Red-zone woes continue as Princeton football falls at Penn

PHILADELPHIA – Wearing are the red-zone failures, the big plays surrendered, the turnover ratio of minus-13 for the season, and the losses, which reached 16 in the last 18 games for Princeton’s football team with a 37-9 defeat here Saturday by Penn.
 
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Chuck Dibilio ’15 ran for 130 yards and increased his season rushing total to 824, an Ivy League record for freshmen. (Beverly Schaefer)
Certainly Chuck Dibilio, who with 130 yards rushing broke Brown’s Marquis Jesse’s Ivy League season record for a true freshman (Harvard’s Clifton Dawson, who had 1,197 yards in 2003 to Dibilio’s 824 in 2011, was a transfer), remains at least one Tiger not worn down by failure. But Princeton’s lack of other weapons makes Dibilio a bullseye in an eight-man box whenever the Tigers get inside the 20, which is amazingly often for a 1-7 team.
 
Princeton’s Will Powers ’15 and Seth DeValve ’15 both blocked first-quarter punts, each time setting up the Tigers at the 11-yard line, and they settled for two Patrick Jacob ’12 field goals.
 
With Princeton (1-4 Ivy) suspect on pass defense, there was little way for them to beat Penn (5-3, 4-1) three points at a time.  No wonder that trailing 14-6 on his next opportunity, Coach Bob Surace ’90 decided to fake a field goal from the 9-yard line.
 
“If we didn’t have a good fake, I wouldn’t have done it,” said Surace. “[Penn] had seven guys on the one side, four on the other, and with two of them dropping off, it should have been a walk in, but there was penetration.”
 
The shovel pass by holder Otavio Fleury ’12 for fullback Jason Ray ’14, was easily broken up, another opportunity died, and though Jacobs nailed his third field goal of the day on the next possession to make the score 14-9 at the half, it remained only a matter of time until Penn abandoned the run and started to make big plays against the Princeton secondary.
 

The Tigers got a stop on the Quakers’ first drive of the third quarter, forcing a Connor Loftus field goal. But after the next Princeton possession the floodgates opened.
 
“We haven’t had blown coverages,” said Surace, meaning miscommunication among defenders. “We’re just giving up plays.”
 
Ryan Mitchell caught a touchdown pass from Billy Ragone for 54 yards. Three plays later, quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12’s only turnover of the day was thrown five yards over the head of Tom Moak ’13. Matt Hamscher angled across the field to return it 25 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly it was 30-9.
 
That paved the way for Surace to see what Quinn Epperly ’15 could do at quarterback beyond his now-standard stint during the second quarter. Throwing mostly on the run, the freshman conducted two drives into the red zone that died on downs, ultimately ending up with the same number of touchdown conversions – zero – as the senior Wornham.
 
Surace was non-committal about his quarterback next week against Yale. But the coach dropped a big hint that he increasingly believes that if his team has another win in it in 2011, it will have to be generated from outside the pocket – the freshman’s strength as he learns to make good decisions.
 
“We are at 28 percent efficiency of our passes on drop backs and that’s pathetic,” said Surace.
 
It didn’t help that Matt Costello ’15, emerging as a go-to receiver, was ill and didn’t play. Upperclassmen had chances to make clutch plays at key points, though, so not all the Tigers problems can be blamed on youth.  
 
“Our guys played hard,” Surace said. “We stopped the run [only 88 yards for Penn] and blocked two kicks.
 
“Effort is not an issue. But we’re playing too many young guys to maintain consistency. We’re banged up and it showed at certain positions.”
 
The Tigers are healthy and experienced in the defensive secondary, where two seniors and a junior are starting, but the pass defense still has struggled, in spite of a decent pass rush.
 
“We’ll look at it,” said Surace about changes, same answer as have about his quarterbacks. “But I think we’re playing the best guys we have.”
 
Despite the pressure on quarterbacks the Tigers have often generated, Mike Catapano ’12, who had two sacks against Penn, still lamented the shortage of sacks and the general dearth of strips.
 
So it goes for a team that sometimes seems only a play away, but in reality may be several playmakers away.
 
Wornham’s interception was the only turnover of a game where Penn’s advantage in total yards was only 378 to 334. But the Quakers scored touchdowns on both trips to the red zone and the Tigers on none of their five.