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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Princeton 31 Penn 30, 2OT

Sorry for posting only intermittently over the past couple of weeks, but there's been a lot going on at work and outside work that has taken up a bunch of my time.

That said, we ventured to Princeton Stadium for the Princeton-Penn football game yesterday. The perennial power Quakers were coming off two straight overtime defeats, while the Tigers were looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Cornell up in Ithaca last weekend and remain in the hunt for the Ivy title.

Princeton 31 Penn 30, 2 OT.

It was a beautiful day in Princeton. The ride up Route 206 from Pennsylvania revealed spectacular scenery, with the trees changing color amidst the nice houses and farms that dot that road. The sun shone on most of the field at the game's outset, and we bought General Admission tickets ($7 apiece) and sat in the endzone (unreserved seating), as many Princeton alums do. Sitting in the endzone is a chance to meet up with old friends, and there were many who had the same thoughts as we did as we sat near the goalposts at the endzone closer to campus.

The game itself reveals why Ivy cognoscenti claim that on a given day any Ivy team can beat any other. Ivy football is somewhat like NASCAR racing, in that in NASCAR the cars that the drivers drive are pretty similar but whether or not you finish in the Top 10 or win depends upon a whole slew of factors, from the leadership of the team (the driver) to the crew chief and guys working in pit row. Analogously, most Ivy teams recruit kids from more than half the states in the country (Harvard's and Princeton's rosters showed that both schools had kids on their roster from at least 28 states), and because the pool of kids who are eligible to play Ivy football is much narrower than the pool that can play football in the SEC, it stands to reason that there isn't all that much differentiation in talent at most of the schools (Dartmouth football alums, I have heard, will argue that difficulties with the admissions office have hurt the Big Green's talent pool). Which means that coaching and leadership among the kids on the team makes a lot of difference as to who will win on a given day.

It also means that quarterbacks misfire on down-and-out patterns, defensive backs drop balls that would be surefire picks in an Alabama-Tennessee game (where the DB would take the ball "to the house"), that points after touchdown aren't guaranteed and referee's calls are questionable.

All of that happened yesterday. The Penn QB began the game only being able to convert throws over the middle; ask him to hit a sideline pattern and he probably had a better shot to hit the kid holding the broadcast network's sound cone on the sidelines (to his credit, he came up huge in the fourth quarter) than to hit one of his own wideouts. The Princeton defensive backs dropped some surefire picks that could have buried Penn before the Quakers' great fourth-quarter comeback (where Penn converted two very long fourth and longs to stay in the game). The Penn placekicking game resembled a Three Stooges' routine at times (in contrast, the Princeton punter looks like he might have a shot to make it in the NFL), and the officials had what looked to be from the Penn side a very slow whistle in the second overtime that led to Penn's demise.

It was a game that both teams deserved to win, Princeton for its pulling ahead to 24-10 after three quarters and Penn for tying the game up near the end of regulation. It also was a game the neither deserved to win -- Princeton for failing to finish off a tough opponent and Penn because it got sloppy when it needed to execute on the fundamentals. That Penn has lost three overtime games in a row is testimony to how close the Ivy teams are in terms of ability, and it's probably also testimony to the notion that Penn is not a first-division team in the Ivies this year (lose three OT games in a row means that your team is just shy in some critical area). That's not a knock on Penn, it's just evidence of the inevitable gravity that can hit a dominant program every now and then (after all, during Al Bagnoli's reign as Penn's head coach, the Quakers have put together excellent teams and results). It's also evidence that with the exceptions of Dartmouth and Columbia, the top six teams in the Ivy can give each other fits (and Dartmouth battled Cornell very tough yesterday).

Most impressive yesterday, in addition to Penn's RB Joe Sandberg and QB Robert Irvin, were Princeton's RB Rob Toresco, a tough football player with a great presence on the field, starting QB Jeff Terrell and backup QB Bill Foran. For those at the game, Foran wore #11, came in on many downs as a WR and played a few plays at QB, where he took the snap and ran around right end, usually for first downs and a few times for gains over 15 yards. He's fearless, and he must run a 4.5 40-yard dash or better. He also played a gunner on the punt teams, twice downing the ball inside the Penn 5 yard line. On one of those plays, he outmaneuvered the Penn player covering him, stopped on a dime at the goal line, batted the ball back to the four and then stopped it from rolling back in the endzone. Sounds easy, huh? Foran also made a solid tackle covering a kickoff. He was Princeton's unsung hero of the afternoon.

So what ultimately happened?

Penn had a great comeback, tying the game late in regulation. They had the ball first in OT and failed to score, and the momentum moved back to Princeton. The Tigers had a good first-down play, moving the ball 11 yards to Penn's fourteen, but at the right hashmark. Then they ran two plays to center the ball better, leaving the Princeton kicker, Conor Louden, with a very makeable 32-yarder or so. Penn's line surged greatly and blocked the kick.

Double overtime.

Princeton had the ball first and moved the ball well. They got to the Penn one, but failed to get the ball into the endzone. It was fourth and goal, and instead of taking a sure field goal, went for it on fourth down. Princeton called an off-tackle play, giving the ball to hardnosed RB Toresco, who leapt and tried to get into the endzone. The Penn defensive line pushed back hard, and Toresco wasn't stopped. He bounced off the line and back behind it, where he had the presence of mind to lateral the ball to quarterback Terrell, who at the time had been reduced to being a spectator like the rest of us (albeit on the field and five yards behind the line). Terrell took the ball and raced around right end. The Penn defense had been bunched in the center, and Terrell scored easily. Princeton converted the extra point, and went ahead 31-24. Pandemonium in Tigertown, which was much colder as the sun had begun to set (the lights had been turned on in Princeton Stadium).

The Penn coaches weren't happy, and Penn head coach Al Bagnoli walked onto the field and asked the officials for an explanation. He probably argued that the Penn line had stopped Toresco and that the play was dead, so that the lateral and ensuing touchdown shouldn't have counted. It's an interesting argument, except that no Penn players were grasping Toresco after the pushback (he was standing behind the line untouched by any Penn player), and how many times have we seen the likes of Reggie Bush continue on after it seemed like there was no gain to be made? In addition, both teams had gang tackles yesterday that were far from blown dead until well after six players on the defense grabbed the offensive player and pushed him back. My point: the "no whistle" was consistent with the way the officials called the game all day. Naturally, I and my friends are partisans, and it seemed like the right call to us.

Penn was undaunted. Irvin was hot. On the first play from scrimmage, Irvin threw a fly pattern to a wide receiver, challenging Princeton's best defensive back, J.J. Artis. It was a beautiful throw, and it was for a touchdown.

Princeton 31, Penn 30.

All Penn needed to do was to convert the PAT to force triple overtime.

But Penn's kicking game has been jinxed all season. In the first quarter, the Penn placekicker banged a short FG off the upright, only to see it flung back in his direction. Late in the game, the Quakers muffed a placement, and now they needed to convert this PAT to stay in the game.

They didn't do it. Either the snap was too low or the holder dropped it, and the Princeton defense broke through. The holder made a mad dash around left end, only to be hammered out of bounds at the Tigers' two yard-line.


Princeton survived to remain one game behind undefeated Yale, and the two will face off next week in New Haven. A Princeton win will give the Tigers a tie with the Bulldogs, and a decent chance to win the league outright (in the season finale, the Tigers host league doormat Dartmouth, while Yale travels to Cambridge to face its archrival, Harvard, which is a pretty good team in its own right).

It was another beautiful day with a happy ending for the hometown fans. The kids hung out with other kids closer to the goalposts, making new friends along the way.

There was some intermittent nastiness that flew into our faces from isolated Penn fans, most of whom are a partisan but respectful bunch. One Penn undergrad was obnoxious in a line we were in at the concession stand, yelling that he hated Princeton and its people and everything about it. He had on a Penn sweatshirt and a backwards baseball cap, and the kids with us were a bit put off by this loud display. Reflexively, I turned toward him and said, "Were we to waste any time thinking about you, we'd tell you that we hate you too." It was clear from our garb for whom we were rooting, and that shut up the rude guest, at least in our presence (point of clarification, too: I have many relatives and friends who went to Penn, like the school a lot, respect their great football and basketball traditions and have great memories of fun times at both Franklin Field and the Palestra, and wouldn't dare to insult Penn fans in their own building, where I am a guest. Manners and college games don't go hand in hand, but I'll wage a one-person crusade for manners in buildings belonging to an institution where I have an affiliation if I need to do it). There was also a middle-aged Penn alum sitting near us who, every time Penn was hit with a penalty, yelled out something to the effect that Princeton, with it's $13 billion endowment, was buying the officials (it's not Princeton's fault that Penn, a larger institution, has a significantly smaller endowment and a lot of debt when compared to Princeton's balance sheet -- that doesn't diminish Penn's stature or raise Princeton's in my eyes). Anyway, the yelling seeming to be a bit wacky, and we agreed that if one-time Princeton hoops coach Pete Carril were sitting near us he'd wonder "Who is this as_____?"). As the game wore on, he faded away, free to speak, harmless in his discourse, but odd nonetheless, as you'd think forty- or fifty-somethings would have better things to cheer about.

I blogged the last paragraph because of the many articles I've read recently about the lack of civility at college games, and most definitely those two interactions were but a small distraction from a fun afternoon. We still would have had fun even if the home team had lost, but as many Princeton fans will tell you, there's no sound more sonorous or enriching than the silence of the Penn fans. I'm sure they'd say the same thing about Princeton fans -- it's great to hear them silenced, too, if you bleed red and blue.

For whatever reason, Penn views Princeton as its archrival, and that perceived rivalry dates back a while (probably over 70 years), most likely because of the proximity of the schools (there's about 50 miles apart; interestingly, Columbia feels no such rivalry with Princeton, and those schools have about the same distance between them). While Princeton might view Penn as its archrival in men's basketball given both schools' dominance over the Ivies since the league's inception, generally speaking Princeton doesn't see Penn as its archrival. On the gridiron, Princeton views Yale as its archrival, as there has been a rich history between the schools that actually pre-dates the Harvard-Yale rivalry (today, Princeton is the third of the Big Three in terms of that rivalry, as Harvard and Yale view each other as archrivals in almost everything). So, Penn fans, while you have your passion and sometimes your enmity, remember this: your school and your teams aren't on the radar screen for most Princetonians in most endeavors. That doesn't mean they don't respect you; it just means that they don't view your school the way you view theirs.

It was a great game, and there have been many among Ivy football teams this season. I'll submit that Ivy football is among the purest of college football endeavors -- there are no big stadiums, there are no students in joke majors who cannot do the work and who have little chance of graduating, and there are no gridiron coaches who are larger in profile than the university presidents. That's what college football should be. When you think of any Ivy, you think of the integrity of their overall mission first, the talent of the students and their participation in a large number of programs and not about any sporting contest.

And that's the perspective that all college sports should have -- as extracurricular activities.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So are you picking Princeton over Yale on Saturday?

7:51 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I was at the game too - I'm a Penn alum and, more specficially, a Penn Band alum, so I was sitting in with the band that day, enjoying the excitement.

Here's my take on it from the other side of the stands:

The Best Football Game Ever

We'll see you guys at the Palestra... ;-)

4:43 PM  

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