By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PRINCETON, N.J. — Georgetown coach Kevin Kelly admitted on Friday night that there was a time when his Hoya football team would have believed they would lose a game like they played on Friday night at Princeton Stadium.
But there is a different belief system in place in the Georgetown program now and the Hoyas battled back for a hard-fought 21-20 victory over Princeton in the first nationally-televised game (ESPNU) in GU football history.
The Hoyas (2-1) drove drove down the field for 72 yards in 15 plays, milking five minutes and 20 seconds off the fourth-quarter clock to set up Matt MacZura's perfectly-placed, 33-yard field goal with 14 seconds left on the clock.
A week after MacZura missed a pair of field goals in a 24-21 loss to Yale, Kelly said he had no doubts that his junior kicker would come through against Princeton.
MacZura had hit from 26 and 25 yards out earlier in the game, but had also had an extra point blocked by Caraun Reid.
"I knew he would make it," Kelly said, confidently.
When Kelly took over the program seven years ago, the Hoyas did win these kind of games. In fact, they didn't win many games at all, claiming just five victories in Kelly's first four years and hitting rock bottom at 0-11 in 2009.
"The expectations level back then was that we would lose a game like this," Kelly admitted. "But our expectations are different now."
Coming off an 8-3 campaign — Georgetown's first winning season since 1999 — and playing eventual conference champion Lehigh for the Patriot League title and an Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth, the Hoyas are playing at a different confidence level in 2012.
"I told the offense before our last drive 'This is when you have to get it done' and I had confidence that they would do it," said Kelly.
Making the comeback more remarkable was the fact that third-string quarterback Stephen Skon (14-of-24, 121 yards passing, one interception) was taking snaps with No. 1 signal caller Isaiah Kempf out with a concussion for the third straight week and backup Aaron Aiken injured his left ankle early in the second quarter on a sack by Princeton's All-American defensive tackle, Reid.
"Stephen did get to take reps with the second team this week and all of the players have confidence in him," said Kelley. "This was just his first chance to do it on the field."
Skon, under heavy pressure from Reid and company, responded by completing 4-of-5 passes on that final drive, including a pair of key hook-ups to Kevin Macari for 14 yards on a nifty slant and 10 yards on a square-in to put the Hoyas in field goal range at the Princeton 18.
From there, Georgetown let Princeton burn its time outs. Then, the Hoyas ran down the clock and positioned the ball in the middle of the field for MacZura's deciding kick.
While confidence was an important factor in Georgetown's win, there was also a time when someone of Skon's talent wouldn't have been on hand to pull a game out of the fire. The Hoyas struggled to put capable first-teamers on the field during the early days of Kelly's program, let alone to find quality players off the bench.
"We've got really good players now," said Kelly. "I knew, when I took the job, Georgetown was a great university and it was in a great location. But I knew it would take time to get the players we wanted."
For Princeton (0-2), there were signs that coach Bob Surace is starting to turn things around for a Tiger program that hasn't had a winning season since sharing the Ivy League title in 2006.
The young, but talented Tigers jetted to a 14-3 lead when place holder Tom Moak changed a bad snap from field-goal formation into a 10-yard TD pass to a wide open Mark Hayes in the first period and Princeton took advantage of a shanked punt for a 12-play, 50-yard drive that Will Powers capped with a two-yard scoring burst in the second quarter.
But Georgetown showed its opportunistic nature by turning another bad snap that sailed past quarterback Connor Michelson into six points when cornerback Jeremy Moore (10 tackles, one pass breakup) jumped into a pile in the end zone and came away with the ball to make it 14-12 with four minutes left in the first half.
A third-quarter touchdown on Nick Campanella's seven-yard blast finally put Georgetown back in front at 18-14 late in the third period, but a pair of plays by famous brothers on opposite sidelines gave Princeton one last lead in the fourth stanza and set up the Hoyas' final act.
Stephen Atwater of Georgetown — looking every bit like his All-Pro NFL father, former Denver Bronco safety Steve Atwater — drilled a receiver on the sideline a little bit too high on a pass breakup and was called for unnecessary roughness on the first play of the period.
On the next play, his brother DiAndre Atwater (15 carries, 92 yards) scampered through the Georgetown line with a quick burst of speed and raced 53 yards for a touchdown to make it a 20-18 game for Princeton.
It was the longest run from scrimmage for the Tigers since 2009.
But it was enough for Princeton, which missed three field goals and had an extra point blocked.
The Tigers were a play away from snuffing out the winning Georgetown drive on a fourth and three from the Princeton 48 when Dalen Claytor took an option pitch from Skon and rambled six yards for a first down to set up the back-to-back receptions by Macari.
There were other times during the game when a play here, or there could have tilted the balance to Princeton.
Kelly could look at the Princeton program and remember what it was like five, or six years ago for a rebuilding Hoya squad.
"They are getting a lot better," Kelly said of Surace's Tigers. "They played great defense last week in shutting out Lehigh in the second half, coming back from a 17-0 deficit and only losing 17-14 and they played good defense tonight."
Kelly said that Princeton just hasn't learned that secret to winning close games as of yet.
"We were lucky to get out of here with a win," said Kelly.