November 24, 2021

Tiger Football Thumps Penn to Earn Share of Ivy Title, Savoring Roller-Coaster Journey with Raucous Celebration

TITLE RUN: Princeton University quarterback Cole Smith runs past a Yale defender. Last Saturday, senior star and co-captain Smith passed for 214 yards and ran for 69 yards to help Princeton defeat Penn 34-14 and clinch a share of the Ivy League title. The Tigers went 9-1 overall and 6-1 Ivy to tie Dartmouth (9-1 overall, 6-1 Ivy) for the crown. It marked the fourth league title in eight seasons for the program. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

As evening descended on Philadelphia last Saturday, the Princeton University football team held an impromptu party in one corner of venerable Franklin Field.

After thumping Penn 34-14 to earn a share of the Ivy League title, Princeton players, coaches, family and friends mobbed each other on the turf with the revelry including bear hugs, countless cell phone photos, cigar smoke wafting into the air, and dumping buckets of water on Tiger head coach Bob Surace.

The Tigers ended up 9-1 overall and 6-1 Ivy to tie Dartmouth (9-1 overall, 6-1 Ivy) for the crown after having last season canceled by the league due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns. It marked the fourth league title in eight seasons for the program, which came into the game ranked 20th nationally in the AFCA Coaches Poll.

Princeton senior quarterback and co-captain Cole Smith, who passed for 214 yards and rushed for 69 and a touchdown in the win over the Quakers, savored the moment of triumph as the celebration went on around him.

“This means the absolute world; we came out with a goal, we wanted to win the Ivy League and we have done it,” said Smith.

“I do not have enough words to describe coach Surace, the entire coaching staff, the team around the team, every single player, the guys that took the year off all the way to the freshmen. This is a special, special group. I am beyond honored to be part of it.”

Senior linebacker Jeremiah Tyler echoed those sentiments as he reflected on the team’s long and winding road to the title.

“It is crazy, that is the reason why we took this whole year off,” said co-captain Tyler, who was one of 17 “super seniors” who didn’t enroll in school last year so they could have one more Princeton campaign.

“I am glad to see that our hard work came to fruition. All of the time, all of the sweat and the blood and tears that we shared has finally paid off and there is no better feeling than right now.”

A drenched but grinning coach Surace noted that the championship was the end result of a process that began a day after Princeton ended its 2019 season by beating Penn 28-7.

“It was awesome, they worked really hard, you think about the journey, the date November 24, 2019 is when we started this,” said Surace, holding a cigar.

“You had some coaches added and some players there were in high school but the majority of players in that room that date were there when this started. It has been such a journey through the good, keeping the faith when we didn’t know what was going to happen. It is a testament to their character and resilience.”

In the victory over Penn, the Tigers showed that character, overcoming a 7-3 second quarter deficit to reel off 28 unanswered points in building a 31-7 lead and breaking the game open.

“It started with the defense, the turnovers and the pick 6 there,” said Smith of the second quarter outburst which included  a five-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Blake Stenstrom, a 34-yard interception return by Matt Winston for a TD, an 18-yard Philly Special pass from receiver Dylan Classi to running back John Volker, and a one-yard TD plunge by Smith.

“They put us in great field position and that kickstarted us. We just kept on going, foot on the gas, foot on the gas.”

Tyler, who helped spearhead that defensive effort with five tackles, created the unit with sticking to its game plan.

“We just had to put it on them because they are a good team,” said Tyler, known affectionately as “JT” throughout the program.

“We just had to stay disciplined and continue to strive forward and worry about how we were playing, that is all you can do. You can’t worry about how they are going to do it. You have to execute what you are going to do and that is what we did.”

Surace never doubted that the Tigers would come through despite falling behind in the first quarter.

“It was still early in the game, I looked over and JT was all smiles,” said Surace.

“They knew there was a lot of game left, we just had to tighten some things down.”

Like Smith, Surace credited the defense with turning the tide against the Quakers.

“Sam [Wright II] had three or four sacks, he had a great year; Matt Winston was on the pick 6,” said Surace.

“I just thought we played with great energy on defense all year and, for the most part, very good discipline. Offensively, it was a little more of a grind at times, we have got to improve our run game. We threw it incredibly well. In situations like the second half where we are going to be more run-oriented, we weren’t as good.”

The Tigers persevered through a number of tough situations this fall in producing an unforgettable campaign.

“You think about the Monmouth game (a 31-28 win on October 9 which saw Princeton overcome a 21-6 third quarter deficit), it seems like it was eons ago it is a really good team, we just kept fighting.” said Surace.

“It just felt that way, even the Columbia game (a 24-7 win on October 2 in game that saw the Tigers clinging to a 10-7 lead entering the fourth quarter), to put it away in the second half. They are very together. A couple of coaches, people that were at the game at Yale, and they were saying I have never seen a team so together.”

The Tigers were thrilled to be back together this season after the disappointment of having the 2020 campaign canceled.

“There is a gratefulness that we are back; you take away something that somebody loves and they get a chance to do it again, that is pretty cool,” said Surace.

“There was more at stake, 17 guys took the year off. I thought about how I live my life. I don’t need to wear a mask inside 7-Eleven, but there is no way you can get COVID. If it meant decreasing my chance by half a percent, I didn’t want to miss a moment with them. We all took that mindset.”

In Tyler’s view, from the moment Princeton arrived at preseason camp it displayed a winning mindset.

“It was getting here for our first practice, finally like
living the dream and then everybody going to work,” said Tyler.

“I just admire the grind that we all have and how everybody was selfless, that was a big thing on this team. Nobody got the big head and was above the team. Everybody was for the team and that is what I enjoy.”

After achieving the dream of the Ivy title last Saturday, it is no wonder that the Tigers enjoyed that triumph with such gusto.