Column: Even in loss, hosts put on fun show
If you did not come to the football game on Friday night, shame on you. Not just because you should support Princeton athletics. Not just because it was the home opener for the Tigers. Not just because it was a marquee opponent Princeton had not played since 1923. Not just because it was a game on Friday night, early in the school year.
No; shame on you because the Tigers put on a damn good show.
Yes, Princeton did lose, but it was in heartbreaking fashion: They surrendered the lead to Georgetown with just 14 seconds left. Yes, the Tigers did lose to the Hoyas, 21-20, but even that score will tell you that the margin was razor-thin. Princeton deserved to win this football game, and a couple of bad breaks for the Tigers swung it the other way.
The offense was clicking. Sophomore quarterback Connor Michelsen really got into a groove, displaying a passing acumen that was severely lacking the previous weekend against Lehigh. Junior wide receiver Roman Wilson is emerging as Princeton’s best deep threat, with two big receptions Friday night on the same post play — one for 34 yards, one for 28.
The running game was even better. Despite senior tailback Akil Sharp going out of the game early due to injury, sophomore tailback Will Powers took most of the carries in the second quarter, punching into the end zone on a 2-yard run for the Tigers’ second touchdown of the night. Freshman tailback DiAndre Atwater was a revelation, rushing for 92 yards in a performance reminiscent of a certain Ivy League Rookie of the Year who cannot play this year.
And of course, the defense, especially the defensive line, is starting to become a dominant force. The front seven was putting pressure on the Hoyas’ quarterbacks all night — Aaron Aiken had to leave the game early after getting injured — but the defense did let up on Stephen Skon, who replaced him under center. Princeton had four sacks, along with numerous hurries and knockdowns. This pressure up front certainly aided the secondary. Sophomore cornerback Khamal Brown tallied his first career interception and the Tigers’ first defensive turnover of the year — especially important for a team that ranked last in turnover margin the previous season.
So where did Princeton go wrong? Well, the easy scapegoat is the kicking game. Freshman kicker Nolan Bieck missed three field goals and had an extra point blocked. Those points, of course, would have won the ball game. But blaming the kicker is a cop out. First off, two of those attempts were from a distance, 42 yards and 49 yards, which would be difficult for any college kicker (anyone see Alabama kicker Cade Foster in the regular season Alabama-Louisiana State game last year?). Secondly, Bieck was put into a bad situation as a true freshman. The Tigers’ first touchdown, which looked to be a fake field goal attempt, was actually a botched snap that ended fortuitously for Princeton. That’s no way for any kicker to establish confidence at the beginning of a game, let alone a freshman. So yes, technically it’s the kicker’s fault — but if he is to receive blame, so does the rest of the kicking unit as well as the coaching staff.
The harder answer as to why the Tigers lost on Friday night? Georgetown is simply a better team. That may not be the answer Princeton is looking for, but it’s true. The Hoyas are a top-flight opponent from the Patriot League that went 8-3 last season. What is remarkable about this season is that not only were the games with Lehigh and Georgetown competitive (which would be a stretch to say of some of last season’s games), the Tigers were actually threatening to win in the closing minutes of both.
This is a good Princeton team. It may not be a challenger for the Ivy League title, but it has shown enough in the last two games to be taken seriously. While the Tigers are still having trouble closing out games, that in itself is something to be said of the progress that this team and coaching staff have made over the off-season.
I believe in this Princeton team. That is not something I would have said at the beginning of the season. But after having seen it play, especially in the second half against the Mountain Hawks and in the first quarter against the Hoyas, I believe this team has the potential to make some noise. The Tigers have a winnable game next week when they travel to New York City to take on Columbia. If they do not let that matchup become a letdown game, they can make something of this season. I believe in you, Princeton. Don’t let me down.