The word that stands out after watching Princeton out-grind Dartmouth here at Princeton Stadium is “meat”.
It was a game a lineman could love – a constant struggle in the trenches between offensive and defensive lines a day when the guys with the numerals in the 60s were the true stars.
Sure, it would be easy to simply give the game ball to Princeton QB John Lovett, whose two touchdown runs were all the scoring the Tigers needed to preserve their undefeated (8-0, 5-0) record in the Ivy League. Certainly his leadership and grit were something to remember.
But it was the ebb and flow of the trench battles that really defined this football game – the Princeton offensive line getting the upper hand on the very first drive, getting blown back a little bit mid-way through the game, and finally re-establishing themselves at the end to get a thrilling, late, fourth-quarter score.
“This game was like Rocky I,” smiling head coach Bob Surace said as he entered the post-game press conference. “with two teams slugging it out. They were good. They were going to make their plays. They make you fight to get four yards. What are you going to attack to get more than four yards?”
It was the lowest-scoring game that Princeton had ever won since the Tigers beat Columbia 10-5 in a monsoon.
After exchanging touchdowns in the first quarter on grinding, time-consuming drives, grabbing tiny chunks of 4 or 5 yards, from the second quarter on it was a lineman’s feast, with sacks, big stops, and even a safety.
In the second quarter, fittingly it was Dartmouth nose guard Seth Simmer that would get into Lovett’s face in the shadow of his own goal posts, forcing a fumble out of the end zone, giving the Big Green a safety and a narrow 2-point lead that would hold most of the game.
From that moment on, it was a battle of which trench unit would buckle first.
For two and a half quarters, it was a stalemate, both defenses holding things at bay. On one drive, Princeton’s defensive front would stymie Dartmouth’s offense, and on another, it would be the Big Green defense’s time to push back the Tigers offensive protection.
Princeton’s offensive line would keep grinding and grinding, though, and WR Jesper Horstead, who came up with several acrobatic catches to extend drives, and the rest of the Princeton offense would keep slowly and methodically putting Princeton in better and better position to finally score.
Lovett used his ability as a runner to stretch the field and get yards in chunks all game – but it seemed like, according to Surace, that after each offensive play, it would seem to always end up again at 2nd and 6.
Three times Dartmouth’s defense forced Princeton to turn the ball over on downs in the second half, including one after a 23 play, 91 yard drive that started at the Princeton 1 yard line and ended at the Dartmouth 6. Lovett’s 4th and 2 run would end up short of the 1st down marker, the Big Green defensive front winning yet another battle in the trench.
But Princeton’s offensive like never gave up.
“You can see it in their eyes,” Lovett said. “Tip of my cap to them to getting us first downs when we needed them. We faced adversity all throughout the first half, and we stand by those guys in the trench. They are the heart and soul of our offense, and we have full confidence in those guys.”
The team “never panicked,” Surace said afterwards, and Lovett agreed.
“We believe in each other,” Lovett said. “For us to put together drives at the end of the game when it counts, shows the senior leadership on this team, and is a huge credit to our defense, for keeping us in the game.
It was fitting in this football game that it took an entire team effort by Princeton at the end of the game to finally seal the deal: first, a big defensive stop by Princeton, yielding 0 points, second, a great punt return on special teams, setting up great field position, and finally the offense eventually finding a way, creating a tiny hole for Lovett to run through near the Dartmouth goal line, to get Princeton the victory.
“There was a great calm offensively,” Surace said. “If the defense could continue to play like they were, we were going to get opportunities, where we were going to get one in.”
It felt like a physical battle that, just, at the end, tilted decisively towards Princeton’s favor only as Lovett crossed the goal line with 2:03 to play in the game.
“It was a back and forth. I thought we put our everything into this game, and we were probably only one play better. It’s not as if these two teams are miles apart.”