Column: QBs, defense often keys to rapid improvement
Most people do not have very high expectations for Princeton football this year. A 1-9 finish in 2010 could have been dismissed as a fluke, given the coaching change and an apocalyptic rash of injuries, but the Tigers followed it up with another one-victory campaign in 2011 and have not won a game by more than three points since 2009. With star running back Chuck Dibilio not returning after a scary stroke in the off-season and an unsettled quarterback situation, the Tigers were picked to finish last in our Ivy League student sportswriters poll (see right) and the league’s official media poll.
Sure, teams can and do go from worst to first in sports; that’s part of the fun. (Baltimore Orioles fans will gladly tell you more, if you can find any around here.) It just doesn’t happen all that often in Ivy League football. Over the past 50 years, 31 teams have had a stretch similar to 2010-11 for the Tigers, with two consecutive seasons at 1-6 or worse in league play; 27 of them finished below .500 in the conference the following year.
Of course, that leaves four teams that won more games than they lost, including one that took a share of the Ivy League title. A finish above .500 would be an unequivocal success for this year’s Tigers, as it was for this quartet of teams. So let’s use history as a guide: How did these teams turn their fortunes around so quickly, and what would it look like if Princeton did the same this year?
Columbia, 1971: In the context of Columbia’s history, this is one of the most random success stories the Ivy League has ever seen. From 1963 through 1992 — that’s three entire decades — the Lions never won more than two league games in any season — except 1971, when they went 5-2 (6-3 overall). Even disregarding the team’s background, this was a pretty notable season. Somehow, the Lions’ first seven games were all decided by three or fewer points. They won four of those.
Linebacker Paul Kaliades, a third-team All-America who doubled as the team’s kicker, headlined a defense that was coming of age in 1971 — the Lions allowed just 117 points in seven games, hardly half of what they surrendered the previous year. And the offense wasn’t outstanding — quarterback Don Jackson’s stats were nearly indistinguishable from his 1970 and 1972 seasons, and no back ran for more than 40 yards per game — but it clicked just enough to win some close games.
Brown, 1973: The Bears’ turnaround wasn’t quite as dramatic as some other teams on this list — they went just 4-3-1 overall — but compare that to where the program had been: Brown’s four Ivy League wins matched its total from the previous seven years combined.
Sophomore quarterback Pete Beatrice, rising up from the freshman ranks, was a difference-maker on offense. He wasn’t particularly efficient, even by that era’s lower standards, but he gave Brown the credible passing attack it had lacked in the previous six seasons. And defensively, they went from a distant last to middle-of-the-pack in points allowed, kicking off a stretch of eight straight seasons finishing above .500.
Penn, 1982: The Quakers are the lone team on this list to win a league title, though they needed some help to do so, finishing in a three-way tie at 5-2 after winning only three league games in their previous four seasons combined. Penn moved to a more pass-happy offense in 1981, but it took another year to pay off; after splitting time under center as a sophomore and junior, Gary Vura came into his own in 1982, throwing for 1,771 yards and setting a program record with 148 completions.
After allowing 32 points per game the previous season, Penn surrendered just 19 on average in 1982. Linebacker Kevin Bradley emerged as a sophomore and would lead the unit for the next three seasons, while defensive back Tim Chambers’ seven interceptions still stand as a program record. The Quakers would go on to win at least a share of the next four Ivy League titles as well.
Yale, 1998: The record books show the 1998 Bulldogs coming off of a 1-6 Ivy League season, but even that overstates their case, as the one “win” was a 26-7 loss to Penn that was later forfeited for an ineligible Quaker. In reality, Yale had lost 13 straight league games and hadn’t been above .500 in six seasons — but that changed in ’98, as the Bulldogs went 5-2 in Ivy play during coach Jack Siedlecki’s second season.
Yale’s turnaround was fueled by two emerging stars in the backfield: quarterback Joe Walland and running back Rashad Bartholomew, who would retire as the program’s career passing and rushing leaders, respectively. Walland, an athletic left-hander known for his scrambling ability, wasn’t even recruited to play quarterback, but after starting the final eight games of the 1997 season, he came into his own in 1998, throwing for more yards than any previous Bulldog quarterback. Bartholomew, a transfer from Air Force Academy, added 10 rushing touchdowns. The duo went on to lead Yale to the conference title in 1999.
One other team didn’t quite qualify for this list but deserves mentioning: Cornell in 2011. Just 12 months ago, the Big Red was tied with Princeton for last place in the preseason media poll, having gone 1-6 in each of the previous two Ivy League seasons. But after going 5-5 last year (3-4 in conference play), Cornell earned a pair of first-place votes this year. The reason why: Jeff Mathews, one of the best quarterbacks in FCS football.
Mathews certainly had promise entering last season — he was named the Ivy Rookie of the Year in 2010 after starting nine games under center — but nobody could have predicted the full extent of his 2011 campaign. He threw for 341 yards per game and topped 500 with ridiculous accuracy in each of his final two contests, becoming the first sophomore ever to be named Offensive Player of the Year. Cornell’s defense allowed the most points in the league, but Mathews was good enough to win shootouts.
So, what have we learned? Most of these turnarounds shared two key things: a major defensive improvement and the emergence of a quality quarterback. It’s not too hard to see Princeton checking the first box — if last year’s suspect pass defense can improve even a little bit, the front seven looks formidable — but no passer has yet separated himself from his peers. More likely, the Tigers will join most of their historical peers and take a longer road back to the top.
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