smith early in the second quarter.

“Carson has been so consistent, there are things we asked him to do leading up into what we thought would be the ’20 season to work on and improve,” said Surace.

“He was really making strides before we left for COVID. He not only made strides, he made some jumps with his blocking and his strength. He has come back as a much more well-rounded player.”

A key sequence for the Tigers came when Jeffery Sexton kicked a 39-yard field goal just before halftime to make it 27-10. Princeton then scored a TD on its first possession of the third quarter to go up 34-10 as Vangarelli scored his second touchdown after Smith connected with Dylan Classi on a 67-yard pass play to set up the score.

“You see and hear it a lot on the NFL when you are able to defer and get that ball in the second half,” said Surace.

“You have an opportunity to score points at the end of the half and then get the ball back. It was 10-point swing. There wasn’t a lot of time for that drive. So for us to get into field goal range and for Jeffrey to knock it through was awesome. That was huge.”

In assessing the win overall, Surace saw good points on both sides of the ball.

“You look at opportunity and I thought we had a really good balanced attack offensively in the first half,” said Surace.

“Defensively we were very sloppy but we forced turnovers. In the second half, with the weather, our defense really tightened up. It was a really hard day to throw at that point. But our defense was much tighter in their coverages. Cornell plays multiple quarterbacks too. We executed much better. Offensively, we had two false starts and we had a sack fumble. We just had things that we have got to tighten up on.”

Senior linebacker James Johnson led the defensive charge for the Tigers, making 10 tackles.

“James is so consistent, he is such a good leader,” said Surace. “He is another guy that brings such a great confidence and energy. He is fun to be around.”

Princeton will need more consistent play to come away with a victory when it plays at Dartmouth (6-1 overall, 3-1 Ivy) this Friday night.

“This week with Dartmouth, we really have to work to get that more complete game where all three sides of the ball are playing a little better,” said Surace.

“They are playing two quarterbacks. Their starter, Derek Kyler, who has played since his freshmen year. is throwing the ball well, he is so poised. He is playing at an exceptional level and then Nick Howard comes in and it is the wildcat stuff. He is just bulling through people. They have got good players around him. It is a typical big O-line, D-line. They are always in place, they don’t give up big plays. It is everything you would expect from Dartmouth.”

Surace expects his players to rise to the occasion once again when they take on the Big Green.

“You accept challenges, we don’t make the schedule,” said Surace.

“There is nothing you can do about it at the end of the day. If they tell us we are going to play back-to-back long trips on Friday night, prepare for it because that is the challenge. We have to be ready to accept it.”