NEW YORK — The football team’s victory this week against Columbia, the first of Princeton’s season and the third career win with the Tigers for head coach Bob Surace ’90, was a story of redemption in more ways than one. Freshman kicker Nolan Bieck was perfect on four field-goal attempts after missing three last week. Sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly, who did little with the limited playing time he was given in the first two games, played almost an entire half and proved he could produce points. Most importantly, the Tigers won convincingly after two weeks of close, heartbreaking losses.
Princeton took the lead on the first play of the game and never let go. Freshman cornerback Anthony Gaffney took the opening kickoff and glided through the Lions defense, never being touched as he went 94 yards for a score.
“The guys were ready for a big play,” Gaffney said. “I saw the lane open up, and everybody held their blocks.”
“The sideline erupted,” junior wide receiver Roman Wilson said. “It just gave us an air of confidence.”
Princeton's defense took advantage of Columbia’s diminutive offensive line, forcing quarterback Sean Brackett to use every bit of his considerable agility. He didn’t go down easily, escaping the collapsing pocket several times on every drive, but the Tigers ensured he never had enough time to get comfortable, sacking him five times.
In contrast, sophomore quarterback Connor Michelsen, who has started all three games this season, looked very comfortable. After a 20-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Connor Kelley and a few short passes that showcased his accuracy, Michelsen kept the ball on fourth-and-1 and ran for 2 yards to keep the drive alive.
When the Tigers stalled at the Columbia 14-yard line, they got their second touchdown on what, for better or for worse, has become this year's signature play. Senior deep snapper Jason Tiemeier’s snap went too high for senior wide receiver Tom Moak to set up the kick, but Moak — who was a quarterback in high school — took the ball, evaded defenders and found junior tight end Des Smith in the end zone. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same thing happened last week against Georgetown, when a high snap resulted in Moak throwing a touchdown pass to senior tight end Mark Hayes. The only difference was that Moak’s accuracy was tested this week, as Smith was well covered by the Lions.
“We just had good or bad luck, depending on how you look at it, with snaps,” Moak said. “I love throwing the football.”
The Tigers continued to pressure Brackett and tailback Marcorus Garrett, who, after racking up 100-plus rushing yards in each of his first two games, accumulated only 64 on Saturday. Midway through the second quarter, Columbia came within reach of halving the lead, but after junior defensive back Phillip Bhaya and junior linebacker Alex Polofsky stopped Garrett for a loss on third-and-2, the Lions settled for a field goal.
On the next drive, the left-handed Epperly took over at quarterback, driving inside the Columbia red zone before Bieck was called on for a 34-yard field goal. After missing three key field goals against Georgetown last week, Bieck's first attempt was no sure thing.
"One of the best attributes of a kicker, they say, is just a short memory. So once [the Georgetown game] was over, I just had to completely forget about it,” Bieck said. “[But] I’ll admit, on the first one I was a little shaky, a little nervous.”
Bieck went on to make all four of his field-goal attempts, with three of them coming inside of 30 yards. He also hit all three of his extra-point attempts and added a tackle.
“Nolan’s a pretty resilient kid,” Moak said. “You could see after the game last week he didn’t need anybody to tell him anything. He knew what had happened, and he made some adjustments.”
Brackett got into a rhythm early in the third quarter, hitting three receivers, including Connor Nelligan, who finished with more than 100 yards receiving. The Lions could not finish the drive, however, as Polofsky came up with another stop, followed by an incomplete pass, to hold Columbia to another field goal. Late in the quarter, Princeton answered with three points of its own after taking over at the Lions' 20-yard line due to a fumble by Columbia punter Paul Delaney.
On their next possession, the Tigers got their third throwing touchdown of the season, the first by a quarterback. Epperly, aided by his own agility and that of freshman running back DiAndre Atwater, brought the Tigers to the Lions’ 44. There, in a play reminiscent of Lehigh’s lead-sealing touchdown against the Tigers two weeks ago, a scrambling Epperly found Wilson so wide open he could have walked into the end zone.
For the game, Epperly completed seven of 10 passing attempts for 101 yards, one of the best games of his career, and added 42 yards on the ground.
After the game-sealing touchdown, Princeton's defense turned it on. After senior defensive end Mike Catapano brought down Brackett for an 8-yard loss, Gaffney added to his productive game with the first interception of his college career.
“I dropped one early in the game, so it was almost in my head: I gotta get back another one,” said Gaffney, who added a second pick later in the game.
Two short fourth-quarter field goals padded the Tigers' lead to the final score of 33-6. Junior defensive back Elijah Mitchell made sure Brackett’s day ended on a low note, sneaking up on the quarterback for two sacks in the final minutes.
Columbia is by no means Princeton’s most challenging opponent on the schedule. Still, the Tigers had plenty to celebrate after ending a nine-game losing streak that started after they beat the Lions by three points last season.
“We built on what we’d done the first two games, corrected our mistakes, and we just got at it today,” Gaffney said. “We’re feeling good about this week, and we’re just hoping to keep the ball rolling into next week.”
The Tigers will head to Lafayette on Saturday before returning to Princeton Stadium for their second Ivy League game against Brown on Oct. 13.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/29/31309/