Thursday, November 10, 2011

Growing Pains

TigerBlog stood near the pylon at Franklin Field for much of the third quarter of last weekend's Princeton-Penn football game.

At one point, No. 4 for Penn intercepted a pass and started down the other sideline before cutting all the way back across the field, to the point where he was sprinting directly at TB, whose instinct was to take a step or two backwards.

TigerBlog loves to watch games from the sideline, and that's where he would stand to cover high school football back in the day. Through that experience, TB developed the sense to back away when the play gets too close, though he knows of others who have paid the price - such as longtime local writer Rich Fisher, who torn his patella tendon one day at a high school game.

Anyway, No. 4 was going to have a tough time of it in terms of getting to the end zone, since offensive lineman Matt Allen appeared to have an angle on him. Then, out of the corner of TB's eye, he saw No. 2 from Penn, flying to get in front of No. 4 and to put a block on Allen, which he did, freeing No. 4 for the touchdown.

After the extra point, the official who had been in front of TB came back to the pylon for the kickoff, which led to this conversation:

TB: "That was quite a block."
Official: "I had my hand on my flag, because I didn't think he was going to get in front of him. I mean, I don't like taking touchdowns away, but I will if I have to."

The game had been 17-9 a few minutes earlier, but two big plays for the Quakers broke it open, and it ultimately became a 37-9 Penn win.

For TB, he left with the same thought he has from most of the games he's watched this year - the young Princeton players will have something of a chip on their shoulders the next time they're in that stadium.

Of every sport in college, the hardest one for freshmen to come in and make an immediate impact in is without a doubt football. It's the physical nature of the sport, of course, and it's a huge advantage for 21-, 22-year-olds to play against 18- or 19-year-olds.

The Princeton team this year is dripping with young players.

Khamal Brown, the freshman safety, just turned 19. Matt Costello, freshman wide receiver, is also 19.

Seth DeValve, who blocked a punt against Penn, is 18, more than two months away from turning 19. Quarterback Quinn Epperly is even younger, 18 years old and five months away from turning 19.

On and on the list goes. Freshmen are playing huge roles for Princeton, and they're doing so at a physical disadvantage.

Think back to when you were 18. Then think to when you were 22. Big difference, right?

Chuck Dibilio is a 19-year-old freshman, one who by the way is doing something completely remarkable - almost unbelievably so - in his first year with the Tigers.

Dibilio, with two games left, has 824 yards for the season, leaving him 174 away from reaching 1,000. He's gotten to 824 by averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

Want some historical perspective?

Nobody at Princeton has ever come close to rushing for that many yards as a freshman - or more than even 300, for that matter.

And the 5.6 yards per carry? The Princeton career record is 5.7, held by Keith Elias, the top running back in school history. Elias as a sophomore average 4.85 yards per carry - on a team that went 8-2 and had multiple offensive options, including wide receiver Michael Lerch.

Dibilio went into Franklin Field and put up 130 rushing yards against the Quakers, and after the game, Tiger head coach Bob Surace was asked why Dibilio had been shut down in the second half, when he rushed for 37 after having 83 at halftime.

Shut down? Let's see, 37 yards in a half would be 74 in a game would be 740 for a season. Shut down? At Franklin Field, against a program that prides itself traditionally on its ability to stuff the run.

When TB would watch Elias, he would be amazed at how routinely he could put up numbers that would be career bests for just about anyone else. Dibilio, in a short time, has put himself into that category.

If you think that just any back can walk into that stadium and go for 130 yards, then you're wrong. It's an amazing performance for anyone - let alone a freshman.

Princeton is 1-7 this year, with games against Yale Saturday and at Dartmouth next Saturday.

For TB's money, it doesn't matter if Princeton loses both, because the point isn't whether the Tigers are 1-9 or 3-7 this year. It's to win a championship down the road.

If you're a Princeton football fan, you can be pretty optimistic about that future, because there are legitimate championship pieces in place.

It's just that it's nearly impossible to plug those pieces in when they're freshman and have the wins begin to pile up.

Enjoy what you're seeing from the young players now, and give credit to the older players who are ending their careers and doing so with great class, giving, as Pete Carril would say, a good account of themselves.

And know this about Princeton football - better days are coming.

No comments: