HANOVER, N.H. – Despite 11 penalties, despite just 93 yards passing for the game, Princeton still had a chance.
This year’s team usually did, unlike the 1-9 Tigers of 2010. But after Chuck Dibilio ’15 gained only two yards on first down at the Dartmouth 19 and quarterback Quinn Epperly ’15 next was buried for a five-yard loss on an option run, Princeton, down seven with just over three minutes to go, faced third-and-13.
Coach Bob Surace ’90 rolled the dice. He pulled Epperly, who had run for two touchdowns and 88 yards as a first-time starter, and put in Connor Michelsen ’15, who had not played all season. Michelsen spotted Isaac Serwanga ’12 open on a slant in the end zone, but did not see linebacker Bronson Green lurking nearby. Green picked off the pass, and Dartmouth ran out the clock, sealing the win and extinguishing what little chance remained for Dibilio to win the 2012 Ivy League rushing title.
A second consecutive 1-9 Tiger season (1-6 Ivy) ended with another whimper, a 24-17 loss to the Big Green (5-5, 4-3).
“We prepared [Michelsen] to run those plays,” said Surace. “It’s like going to the bullpen.
“We have quarterbacks who run the ball well and some who throw the ball well. We’ll see [what freshmen] we bring in, but this is the way it’s likely going to be [next season].”
Dibilio’s success – he finished with 814 yards in league games, second behind Dartmouth’s Nick Schwieger, who ran for 923 – already suggested the Tigers are going to be a running team in 2012, and Saturday’s game plan made it more clear than ever.
Epperly scored two first-half touchdowns on options of 11 and 13 yards and effectively turned Dibilio into an decoy, handing the ball to him only six times after intermission, when Princeton scored only once, on a 46-yard field goal by Patrick Jacob ’12. Dibilio finished with 65 yards for the day on 23 carries (compared to 157 yards on 30 rushing attempts by Schwieger).
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” said Dibilio about the title and more. “We lost the game and I didn’t perform well to give us a chance to win.
“I’m just not in a good mood right now.”
In head-to-head statistics battle, Dibilio had the lead at the half. On the scoreboard Princeton didn’t, almost incomprehensibly after having had a 14-9 lead and a second down and 12 at its 40 with 1:13 to play. Epperly put the ball up deep toward a well-covered Serwanga and the ball was intercepted by Shawn Abuhoff at the Dartmouth 22.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a go route, it became one when they pressed [Serwanga]” said Surace. “And I think the ball slipped a little out of Quinn’s hands.”
Subsequently another game of some promise slipped out of the Tigers’ hands. With the help of a personal foul penalty on Andrew Starks ’13, the Big Green suddenly were set up at the Princeton 35.
A screen to Schwieger got 23 of those yards. A pass to Bo Patterson took care of the final 12, leaving Princeton down 15-14 after the first 30 minutes.
The two Tiger touchdowns in the first half came on efficient drives of 64 and 80 yards. Caraun Reid ‘13 blocked two extra points and had a strip of Schwieger and a recovery on Dartmouth’s first possession. But a bounced snap ruined a Jacob field goal attempt before it could even be kicked.
Jacob hit a 46 yarder on the first possession of the second half at the end of a 10-play 46-yard drive to put Princeton up 17-15. But Dartmouth came right back with a 9-play 70-yard drive to take the lead for good. In the second half Epperly moved the ball much like Tommy Wornham ’12 had moved the ball, slowing down after crossing into enemy territory.
A holding penalty killed one subsequent drive, and a third-down sack ruined the next. Meanwhile Schwieger, who had been gang-tackled relentlessly by Princeton in the first half, began to find open space. The Tigers, true to their 2011 persona, made only enough plays to stay close, not enough to win.
“We showed up for every game, the scores and the yardage show that,” said linebacker Steve Cody ’12, who never came close to his All-Ivy form after having his 2010 season wiped out by a broken leg. “We were a better team than last year by a lot but we were still 1-9.
“It’s not what I expected from myself or from us.”
Like at Hampton in early October, the Tigers were a touchdown away on a deep final drive, but they had not converted much during the season with a senior as quarterback, let alone a freshman. So in an obvious passing situation, Surace went with probably his most accurate passer, even if he hadn’t thrown a pass all year – a fitting end for a 2011 season that had gradually become about 2012 anyway.