SPORTS: Win over Penn helps Princeton

To be the champion, you have to beat the champion.

By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
   To be the champion, you have to beat the champion.
   The Princeton University football team took another step in the right direction when it rallied for a 38-26 win at the University of Pennsylvania last Saturday.
   The win kept the Tigers in sole possession of first place in the Ivy League, the lone unbeaten remaining in the Ancient Eight, one game ahead of Harvard with two games to play. It’s the first win over Penn since Princeton won its last Ivy title in 2006.
   ”They have that warrior fight in them,” said PU head coach Bob Surace on the opponent his Tigers overcame. “They have guys that have multiple rings, on the coaching staff and team. You knew it would be a dogfight. Fortunately we were able to create those turnovers and change field position and get a win.”
   The game started poorly for the Tigers, much as it had at Brown. Princeton trailed Penn, 16-0, in the second quarter, but rallied swiftly. The Tigers had the lead before a late score by Penn gave the hosts a 23-17 halftime lead.
   ”You just know that these games have ebbs and flows to them,” Surace said. “Our team has been playing one play at a time and going to the next one. There was no panic. They had a good look to them. We were able to take the lead. We were eventually able to get back to where it was a one-score game and that was important.”
   The defense kept Princeton in the game early, then helped the Tigers pull ahead and eventually hold off Penn. In its most productive day of the season, Princeton forced six turnovers and the PU offense scored twice off them while Elijah Mitchell did the honors once for the defense with a 59-yard interception return. Anthony Gaffney and Mike Zeuli each picked off passes. Jason Ray recovered two Penn fumbles and Zeuli also had a fumble recovery.
   ”It’s something for three and a half years, you talk about that’s such a key to success,” Surace said. “We work on it weekly in practice, daily in spring football. We’ve been good with decision making on offense and taking advantage of opportunities on defense. They came in bunches.”
   The result was another big road win for the Tigers. They outscored Penn, 21-3, in the second half to take control of the game and remain in control of the league.”The common theme, from assistant coaches — Coach Perry and Jim Salgado said it — we practice so hard every day that it’s going to show through in the second half. All you can do is give your best effort and prepare and hope it works out. The fluky plays evened out. They had one; we had one. We went in knowing for us to have success, it’s going to be a grind. I was proud of how we turned 3-yard gains to 4-yard gains.”
   Gains were tougher to come by than usual. Princeton didn’t rush for 100 yards in the game for the first time, but they found other ways to win. Quinn Epperly remained on target with a 32-for-45 passing performance for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a pair of touchdowns.
   Two of his top targets — Roman Wilson and Matt Costello — enjoyed history making days. Wilson caught a career-high 12 passes and Costello had five catches. Each of them surpassed 100 catches in their careers.
   ”They’re both such consistent players,” Surace said. “Quarterbacks need to have trust in receivers, need to know where they’ll be. They need to know they can trust them. They came off their workouts the hardest workers we had on the team.”
   PU receivers Seth DeValve and Connor Kelly each ended up touchdown catches in a show of the Tigers’ depth at that position. Princeton is hoping that they can maintain their spotless Ivy record next Saturday when it hosts Yale, a dangerous underdog.
   ”This league, almost week in and week out, you’re playing really good squads,” Surace said. “They beat Cal Poly, which was top 15 at the time, on the road. Our games against them the past couple years have been down to the wire.
   ”They’re a lot like us. They have good senior leadership and good youthful guys mixed in there. They run similar to us, no huddle, dynamic and defensively they’re going to challenge you with an aggressive scheme. We’ve been fortunate to come back and get some big wins, but these games you know it’s going to come down to one or two plays.”
   Princeton’s offense has remained in top form, among the highest in scoring in Football Championship Subdivision. The defense has come on as well. One week after thwarting Cornell’s high-octane offense, the Tigers made it tough on Penn’s offense.
   ”All year long they’ve played really aggressive,” Surace said. “They played physical. We exert a lot of pressure in our different looks. There are always some frustrating and disappointing things we have to correct, but they’ve played well.”
   A win over Yale would clinch at least a share of the Ivy crown for Princeton. Being able to knock off Penn was a big step towards regaining the Ivy championship, but Surace didn’t want his players looking too far ahead.
   ”It doesn’t change our routine,” he said. “We have to keep working to get better.”