PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Coming off a 1-9 season and starting similarly slowly this year, the Tigers has insisted that the feeling nevertheless has been different. And a win over Columbia followed by a remarkably close loss at Hampton last week seemed to back up the team’s optimism.
But that was before Princeton went backwards Saturday in almost every way during a desultory 34-0 loss to 4-1 Brown.
“You think you see progress and then the other team makes more plays than you, out executes you, ” said Coach Bob Surace ’90. “It’s not good.”
Princeton’s 34-9 loss to an average-at-best Bucknell team in week two was maddening for the self destructiveness of six turnovers. This one was just a dreary manhandling from start to finish.
There was one deflating turnover: the third interception run back from a touchdown off quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12 this season, on the game’s third snap. But 59 minutes remained and never did Princeton (1-4 overall, 1-1 Ivy) get a big stop or cash an opportunity.
The Bears, despite a narrow loss to Harvard in their Ivy opener, might still turn out to be the best team in the league, and they proved far superior to a Princeton squad that had believed itself improving enough to hang with the Ivy elite.
Instead, the Tigers struggled, beginning with the Wornham interception. When it looked like they would at least get on the scoreboard before halftime, a fourth-down drop by a receiver Matt Costello ’15 halted the drive. Linebacker Tom Kingsbury ’13 had a chance to intercept a deflected pass but could not hold on.
While that best chance for a turnover wound up on the ground, Princeton still committed just that one turnover of its own and only three penalties. The game’s result was a lot more about what Brown did to Princeton than what Princeton did to itself.
The Tigers were overmatched on the perimeter, where Brown quarterback Kyle Newhall-Caballero (22-for-31, 229 yards, one touchdown) had a field day on intermediate sideline routes, in part because the Tigers’ quickest linebacker in pass coverage, Andrew Starks ’13, did not play because of a knee injury.
“Andrew has been one of the better players on our team,” said Surace. “But other players have to step up.”
Actually, defensive end Dan Fitzsimmons ’12 had to stand up, playing in Starks’ place or the position would have had to be trusted to Garrit Leicht ’15, who regardless saw considerable action, like a lot of underclassmen on Saturday.
“[Brown] plays one sophomore [starter],” said Surace. “We have 11 freshmen and sophomores virtually starting. I might have put a little too much on them.”
Amidst all this change, the coach has put much of his hope for significant improvement in his second season on a senior quarterback who continues to be erratic. There were three other drops on well-delivered Wornham balls besides the one by Costello. But on another scoring chance, set up by consecutive Chuck Dibilio ’15 runs totaling 33 yards, Wornham missed badly on an unnecessarily rushed fourth-down flanker screen to Shane Wilkinson ’13.
Connor Michelson ’15, taking over for Wornham on Princeton’s last series, conducted a drive that similarly failed in the end when the freshman threw a fourth down pass into Wilkinson’s feet, hardly tempting Surace to think about a quarterback change next week at 4-1 Harvard.
Asked if Wornham (14-for-31, one interception) would continue as the quarterback, Surace said: “We’ll evaluate it, but yes.
“We are not making big plays in the passing game and that’s not a quarterback thing, that’s an entire offensive thing. Perimeter protection, catching the ball, and throwing it: It’s the whole gamut.”
And not just one on side of the ball, either. Even the special teams, which had consistently shined, broke down Saturday when whoever was supposed to spy punter Nathan Lovett lost him on a fourth-and-14 play and Lovett ran for the first down, making it with 10 yards to spare.
On the next play Jimmy Saros caught a halfback option pass in the back end of the end zone between three Tigers to complete the scoring and the humiliation that Surace said he refused to pile on in his locker room address.
“I think I surprised them,” he said. “I didn’t yell and scream, no ‘win one for the Gipper.’ This isn’t the time for that.
“I thought I had them properly prepared for this and they weren’t. I mean, Brown’s quarterback is an elite player, very cool, gets rid of the ball quickly, and they made some fingertip catches.
“But there is no secret about what they do, [Brown coach Phil Estes] has been doing it for 12 years. We made coverage mistakes, and I can’t just say ‘I put it on the board and they didn’t do it, it wasn’t my fault.’ I have to do a better job making sure they understand it.”
His first job will be making sure his players, whose confidence had to take a hit Saturday, realize that there are five games remaining, some of them more winnable than this one. If the Tigers don’t understand that, ultimately there may be no difference between this year and last.