CAMPAIGN TENSION: Princeton University head football coach Bob Surace reviews the action during a game this fall. It was a tough season for the Tigers, who went 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the Ivy League, with their two non-conference losses by three points each and their losses to Ivy in two overtime games and a two-point game. reverse. (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 won a share of the Ivy League title.
In its seven Ivy games, Princeton went 4-1 in games decided in regulation and tied the other two. In 1995, that would have left the Tigers at 4-1-2 and tied for the title. But since college football adopted overtime in 1996, there have been no ties, and Princeton has seen 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.
Although failing was frustrating, Princeton head coach Bob Surace isn’t going to dwell on what could have been.
“In the end, with our three defeats in the league, we only had to win one (to win a title), but you can’t live in what we would have, could have and should have,” said Surace. “It wasn’t our year. I’m not saying it’s luck. We didn’t do enough to separate ourselves from the teams that led to the overtime losses (28-27 to Brown on Oct. 14 and 36-28 to Yale on Nov. 11) and two-point game (23-21 to Dartmouth in November). 3).”
The margin for error was razor-thin in a season where most Ivy games were decided by a single 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 the talent that you could pull out of that hat,” Surace said. “At the rate of scores and matches, you could do it 10 times and have 10 different combinations.”
The year ended on a high note for the Tigers, who kept their focus after a heartbreaking 36-28 loss to Yale in double overtime to earn a 31-24 win over Penn in the season finale .
Before the clash with the Quakers, Surace thought his players would make the most of their final week together.
“They’ve been very steady in terms of their habits and work ethic throughout the year,” Surace said. “I was very confident that we would practice well.”
Forcing seven turnovers against Penn was the difference in the contest for Princeton.
“I want to go to the Yale and Penn games with experienced quarterbacks, we’ve done a lot of cover disguises,” Surace said. “In the Penn game, we were very lucky. The Penn QB is great – we were able to get him to think a little a few times and hold the ball.
The Tigers were fortunate to get some rebounds against the Quakers.
“It’s something we’ve struggled with throughout the year, we haven’t been as good as we should have been,” Surace said. “We had a few 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 year you usually get a few, but we didn’t get any. It’s crazy how it works, we can’t say we’re going to have four turnovers against Penn and three against Yale. Getting to seven was an unreal number.
As the Tigers navigated an up-and-down campaign, a quartet of senior captains — quarterback Blake Stenstrom and offensive lineman Jalen Travis as well as linebackers Liam Johnson and Ozzie Nicholas — kept them on track. way.
“We also had great leaders and very high-level players who could help us progress,” Surace said. “They’re all different personalities. Blake is very cerebral, Liam is very intense. Jalen is like the president, he’s the boss. He walks into a room and he’s 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 mean when I say it’s an old guy who harasses them sometimes. Ozzie says it and the players go back to their dorm and it makes a little more sense. His message was that we owe it to ourselves, that we are going to play our hearts out and we are going to have our best week.
In the fall, Surace realized it would take time to get the Tigers’ offense going.
“I knew we had to replace almost every starter on offense, we only had three returning,” Surace said, noting that two of those starters, offensive linemen Blake Feigenspan and Travis, missed multiple games due to injury. “I was really happy, I knew there would be inconsistencies. There was a bit more than we should have had, but a lot of it was habit development on my part. I could have done things differently. I was really proud of how this group improved from the beginning to the middle of the year to the end of the year.
Lack of experience helped lead to inconsistency in several areas this fall.
“We had 16 false starts and 28 falls – those are motivation killers and things you want to minimize,” Surace said. “The defense didn’t create any turnovers until the last game. We didn’t contain the quarters in three of the five losses. The special teams play was really good, except we didn’t have good protection on the field, which led to some inaccuracy on field goals that cost us four of the five losses. We didn’t line up the punts well, we’ll look into that. Our special teams coordinator relays all that to me, there were probably close to 300 yards of rebounds.
On the other hand, many young players have gained valuable experience that should pay off in 2024.
“We have a lot of players coming back. The league is not going to get easier, there are a lot of good players,” Surace said. “I think us, Yale and Columbia are the only teams without a returning QB. We’re going to be much deeper everywhere else on the field.
The process of preparing for next season began last Monday as the Tigers hit the weight room to begin their offseason conditioning program.
“When the players come back on Monday, we’re all 0-0,” Surace said. “We’re going to play one-score games next year, so we have to make corrections. There was no split, every game this year, even San Diego (23-12 win in season opener) was like that. If you make the slightest mistake, it can make a difference. We didn’t do much against Yale, but the little ones made the difference.