Football: Defensive line key to Princeton's shutout
At the start of the season, one area of strength for the football team was clear: with senior Caraun Reid, a returning first-team All-Ivy selection, on one side of the defensive line and second-team All-Ivy senior Mike Catapano on the other, Princeton’s front four looked as menacing as any in the conference. And that defensive line was the biggest reason the Tigers beat Brown 19-0 on Saturday afternoon, ending the Bears’ Ivy League record of 162 straight games without being shut out.
Reid made the biggest defensive play of the game, a second-quarter safety that showed just how dominant Princeton’s linemen were. After a kick-return blunder, the Bears were backed up to their own one-yard line, so the hosts were looking for a safety, and they certainly got it. Reid brought down running back Mark Kachmer a good five yards into the Brown end zone, and several other Tigers had shoved aside blockers and would have earned two points had Reid not gotten there first.
That wasn’t the only big play Reid made on Saturday. He finished with two-and-a-half sacks, while Catapano added two more; all told, the hosts dropped Brown quarterback Patrick Donnelly seven times, one of which was called back for an unrelated penalty.
The Tigers weren’t facing a weak offensive line — on the contrary, the Bears entered the game having allowed only four sacks in four games, the fewest in the Ivy League. Still, in front of a national audience on NBC Sports Network, Princeton’s linemen consistently infiltrated the Brown backfield.
“We knew this was going to be a key matchup because they are well-coached up front and they have a bunch of veteran, senior offensive linemen,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said. “I thought we were fortunate to get to the quarterback some and get him out of rhythm a little.”
Many of those sacks came at critical junctures. With the Bears driving in Princeton territory late in the first half, trying to take momentum into the locker room, Reid sacked Donnelly on third-and-three; the nine-yard loss forced Brown to punt instead of going for it on fourth down. Late in the fourth quarter, after the Bears earned a new set of downs inside the Princeton 30-yard line, Catapano sacked Donnelly deep in the pocket and knocked the ball loose. Junior linebacker Alex Polofsky jumped on the fumble, dashing Brown’s already slim hopes.
The sack total showed only part of the impact made by Princeton’s linemen. With top rusher Spiro Theodhosi sidelined due to foot surgery, the Bears’ offensive line failed to open holes for his replacements, who combined for only 58 rushing yards and never broke a run for more than eight yards.
Instead, Brown relied heavily on Donnelly’s arm, calling 57 pass plays to only 15 runs. But many of his passes, especially early in the game, were short throws off of three-step drops; he rarely had time to sit in the pocket and wait for longer routes to develop, and deep plays were called with rollouts to buy more time. Of Donnelly’s 25 completions, 16 gained fewer than 10 yards — and even his only pass for more than 20 yards was thrown on the run after he avoided two tackles in the backfield.
When he had time to set himself, Donnelly appeared to be jumpy, throwing several deep passes well beyond his receivers’ reach. Princeton’s defensive backs played well, especially after a scary midweek injury sidelined sophomore cornerback Khamal Brown for the season. Freshman cornerback Anthony Gaffney made a nice read to pick off a third-quarter pass in Princeton’s red zone, while junior safety Phillip Bhaya ran underneath an overthrown pass near the sideline for another interception, allowing the Tigers to record their first shutout since 2005.
“You can’t take advantage of that when you’re on your back,” Brown head coach Phil Estes said of Princeton’s young secondary. “Just because they’re freshmen doesn’t make them bad — they’re good athletes back there.”
At the midpoint of the season, Catapano leads the Ivy League with seven-and-a-half sacks, while Reid is third with five. But their toughest test will come next week, when the Tigers host league favorite Harvard. The Crimson has won 14 straight games, most by wide margins, and has beat Princeton every year since the Tigers’ championship season of 2006 — just as Brown had before last weekend — but Estes, who has faced both teams this season, said he thought this year’s game might be interesting.
“[Princeton has] always had good players; we’ve always worried about them defensively,” Estes said. “I think they’re playing with a lot more confidence, and we certainly gave them a lot more today.”
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