Bob Surace ’90 says the issue is “not confidence, but frustration.” But when a team turns over the ball six times in one game and an offensive line that performs like the Six Blocks of Granite through midfield commits rockhead penalties in the last 20 yards, it seems to look like plain old hyperventilation regardless.
The Tigers suffocated themselves with mistakes in a desultory 34-9 loss to Bucknell last week that looked depressingly like repeated defeats on the way to last year’s 1-9. But the Ivy League portion of the schedule begins at 6 p.m. Saturday against 0-2 Columbia on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium. So it’s not just hot air that fresh air can still blow away the smell of an 0-2 start.
“We’ve got to believe everything is up for grabs right now,” said defensive end Mike Catapano ’12. “It doesn’t matter what happened last year or who won last week by how much.”
Columbia beat Princeton the last two years by a lot, a combined 80-14. But that’s not as big an issue heading into this game as how much more failure Princeton can take before this season dissolves like the last.
“We have three coaches who were at Temple, which hadn’t won much until the last few years,” said Surace. “Princeton hadn’t won an Ivy title in  years until my senior year, and Brown had gone through a stretch like that when (offensive coordinator James) Perry got there and helped turn things around.
“We have a little bit of a glass jaw. There has to be something to get you over your frustration of trying to score two touchdowns on one play. Or, as a defensive player, getting angry and trying to close more than one gap. And that’s my job to get them through that.
“You aren’t going to win every play. You go to the next play.”
And of course at some point you have to make that play, which the Tigers have not done in a long time. Surace threatened the jobs of upperclassmen after the Bucknell debacle, but so far the only projected first-team change for Saturday likely will be because of an injury to starting free safety Jaiye Falusi ’12 (ankle).
“We made some changes after the first week, some guys played a little more [against Bucknell] and some a little less,” said Surace, about as menacing as he dares be at a time when he has to be especially supportive and corrective. “We have some guys we’re working in more and we’ll continue to do that.”
Six freshmen already are second at their positions on their depth chart, not including Chuck Dibilio ’15, a bright spot in the opener against Lehigh, who will continue to get his chance to run the ball along with Akil Sharp ’13 and Brian Mills ’14.
Wide receiver Matt Costello ’15 is becoming a favorite target of quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12; Isaac Serwanga ’12, the projected leader of the receiving corps, has struggled in the first two games.
“Last year when the injuries hit there was a talent disparity. I haven’t seen that in the first two games.”
Coach Bob Surace ’90
Coach Bob Surace ’90
It is clear Surace has no long-term interest in staying loyal to unproductive seniors who haven’t played on a winning team yet at Princeton. Nevertheless, among the players not on the endangered starter list is Wornham, whom the coach insists is resilient enough to put the three interceptions against Bucknell behind him.
“The best player I have ever seen live [Tom Brady] threw four interceptions last week,” said Surace. “It happens. … The quarterback at Columbia [Sean Brackett] was one of the best if not the best, quarterback in the league last year. And if it wasn’t the guy at Columbia, it was the guy at Penn [Billy Ragone] and they both had bad turnover weeks last week, like the guy at Brown [Kyle Newhall-Caballero], who was the best quarterback in the Ivy League two years ago.”
Misery loves company, but those teams have more recent success to draw upon than does Princeton under Wornham. To call a win against Columbia a must would imply that the Tigers still have legitimate championship aspirations, when their coach is merely preaching concentrating on the kickoff, then the next play, and then the play after that.
The true “must” is for Princeton to immediately begin to function better at key junctures of games.
“Last year when the injuries hit there was a talent disparity,” said Surace. “I haven’t seen that in the first two games.”
He said that to be hopeful, of course. A coach inundated with crutches a year ago kicks them out this time. This Princeton team should have more talent than the last, but we’ll never know if doesn’t calm down.