November 29, 2023

Coming Up Short in a Season of Nail-Biters, PU Football Turning Focus to Making Corrections

TENSE CAMPAIGN: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace surveys the action in a game this fall. It was a season of nail-biters for the Tigers as they went 5-5 overall and 4-3 Ivy League with their two non-conference losses coming by three points each and their Ivy defeats coming in two overtime contests and a two-point setback. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

If this fall had been governed by the rules used in 1995, the Princeton University football team would have earned a share of the Ivy League title.

In its seven Ivy contests, Princeton went 4-1 in games decided in regulation and tied the two others. In 1995, that would have left the Tigers at 4-1-2 and in a tie for the title. But with college football adopting overtime in 1996, there are no longer ties and Princeton saw its ties turn into losses.

As a result, the Tigers ended up going 4-3 in league play, one game behind tri-champions Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale, who each went 5-2.

While falling short was frustrating, Princeton head coach Bob Surace is not going to dwell on what might have been.

“In the end with our three league losses, we only had to win one of them [to have a title] but you can’t live in the would have, could have, should have,” said Surace. “It wasn’t our year. I am not saying it is luck. We didn’t do enough to separate from those teams that led to the overtime losses (28-27 to Brown on October 14 and 36-28 to Yale on November 11) and the two-point game (23-21 to Dartmouth on November 3).”

The margin of error was razor thin in a season where most Ivy games were decided by one score.

“If you went into the year saying it was a three-way tie, you probably had five or six teams that had the experience and talent that you could pick out of that hat,” said Surace. “The way the scores and the games went, you could do it 10 times and have 10 different combinations.”

The year did end on a high note for the Tigers as they kept their focus after a heartbreaking 36-28 loss to Yale in double overtime to post a 31-24 win over Penn in the season finale.

Coming into the clash with the Quakers, Surace believed his players would make the most of their final week together.

“They have been really steady in terms of their habits and their work ethic throughout the year,” said Surace. “I was very confident that we would practice well.”

Forcing seven turnovers against Penn made the difference in the contest for Princeton.

“I feel like going into both the Yale and Penn games with experienced quarterbacks, we did a lot of coverage disguises,” said Surace. “In the Penn game, we were very fortunate. The Penn QB is terrific — we were able to make him think a little bit a few times and hold the ball.”

The Tigers were fortunate to get some bounces against the Quakers.

“It is something we had struggled with through the year, we had not been as good as we needed to be,” said Surace. “We had a couple of breaks. We tipped the ball for the first time all year — a D-lineman tipped the ball and another D-lineman caught it. During the course of the year, you usually get a couple of those, but we haven’t had those. It is crazy how it works, you can’t say we will take four turnovers against Penn and three against Yale. To get to seven was an unreal number.”

As the Tigers navigated the up-and-down campaign, a quartet of senior captains — quarterback Blake Stenstrom and offensive lineman Jalen Travis along with linebackers Liam Johnson and Ozzie Nicholas — kept them on course.

“We also had some real terrific leaders with some really high level players that could help bring us along,” said Surace. “They are all different personalities. Blake is very cerebral, Liam is very intense. Jalen is like the president, he is the chief. He walks into a room and he is in charge. Ozzie is emotional. When we lost to Yale and I gave a speech in the locker room, he echoed what I said. I think when I say that it is an old man that is nagging at them at times. Ozzie says it and the players go back to their dorm rooms and it has a little more meaning to it. His message was that we owe it to ourselves, we are going to play our hearts out, and we are going to have our best week.”

Coming into the fall, Surace realized that it was going to take time to bring the Tiger offense along.

“I knew we had to replace almost every starter on offense, we only had three coming back,” said Surace, noting that two of those starters, offensive linemen Blake Feigenspan and Travis, missed several games due to injury. “I was really happy, I knew there was going to be some inconsistency. There was a little more than we should have had but a lot of it was building habits on my end. I could have done things differently. I was really proud of how that group improved from the beginning of the year to middle of the year to the end of the year.”

The lack of experience helped lead to inconsistency in several areas this fall.

“We had 16 false starts and 28 drops — those are drive killers and things that you want to minimize,” said Surace. “The defense did not create turnovers until the last game. We didn’t contain the quarterbacks in three of the five losses. The special teams play was really good except that we didn’t have great field goal protection and that led to some inaccuracy on kicks that cost us in four of the five losses. We did not field punts well, we are going to look at it. Our special teams coordinator is getting me all of this, there were probably close to 300 yards of bounces.”

On the flip side, a lot of young players got valuable experience which should pay off in 2024.

“We have a lot of players returning. The league is not going to get easier, there are a lot of good players,” said Surace. “I think us, Yale, and Columbia are the only teams without a returning QB. We are going to be way deeper everywhere else on the field.”

The process of getting ready for next season started last Monday as the Tigers hit the weight room to start their off-season conditioning program.

“When the players come back on Monday we are all 0-0,” said Surace. “We are going to be in one-score games next year, so we have to make corrections. There was no separation, every game this year, even San Diego (a 23-12 win in the season opener) was that way. If you have the littlest mistakes, that can make the difference. We didn’t make many against Yale, but the littlest ones made the difference.”