After a 1-9 season in 2010, Bob Surace ’90 said he found out who the fighters were. And at 1-4 this year, the Princeton coach is about to identify them again.
The Tigers, who finished off Columbia and who were one play away from a remarkable upset at Hampton, were flattened last week in a 34-0 loss at Brown. Next we’ll see whether their spirits were crushed.
“They are angry, frustrated,” said Surace. “We’ll see whether they channel it, the way I am, into Harvard.”
Just at the point where they believed they were finding themselves, the Tigers were manhandled, albeit by an Ivy League contender. Another, Harvard, waits for them Saturday in Cambridge, so the schedule has not become the Tigers’ friend. But Princeton has proven to be its own worst enemy at times because of repeated failures to make well-timed plays on both sides of the ball.
“The red zone [five touchdowns for the Princeton offense in 22 visits] is the elephant in the room,” said Surace.
The defense that had been showing increasing capability of keeping Princeton in games allowed Brown to convert 10-for-17 third- and fourth-down opportunities.
“Our front seven has to get some pressure,” said linebacker and captain Steve Cody ’12. “A lot of times we hung our defensive backs out to dry.
“And if you look at the film of the Brown game [the linebackers] weren’t getting enough depth to our drops and [quarterback Kyle Newhall-Caballero] picked us apart.”
In the absence of depth behind the dynamic Andrew Starks ’13 at one outside linebacking position, defensive linemen Dan Fitzsimmons ’12 and Matt Landry ’13 were forced to play standing up. Starks, probably the most irreplaceable player on the defense, is expected back this week, perhaps bringing back with him the unit’s mojo.
However, there will be no victories, not even moral ones, against the Ivy’s better teams until quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12 settles down. Wornham has completed only 51 percent of his passes for just four touchdowns and has had three interceptions returned for scores.
Last week, Wornham had another erratic performance that might have jeopardized his starting position if Surace had immediate alternatives. That could change as Connor Michelson ’15 and Quinn Epperly ’15 learn the offense and Surace looks ahead to 2012. But for now, the coach’s strategy is to remind a disappointed and stressed senior quarterback to enjoy his final five games.
“I think at times I try to make bigger plays than I need to, to get this thing going, as opposed to just concentrating on the fundamentals and making the throws,” Wornham said. “I have five games left in my career. I can’t let this overbearing pressure weigh me down.”
Each of the touchdown interception returns came off hitch throws when there was a safer target inside but Wornham thought he saw a larger gain to the outside, perhaps to compensate for not having a big-play receiver.
As strongly as Chuck Dibilio ’15 has been running between the tackles, finishing drives has turned into an unending nightmare.
Cody, a step slower than before he suffered a season-ending broken tibia in last year’s opener, has not been a problem but is frustrated he hasn’t been the solution.
“The coach would tell you Tommy, Cat [Mike Catapano ’12], and I have done a decent job of being vocal leaders and getting the guys ready to go,” said Cody. “But there comes a point where you have to lead by example.
“I haven’t made as many plays this year as I’d like to.”
The Tigers have given up an average of only 32 more total yards per game than they have gained, yet they’ve been outscored by 14.6 points per game. Cody is not only Tiger always feeling he is a play away from making a difference. Somebody just has to do it.