Monday, November 19, 2018

Just Perfect

Tom Johnson was down. Then he was up. Then he limped, skipped, hopped, jogged and eventually just seemed to glide to the sideline.

This was with a little more than a minute to go in Princeton's 42-14 win over Penn Saturday, and Johnson, a Princeton linebacker who was slow to get up after a tackle, was in no mood to be hurt. He, like his teammates, only wanted to celebrate.

And so instead of being helped off, he used the adrenaline of the moment to get to the sideline himself. And whatever may have happened to his knee or ankle, there was nothing wrong with his arms, which waved and exhorted the crowd to cheer even louder, to join along in the party.

By the time John Lovett had his final carry - well, sort of a carry, more of an exaggerated kneel-down - to run out the clock, that party spirit bounced all over Princeton Stadium. And well it should have.

The 2018 Princeton Tigers had just closed out a perfect season, 10 opponents, 10 victories. By doing so, they launched themselves into the conversation among the greatest teams the Ivy League has seen in the last what, 25 years? 50 years?

TigerBlog was born the last time Princeton went undefeated, back in 1964, but he certainly wasn't old enough to watch that team play. Maybe there's someone who did who can compare the two.

For TigerBlog, it's clear that this is the best Princeton football team he's ever seen. And, he'd add, it's up there with any Ivy League team he's ever seen.

This was a complete team, that's for sure. It was a team that had no weaknesses, and, no matter how good Lovett has been, it's a team that didn't rely on any one player.

This team played 10 games, and six of them were never competitive. Two of the others (Yale, Penn) may have been somewhat close at some point but never really gave the impression that the Tigers were in trouble at any point.

That left two others. First there was Harvard, a game the Tigers never trailed before winning 29-21. During that game, Princeton did put its defense on the field a bunch of times when it was a one-possession game, but the Crimson never came close to tying it or taking the lead.

And that left one other game, Dartmouth. TigerBlog will say this about the 2018 Big Green - that's one of the best Ivy League teams he's ever seen as well, and it certainly has to be the best 9-1 runner-up the league has known.

Dartmouth wasn't really challenged in too many of its wins either, maybe by Harvard a little. And that Princeton-Dartmouth game back on Nov. 3? That's the best Princeton football game TB has ever seen as well, one that saw the Big Green lead 9-7 for a long time before the Tigers rallied for a scintillating 14-9 win in a game that packed a season's worth of drama into those 60 minutes.

Princeton avoided a letdown last week with a 59-43 win over Yale, another one that was never all that close. That win clinched at least a share of the Ivy title and another kind of party, the Big Three bonfire that the entire Princeton community shared last night.

After the Yale win, that left only the game against the Quakers. No matter what, Princeton knew it had put together a special, championship season. Also no matter what, Princeton also knew that if it lost this game, it would be haunting, a chance at perfection so close and then gone forever, with no way to ever get it back.

TigerBlog had no doubt that Princeton wasn't letting this one get away. Not when it started. Not when Penn cut it to 21-7 just before the half or 21-14 on the first drive of the second half.

Never, not at any point.

And he was right. This team was just too good, too deep, too balanced, to let that happen. In the end, it was just a huge party, a well-earned one at that.

The offensive records that this team put up will probably be the first thing most people remember about them. Princeton averaged 47 points per game and became the highest scoring team in Ivy League history, all while having its starters barely playing too deep into the second half six times.

Jesper Horsted will graduate with the school records for career receptions and career touchdown receptions, and only two of those catches and none of those TD receptions were in his freshman season. Lovett finished his career with at least one rushing touchdown in 20 straight games, an Ivy League record, and he was just an unstoppable offensive force his entire career, one that ended with wins in the final 13 games in which he played.

This team was more than just those two, or any of the other big offensive names. It was everyone across the board, all sides of the ball, anyone who stepped on the field. Whenever someone got hurt, there was someone right him to make a difference - even when Lovett had to miss a game.

That's what really stands out to TigerBlog. It's a team with about 25 MVPs. Well, maybe two MVPs and 23 runners-up, but you get the point.

The game Saturday was long decided before Penn's final drive, the one on which Johnson - who owns this season as much as anyone - went down briefly. The final defensive play of the season was a fourth-down for the Quakers, who were still throwing and trying to get another score. This last play ended with a sack, by none other than Joe Percival.

It's likely that no Princeton player went through as much during his Princeton football career than Percival, who literally left school to care for his mother, who went from her deathbed to a miracle recovery and all the way back to Princeton Stadium to be there for her son, who had done so much for her. TigerBlog thought about that as Percival made the last tackle for this team.

It was a perfect ending, TB thought. Then he laughed to himself and thought, "literally."

So here's to the 2018 Princeton Tigers, the first perfect football team the program has had in 54 years.

Perfect from the start. Perfect at the end.

Just perfect.


Mike Knorr said...

I was a Junior at Princeton High School in 1964 so I saw that team's magical season. You can't really compare eras from that long ago. This year's team was more dominant from beginning to end however. Who would have thought that until this year I would have witnessed as many undefeated seasons in women's basketball as football. Now that's mind boggling.

John Poole ’69 said...

Jerry, You are the greatest Tiger who ever spent 4 years as an undergraduate in Philadelphia. It has been said that most people identify with the institution where they were undergraduates. Do you have any conflicted feelings when Princeton and Penn square off? I am a big fan of your interviews with Courtney Banghart. Keep up the great work! Fellow Tiger, John Poole’69