Football atop Ivy League
PHILADELPHIA — When one encounters a middleman, the automatic response is to think up a way to eliminate him. But in football's 30-13 victory over Penn on Saturday afternoon, junior linebacker Luke Steckel was one middleman whose play the Tigers could not have done without.
After the Quakers (5-3 overall, 3-2 Ivy League) scored on a Joe Sandberg rushing touchdown five minutes into the second quarter, it appeared as though Princeton (6-2, 4-1) would see the 14-0 lead it had built cut in half.
Instead, junior linebacker Brig Walker dove across the line of scrimmage and swatted the ensuing extra-point attempt to the ground. Steckel took over from there, scooping up the loose football and lumbering upfield until Penn's pursuing special teams players came close to catching him.
At that point, Steckel had the presence of mind to lob a lateral pass back to senior cornerback Jay McCareins, who was sprinting up to him from behind.
"I was kind of yelling [for the ball]," McCareins said with a smile. "[Steckel] said he didn't hear me, but I know he heard me. He knew I was gonna be somewhere, he threw it, and I'm a little faster than him."
McCareins, having already converted into kick-return mode, carried the ball the next 65 yards into the Quakers' end zone for a two-point score.
The blocked extra point was the first the Tigers have ever returned across their opponent's goal line. It allowed Princeton to downgrade Penn's touchdown to a mere four-point change in score, 16-6 — a key development in a game that stayed close well into the final quarter.
"You take a total negative and turn it into a positive, I think that's huge," head coach Roger Hughes said about the play. "I've been on the other side of that. There's all that euphoria, and you're feeling good about yourself, then something bad happens, and it really takes the starch out of you."
The only trick niftier than Steckel's flip was the Tiger win itself. Princeton, which had not beaten the Quakers since 1995, moved out of a four-way tie for first place in the Ivy League and into a two-way tie with Brown, which defeated Yale on Saturday.
If the Tigers and the Bears win their two remaining games, they will be guaranteed nothing less than a share of the league crown, while Penn is now tied with Harvard and Yale for third place.
The steady offensive attack which has taken Princeton this far was on full display Saturday, as was its ball-hawk defense and big-play special teams.
The Tigers' early two-touchdown lead was the work of junior quarterback Jeff Terrell, who masterfully employed the many weapons of his receiving corps on his way to 193 passing yards and three touchdowns. Six different Princeton receivers had at least two catches on the day. "We don't have any superstars on our team," Hughes said, "but that's what we are — a team. And with a guy like Jeff, who is so unselfish and very smart about the offense and who understands how to read progressions, it really puts pressure on the defense."
On the first play of the Tigers' second drive, Terrell spotted senior wide receiver Derek Davis racing up the middle of the field ahead of two Quaker defensive backs who were late getting back in zone coverage. He hit Davis in stride for a 60-yard touchdown up the middle.
Then Princeton's defense, which held Penn quarterback Pat McDermott without a first-quarter passing yard, forced back-to-back three-and-outs and got the ball back in Terrell's hands.
The quarterback showed his appreciation by engineering a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive that extended into the second quarter. On second-and-goal from the Quakers' seven-yard line, Terrell found sophomore fullback Rob Toresco just a yard outside the near-right corner of the end zone. Before hitting the ground and letting the ball fly out of his hand, Toresco coolly extended his arm across the plane of the goal line for the touchdown.
Penn's first score and McCareins' extra-point return followed, making the score 16-6 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the half.
Thanks to Tiger senior strong safety Tim Strickland, who ended each of the Quakers' final three possessions of the half with his hands on the ball, that margin would follow the teams into their respective locker rooms.
First, Strickland blocked a 28-yard field-goal attempt by beleaguered Penn kicker Derek Zoch. He followed that up by picking off a pair of poorly-thrown McDermott passes, including a desperation heave as the first half ended.
The Quakers' offense temporarily found its groove early in the third quarter, driving 81 yards for a touchdown to cut Princeton's lead to three. A Penn onside-kick recovery followed, and suddenly, the 20,036 fans at Franklin Field were back in the game.
But the Tigers held the Quakers to a missed 47-yard field-goal attempt on that possession, and the next time Penn got the ball, McCareins kept them at bay with another big play. A McDermott pass deflected off the forearm of his intended receiver and into McCareins' chest 48 seconds into the final quarter, and McCareins reacted quickly enough to hold on for the interception — the third of Princeton's four picks on the day.
From there on out, Terrell and the Tiger offense moved the ball as effectively as they have all season.
Just past the midway point of the final period, with his team still clinging to a three-point lead, Terrell rolled left out of the pocket and looked for an open receiver on that side of the field. With the Penn linebackers following Terrell's eyes, senior tight end Jon Dekker shook off his block and rolled out to the now wide-open right side of the field. Terrell lofted a perfect pass moments before being hit by two Quakers. After Dekker calmly caught the pass, he snuck untouched into the right corner of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown and a 23-13 lead.
On the next Tiger possession, Toresco, who led Princeton with 70 yards on the ground, made up for a careless goal-line fumble earlier in the quarter. With 5:05 left to play, he ran five yards for his second touchdown of the day, giving his team an insurmountable threescore lead.
"To be the man," Hughes said afterward, "you have to beat the man."
And whether it was a middleman like Steckel or a big-play man like McCareins, enough Tigers stepped up on Saturday to ensure that Princeton did just that.
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