With Princeton football entering the Yale game at 1-7 for the second straight year, alumni and diehards are anxious to buy into the youth movement for 2012.
Four freshman and five sophomores are already playing first string, and fans may wonder what is holding back coach Bob Surace ’90 from moving on from Tommy Wornham ’12 to Quinn Epperly ’15, the presumed quarterback of the future. The coach thanks them for their interest and asks them to send him their crystal balls.
“We may have another freshman next year who is better than Quinn Epperly,” said Surace. “There is no saying he is going to be it.”
Wornham will remain the starter and Epperly the change-of-pace backup Saturday against the Bulldogs on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium, subject to changes like those that occurred the previous two weeks against Cornell and Penn.
“I expected Connor Kelley [’14, converted quarterback-to-wideout] to take 10 reps a game at quarterback minimum,” said Surace. “When we lost him [to season-ending knee surgery], we tried to find ways to add that package back.
“Quinn is so good athletically we can do some different things with him in there. With Tommy needing to get his hand X-rayed against Cornell and [Penn turning the game into a rout in the second half] last week, Quinn’s role expanded. He did well, but that doesn’t make him the quarterback for next year.”
Connor Michelsen ’15 is more of a pure passer than Epperly and still running neck-and-neck to be the 2012 starter – unless it turns out to be Malik Jackson ’14, who has been taming a scattergun arm in practice and moving into the conversation.
“They all have to keep getting better than they are right now,” said Surace. “They will compete all through the winter and spring. … And next year, like now, we will play our best players.”
The Tigers are threatening a second consecutive one-win season for more reasons than just quarterback play. On a team with only nine touchdowns in 36 trips to the red zone, Epperly’s drives have stalled at the 20 just like Wornham’s. So the case for the freshman to start against Yale is change for change’s sake.
Wornham has thrown nine interceptions – albeit three of them in one game, against Bucknell – and six touchdown passes. Despite a strong finish to his sophomore year, he has six wins in three seasons (missing five games in 2010 with a broken clavicle).
But Epperly has yet to complete a touchdown pass, has thrown two interceptions, and has hardly turned around the season or made Wornham into yesterday’s news.
“Tommy is having a frustrating season, consistency-wise,” said Surace. “He hasn’t had a lot of help around him and has struggled some. But he comes out prepared to practice well every day, watches films, [and] does all the right things. That rubs off on young quarterbacks. I don’t know who the quarterback is going to be, but he is going to owe Tommy.”
Even in its worst years – or perhaps especially in those seasons – Princeton puts special emphasis on Yale (4-4, 3-2), a rival the Tigers are facing for the 134th time. And with the Bulldogs’ chances at the Ivy League title effectively gone after last week’s loss to Brown, a letdown by an opponent whose archrival, Harvard, awaits next week is in the realm of possibility. The Tigers, who lost 14-13 in New Haven a year ago, believe they have a chance if they can string together 60 minutes of solid play.
“From the Hampton game on, it’s been that five-minute or five-play stretch that has killed us,” said Surace. “We have to get over that hump.”
To limit the opportunities of Yale quarterback Patrick Witt, a legitimate NFL prospect, Princeton likely will give the ball to running back Chuck Dibilio ’15, who already has rushed for more yards this season than any true freshman in Ivy League history.
Backup running back Brian Mills ’14 (back) is still questionable, and offensive tackle Kevin Mill ’12 (knee) will miss another week. But Matt Costello ’15, the best Tiger receiver, should return from a medical issue that caused him to miss the Penn game. That’s a positive development for both Tiger quarterbacks.
Surace is playing too many underclassmen to be accused of not looking ahead. But there never has been much future for Princeton coaches who lose to Yale. So Surace will take his best shot with the best quarterback he currently has.