Friday, November 9, 2018

Lessons To Be Learned

It was Nov. 11, 1995, when a 2-6 Yale team came to play an 8-0 Princeton team in Palmer Stadium.

Yale kicked off, and Princeton took the ball on its eight-yard line.

Up in the old, open-air, wooden pressbox, Kurt Kehl, who had TigerBlog's job before TB did, had a prediction for the first play from scrimmage.

"Brock is going to run it all the way for a touchdown," Kehl said.

What happened next? There was Harvey, the Tiger quarterback, off on a 92-yard sprint. 7-0 Tigers in a flash - and a less-than-humble Kurt Kehl, basking in the knowledge that he had called it.

At that moment, sitting in that long-gone stadium, TB is pretty sure he thought the odds of a Princeton win were about 100 percent. Instead, Yale stayed close, took the lead late and then recovered a fumble in the end zone in the last minute to win 21-13.

TigerBlog read a story about that game online yesterday in the Hartford Courant archives. It actually made him wonder if, back in 1995, that Courant writer Dom Amore ever considered that someone would be reading it on a computer - and could just as easily on a phone - 23 years later as he chronicled the game.

The story had some facts in it that were lost to TB through the years. First, it mentions that it rained during the game, something TB has no memory of. Second, Yale punter John Lafferty pinned the Tigers inside the two three times in the game. When TB read that yesterday, he said, almost audibly, "oh yeah." Also, Yale quarterback Chris Hetherington, who would go onto a long NFL career as a fullback, had missed the previous three games; TB thought he'd been out all season before playing against Princeton.

One thing that made TB laugh was that Amore wrote that Princeton could still win the outright Ivy League title with a win the next week at Dartmouth. As you know, Princeton did win that outright championship - with a 10-10 tie against the Big Green in the last year ever before overtime.

The 2018 Princeton Tigers are 8-0 as they prepare to head to Yale for tomorrow's game, the 141st between the rivals. Only Lehigh and Lafayette have been playing each other in football longer.

Princeton has been 8-0 eight times in the last 100 years. The seventh was that 1995 season.

There are some lessons to be learned from that 1995 game that apply to tomorrow. What are they?

First, take absolutely nothing for granted. This Yale team is 3-2 in the Ivy League, which means that it is playing to stay alive in the league race, something that a Princeton win ends for the Bulldogs. So there's that.

Second, you don't think Yale is dying to end Princeton's perfect season? Consider this quote from the Courant story:
"We wanted to win this game so bad," said senior quarterback Chris Hetherington, who rushed and passed for 229 yards and 12 of Yale's 21 first downs. "We came in here excited. We were huge underdogs, but we had nothing to lose and we played with emotion all game. . . . This will go down in history."

So that's the first lesson. The second is that it's very, very, very hard to win the game after the "big game." Princeton was physically and emotionally pushed to the limit a week ago against undefeated Dartmouth before rallying for a 14-9 win.

Back in 1995, Princeton defeated Penn 22-9 to get to 8-0. Here's the first paragraph from the late, great William Wallace in the New York Times after that story:
Princeton deposed Pennsylvania today as the monarch of the Ivy League and took a giant stride toward the championship that the Tigers last won outright in 1964.

The win last weekend was tremendous, but it wasn't the actual championship game. It was necessary if Princeton is going to win the championship, since TB doesn't think Dartmouth will lose in its last two games (at Cornell, home against Brown), or at least Princeton has to approach it as if Dartmouth won't lose.

There's no time to have an emotional letdown heading into this weekend. 

In addition - or should that be "thirdly," - Princeton knows that there can still be a mathematical four-way tie with Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale and Penn, who is also 3-2 in the league. Princeton knows that it can get at least a share of the championship even with a loss, but the lure of the outright title is great.

Just as Princeton saw in 1995, closing that out is not going to be easy.

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