Of course it wasn’t going to be easy, not with another nine penalties and three turnovers, not after a school record 10-game losing streak, not after 23 long months since Princeton’s last Ivy League win and last home victory.
And for all the interminable days the Tigers suffered during a 1-9 season in 2010, the final three minutes of their 24-21 victory over Columbia Saturday night on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium still seemed to take 22 of those months. Coach Bob Surace ’90, with the best field goal kicker in the Ivy League in Patrick Jacob ’12, twice tried to run out the clock on fourth down at the Lions’ four yard line and twice failed, leaving Columbia only a field goal from an overtime.
On the Lions’ first crack, Steve Cody ‘12 and Andrew Starks ’13 ran down quarterback Sean Brackett a yard short on fourth down. And on Columbia’s last gasp, an interception by defensive back Harrison Daniels ’12 sealed the deal, despite repeated attempts by the Tigers, hard as they played, to make themselves miserable for another week.
“I really thought to go from the five to the opponent’s 30, that’s a lot of yards,” said Surace. “If they get their [kick] returns out to where they were getting them, somewhere between the 30 to the 40, they only have to go 30 yards.
“Our defense was playing really well. We were missing three guys [Jaiye Falusi ’12, Blake Clemons ’12, and Phil Bhaya ’14] in our secondary who started in the opening game. And against the best quarterback in the conference last year and the best scheme we go against all year long, I thought we executed really well.”
The Tigers, through the relentless rundowns of Starks (nine tackles), Cody (seven tackles), Caraun Reid ‘13 (a strip and fumble recovery, plus six tackles) and Mike Catapano’12 (one of three Princeton sacks), held Columbia to three of 12 third-down conversions and just 87 yards on the ground. Starks also made a stop on a fourth-and-one in the first half.
Brackett threw for 28 yards to Paul Havas the next play after a wild snap by center Joe Goss ’14 – playing with a cast on his left hand – killed another Princeton drive. The Columbia quarterback also hit a 29-yarder over backups Ivan Charbonneau ’12 and Chance Cross ’12 to complete an 85-yard drive to get Columbia within three with 6:43 remaining.
Nevertheless more of the 117 rushing yards of Brian Mills ’14 and a perfect Wornham strike to Matt Costello ’15 for 47 yards to the Columbia eight put Surace in position to finish it the way he chose. In the end, he decided correctly, but the ending tested the nerves of the Princeton faithful.
A perfect strike on 45-yard post pattern from Wornham to Costello for a touchdown had appeared to put the game away earlier in the fourth quarter. It was called back on a holding penalty, so the struggle continued.
On Princeton’s opening drive, the Tigers moved down the field before being stalled by a red-zone penalty – a pattern that duplicated the first two games. Then Wornham, who threw three interceptions, including one for a touchdown, last week against Bucknell, had another pick run in by Columbia’s A.J. Maddox in the first quarter, giving Columbia an early 7-3 lead despite having barely moved the ball.
So here the Tigers went again – except that Wornham would not let them.
“I just loved his fire,” Surace said. “He said, ‘I got it, we’re going to score on this drive.’”
The coach had insisted the embattled senior quarterback would bounce back and he did, with what might have been a season-saving drive.
“Coach [offensive coordinator James] Perry told me he once threw three picks in a game and came back and threw 50 passes the next day, and they annihilated the team they were playing that week,” said Wornham.
One 37-yard third-down catch along the sideline by the otherwise-struggling Serwanga – he fumbled away a first-down completion in Columbia territory on a subsequent drive – and another of 12 yards on third down to Shane Wilkinson ’13 set up a touchdown catch by Mark Hayes ’13. The Tigers, leading 10-7, had their mojo back.
Chuck Dibilio ’15 broke out of the grasp of two Lions on a 45-yard run to set up Mills’ 2-yard touchdown run. And while Dibilio (70 yards) and Wornham (68) were building Princeton’s rushing total to an impressive 227 yards, a 12-yard Wornham bulls-eye to Tom Moak ’13 in the corner of the end zone built the lead to 24-14.
The only reason it was close in the end was because of the penalties and turnovers. And of course if this continues, that will be the reason this season still won’t turn out better than the last one.
“We re going to get it fixed,” vowed Surace. “Because if we do I know this team can move forward.
“We can compete against the better teams in this league if we stop shooting ourselves in the foot.”