It’s an exciting time to be a Princeton football fan. Last Saturday, Nov. 3, the Tigers took down Dartmouth 14–9 in a thrilling showdown of unbeaten teams. This Saturday, Princeton plays Yale for a chance to earn a bonfire and secure at least a share of the Ivy League title. Here’s a list of takeaways from the Dartmouth game and things to think about before the Yale game.
Princeton’s defense is good — like, really good
Entering Saturday’s game against Dartmouth, Princeton’s defense was allowing only nine points per game. However, the unit had often been overshadowed by the Tigers offense’s averaging 50 points per game. After Saturday, that should no longer be the case. While Princeton floundered offensively for much of the game, the defense completely stifled Dartmouth, not allowing a point after the opening possession. Two main factors account for Princeton’s dramatic reversal from last year, in which the team had one of the worst defenses in the Ivy League. First, the unit has remained relatively healthy and has received valuable contributions from players who missed significant time last season with injury. Senior linebackers Mark Fossati and Mike Wagner both suffered season-ending injuries in 2017 and now lead the team in tackles and sacks respectively. Second, Princeton’s secondary, which struggled due to its inexperience in 2017, has improved greatly. Senior safety Ben Ellis, junior safety TJ Floyd, and sophomore cornerback Delan Stallworth were all first-year starters last year and have each played well in 2018. Floyd leads the team in interceptions with six, and Ellis is third in tackles.
Bob Surace isn’t afraid to gamble
Analytically-minded football fans have long been frustrated by the unwillingness of risk-averse coaches to attempt fourth-down conversions even when the statistics say it’s clearly the right move. Nobody could make any such accusations against Princeton coach Bob Surace ’90. Princeton has attempted 21 fourth down conversions this season and converted 17 of them. In the fourth quarter against Dartmouth, Princeton attempted three fourth down conversions in one drive. The final one, a 4th-and-inches from the Dartmouth 5 with Princeton trailing 9–7, came up short, but Princeton scored a touchdown on the next drive anyways.
John Lovett isn’t (totally) unstoppable
Before suffering an injury to his non-throwing hand against Lehigh, senior quarterback John Lovett was essentially unstoppable. Not only was he accurate throwing the ball and running it, but he played mistake-free football, committing no turnovers through his first five games. Against Dartmouth, Lovett scored both Princeton’s touchdowns but failed otherwise to have his usual impact. Windy conditions limited his ability to throw downfield and the Dartmouth defense contained him on the ground relatively well, holding him to 70 yards on 22 carries. He also threw a costly interception in the end zone that ended a long Princeton drive in the second quarter without points and lost a fumble near midfield later in the quarter. Lovett has also played the past few games with a cast on his left hand, though besides the fumble against Dartmouth and the inability to take snaps under center, it has not drastically affected his play.
Despite injuries, Yale remains potent
Yale was voted to finish first in the Ivy League preseason media poll by a wide margin and looked solid, barring a lopsided loss against Dartmouth, until the Bulldogs lost their starting quarterback, Kurt Rawlings, to injury. Backup Jimmy Check was ineffective, and the Bulldogs picked up their second Ivy League loss against Columbia, effectively, but not mathematically, ending their hopes of defending their Ivy League title. Yale turned to freshman quarterback Griffin O’Connor last week against Brown, and he dazzled in his debut with four touchdown passes in a 46–16 win over Brown. Yale’s defense has also been stellar recently, holding its last three opponents to an average of 12 points.
Lots on the line
Even with a loss, Princeton would have a good shot to win at least a share of the Ivy League title. That said, the team has much to play for. A win would give Princeton its first bonfire, earned by beating Harvard and Yale in the same season, since 2013. Princeton has come close in recent years to that bonfire. In 2016, the Tigers beat Yale and lost to Harvard in overtime, and in 2017, they beat Harvard and lost to Yale narrowly despite leading 24–14 at halftime. No current students have witnessed a bonfire in their time here, and the prospect of one has even those normally not interested in football excited. Also, the Tigers are two wins away from their first undefeated season since 1964. Players and coaches have cited their ability to take things one week at a time as a prime reason for the team’s success. However, with the toughest game of the season out of the way, the prospect of making history must have at least crossed their minds.