If there is nowhere to go but up for a Princeton football team that has lost 10 straight games over two seasons, that’s because it would be impossible to gift wrap a game any more thoroughly than the Tigers did Bucknell’s 34-9 victory Saturday night on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.
The Tigers could not block defensive end Josh Eden, who personally collapsed the left side of the Tigers offensive line in tackling Chuck Dibilio ’15 for a safety, leaped to intercept a pass by Tommy Wornham ’12 and ran it in for a touchdown, and fell on a fumble on a snap that went through the Princeton quarterback’s hands, setting up a first Bucknell touchdown drive of only nine yards.
But that only begins to detail the horror of Wornham’s night. Twice, on Princeton drives of some promise – one to end the first half, the other to begin the third quarter – he threw the ball up in the end zone to nobody but easily-intercepting Bucknell defenders.
Wornham also overthrew an open Isaac Serwanga ’12 three times. And not surprisingly, the crisis of confidence spread throughout the offense. “I played horrible,” said Wornham, who was 15-for-33 for 174 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. “I had a horrible game.
“I run the offense. I need to get us playing faster and better. I need to do more research during the week and prepare better.”
If that sounded like a harsh self-indictment for unpreparedness, coach Bob Surace ’90 said he never could have envisioned his team playing this terribly after the week of practice it had.
“The way we worked, I didn’t see any of that coming,” said Surace.
While the Tigers had a hard time getting in Eden’s way, they also literally couldn’t get out of their own. The last of six turnovers came when Ivan Charbonneau ’12 fumbled on a kickoff return because he ran into Mike Zeuli ’15.
The game was over long before then, however, because in addition to the mistakes detailed above, there were plenty more when the Tigers still had opportunities to turn the contest around. A game-opening drive that had Princeton at the Bucknell 12 after a 12-yard run by Akil Sharp ’13 was wiped out on an illegal shift penalty. Just like a week ago after a promising first possession against Lehigh, the Tigers settled for a 43-yard Patrick Jacob ’12 field goal.
Down 10-3 in the second quarter, Princeton had another first down at the Bison 15 go horribly wrong when Matt Allen was caught holding on the second-down play. That time, Jacob missed a 39-yard attempt.
Still down only two touchdowns in the third quarter, the Tigers were driving again when Brian Mills ’14 was stripped and Bucknell’s Sean Rafferty ran 46 yards to set up the Bison with another short field. That led to a Bucknell field goal and a 20-3 lead.
Even when Princeton finally scored its touchdown, with Sharp running in a 12-yard bubble screen, the Tigers had to overcome a third potentially drive-killing penalty, a holding call on Tom Yetter ’15.
The Princeton defense, helped by two first half, third-down drops by Bucknell, inevitably became worn down. But it also again failed to help itself by forcing a turnover.
After halftime, Surace said, “We came out and had two good drives, then had two turnovers because guys are trying to do too much. … When you haven’t gotten over the hump, sometimes that happens. I have to get them over the hump.”
Saturday night that looked like a mountain of a job for Wornham, who started poorly when given the starting job as a sophomore, won three of the last four games, and still was moving the ball under injury-riddled circumstances last year until getting knocked out for the season in the Brown game.
Still, as bad as things became Saturday night, Surace resisted any urge to pull his quarterback for backup Drew Ellis ’12. The coach knows this season is going nowhere unless Wornham takes it someplace.
“He’s talented enough, he’s resilient enough, he’s tough enough,” said Surace. “I am counting on him to play better next week.
“I have to do a better job of coaching him. Tommy is the most intense, hard-working guy; maybe he’s trying to do too much. That’s a fixable thing. We’re looking at a long season if I can’t get that fixed.”
While Surace said the Tigers show all the evidence of needing some love, he also won’t be afraid to make it tough love. In fact, with the Ivy League season starting next week against also-winless Columbia, the coach already has begun threatening jobs.
“I told them that on Wall Street right now people who are making money are getting fired,” said Surace. “I told the seniors in the NFL I played rookies all the time.
“If you don’t start playing better, I’ll make the changes. We need those guys to play better, and I think they will. They worked hard in practice but it has to translate into games. And that’s on me.”