Monday, November 5, 2018

Thoughts On A Great Football Game

If you saw the Princeton-Dartmouth football game Saturday afternoon, then you probably had the same thought as TigerBlog once the first 11:36 of the game had been played.

To review quickly, Dartmouth took the ball and went 74 yards on 14 plays in 7:10, 7-0 Big Green. Princeton then took the ball and went 75 yards on 12 plays in 4:26, 7-7.

At that point, TB was thinking that this was a game between two teams who came in averaging 85 points per game between them and that they could end up making a serious run at beating that number. He never saw coming what was actually going to happen next over the remaining 48:24.

By the time it ended, Princeton had a huge 14-9 win in a game that matched two 7-0 teams and surpassed any reasonable expectation in terms of drama, not to mention toughness.

Is it the best Princeton football game TigerBlog has seen in all his years with the Tigers? Possibly. He'll revisit that later, when the emotions of the day have worn off.

TB knows what emotion he had after the first Dartmouth drive. He thought Princeton was never, ever going to stop the Big Green and that the only way that Princeton was going to win was to be a little more unstoppable offensively.

After the first Princeton drive, he felt better, liking Princeton's chances in what he was convinced was going to be an offensive explosion from both teams. If you recall, the 2017 game in Hanover finished 54-44 Dartmouth.

So what happened next? Well, here were the combined results of the remaining drives: 10 punts, one safety, three turnovers on downs, one fumble and one interception. Oh yeah, and one touchdown, the game-winning one, on the second rushing touchdown of the day from John Lovett, with 6:33 to go in the game.

After the 150 yards the teams had on those first drives, there would be 373 more yards of total offense between the two. That's it. And 91 of those came on one of the most extraordinary drives you'll ever see.

Princeton took the ball on its own three, and then eight minutes later, the Tigers turned it over on downs at the Dartmouth six, still down 9-7 (after two amazing catches from Jesper Horsted, of course). And yet, the whole game changed with that drive. As someone said to TB later, Princeton won the game on the drive that failed.

That drive did two things. First, it flipped the field over. Second, it was the first sign that the Princeton offense had worn down the Dartmouth defense enough to score the touchdown it needed. That winning score came on the next drive, ending a four-play, 34-yard drive the next time the Tigers had the ball.

Of course, it was the defense that got the ball back for the offense, with a three-and-out that went run for no gain, incomplete pass, run for no gain, punt.

Yeah, the Princeton defense was great.

Dartmouth would finish with 213 yards of total offense. That means after the 75 of that first drive, the Big Green would go for just 138 the rest of the way. Dartmouth had six first downs on that first stroll down the field; there would be just seven more the rest of the way.

This game was won by the Princeton defense, no doubt about it. If you want to go back to last year, when Jared Gerbino rushed for 202 yards and four touchdowns, then Princeton gave up 61 points to Dartmouth in 72 minutes - and then two (on a safety that had nothing to do with the defense) in the next 48.

Had Dartmouth scored again, with the way Dartmouth's defense was playing, it might have been enough. Every time the Princeton defense went on the field, it knew it had no margin for error at all.

This isn't something that the Tigers have had much experience with this season, when six of the first seven games were total blowouts and the only close one - Harvard - was a game in which the Tigers never trailed.

This time, Princeton was down 9-7 and the points and yards weren't coming easily. It put the pressure squarely on the defense each possession, knowing that Dartmouth's defense was putting up scoreless innings as well, and each time the defense responded.

After the game, Princeton head coach Bob Surace compared it to "Rocky." To TigerBlog, it was more like the big game in "Remember the Titans," where the defensive coach tells them "not another yard."

The Princeton offense has gotten a lot of attention this year, and it's been deserved. It's been led by Lovett, the dynamic quarterback whose persona comes across in everything he does on the field. There's the uniquely talented receiver Horsted and his partner Stephen Carlson, as well as a deep army of running backs and a veteran offensive line.

The Tigers have put up yards and points in lightning fashion, and it's led to the lopsided scores you've seen all year.

Lost in all that is a defense that has allowed just nine points per game, second best in the country. It's a great defensive unit, and that's exactly how they play, as a unit. They have some of their own big names - Fossati, Johnson, Floyd and others - but they don't have that superstar defender.

Hey, on that key three-and-out, the two running plays for no gain featured tackles by four different players - Jay Rolader and Tom Johnson on the first and Jeremiah Tyler and Joey DeMarco, while the pass in between was broken up by a fifth player, Mark Fossati.

What they have is an army of guys who play hard at all times and are utterly relentless. They're their own version of the "No Name Defense," the one that the 1972 Miami Dolphins rode to a perfect season.

Speaking of perfect seasons, Princeton is 8-0 with two weeks to go. If you're already excited about next weekend, Princeton is at Yale Saturday at 12:30. After that will be a home game against Penn.

In case you haven't looked at the standings, there is Princeton at 5-0, Dartmouth at 4-1 and then Yale and Penn at 3-2 each. The next two weeks will not be easy.

TB will have more on that later in the week.

He leaves you today hoping that he did justice to what that game Saturday was, an extraordinary slugfest by two superior defenses, with just enough big plays by the Princeton offense to pull out what is a huge win. It was up there with any game Princeton has played in the last 30 years.

What it wasn't was a championship game. It was just a step towards one.

The challenge now is to dial it back up for the next two.

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