Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Remembering Splithoff

John Mack, the 10-time Heptagonal track and field champ and 2000 Roper Trophy winner, texted TigerBlog yesterday and asked about Princeton athletes who had had injuries that "derailed," to use his word, their careers.

He was referring to the John Lovett news from the other day, the news that said that Princeton's Bushnell Cup winner and first-team All-America from a year ago would miss time this season after surgery.

TigerBlog quickly mentioned Mason Rocca, the men's basketball player. Then he gave John Mack another name: Dave Splithoff.

One of the most amazing moments TigerBlog has seen in all of his time covering Princeton sports was the 2000 Princeton-Colgate football game.

There are actually two things TB remembers from that game. The first was when he tore his Princeton lacrosse pullover in the press box after he caught it on a nail. That was a nice one too.

The other is the way that Splithoff, then a freshman, put together two of the most incredible drives you'll ever see in football.

Splithoff had never taken a varsity snap. He was only on the trip because of injuries and, if TB recalls correctly, he was the emergency punter.

With the Tigers down 34-0, Splithoff was given a chance in the fourth quarter. He stepped onto the field, and immediately he became Tom Brady, or Joe Montana. First he took Princeton 80 yards, on 13 plays, for a touchdown.

There can't be too many drives quite like the next one he engineered.

When he came back on the field, now down 34-6, he was backed up to his 1. As in one-yard line, three feet from his end zone.

Sixteen plays later, Princeton was on the Colgate 1, having traveled 98 yards. That's where the drive ended, on a fourth-and-goal, with no points.

But still. A 98-yard, 16-play drive? His two drives combined for 29 plays and 178 yards. He would go 5 for 8 for 99 yards, and he'd run for 30 more on five carries. Of his three incompletions, two were drops, including a sure touchdown

The next week against Brown, in his first start, Splithoff first broke the school record for consecutive completions with 14 and then threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-28 win at home. Splithoff, whose consecutive completions record has since been broken by Quinn Epperly with a ridiculous 29 straight against Cornell in 2013, became the first freshman ever named Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week, and he added the ECAC Offensive Player of the Week award as well.

The next weekend, he ran for three touchdowns against Harvard - and then broke his jaw on the final play of the game. It was never the same for him after that. He's still 11th all-time at Princeton in career passing yards, but he would get hurt again, a shoulder TB thinks, and finish his career as a defensive back.

 For those three games his freshman year, though, Splithoff was electric. For those three games, it looked like the future of Princeton football was being built around this freshman quarterback, the one who played with charisma and style and skill and fearlessness.

And then he was gone. TigerBlog remembers the conversation the Monday after the Harvard game, when the news first came out that Splithoff had broken his jaw and was done for the year. It was like a cruel joke.

The 2017 Princeton Tigers are deeper than just Lovett, of course. There all kinds of pieces back from last year's championships season, and when the preseason poll came out yesterday, there were the Tigers, tied with Harvard at the top.

It was hardly a consensus vote.

Princeton and Harvard both had 120 points, with Princeton with six first place votes to five for Harvard. Penn was in third, but a close third, with five first-place votes. Brown was sixth, but the Bears did get one first-place vote.

Of course, for preseason polls, it's best not to put too much faith in them. Princeton has won league championships more than once when picked to finish sixth.

Hey, it's not even time practice to start yet. There is such a long way to go between now and November.

Does the poll tell you anything? Only that nobody is a sure thing.

Well, Splithoff might have been actually. Until the injuries came along.

But that doesn't shortchange the impact he had on Princeton football. He was part of something amazingly special during those three weeks his freshman year.

The drives against Colgate were the appetizer. The game against Brown, he simply dominated from start to finish. He was just an inexperienced freshman, a boy among men, but a boy that none of the men could handle that day.

The game against Harvard he kept Princeton in, and then that was that for the year.

It's not always a fair game, football.

So yeah, John Mack. Dave Splithoff. There's an answer to your question.

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