My credentials as a Princeton sports fan are pretty solid. I’ve attended all six of our men’s lacrosse national championships, the 1965 Final Four, and pretty much every game of the last undefeated football team — 1964. I can now add the 2018 football team to my Princeton sports memories.
Well before the start of the 2018 football season, I noticed that we would be playing Butler in Indianapolis. I emailed my great friend and Princeton roommate, Norm Tabler ’66, suggesting that I use the game as an excuse to come for a visit.
The game turned into a surprising blowout for Princeton, and I decided to email my impressions of the game to some fellow Princeton football fans. The folks on that list suggested that I write reports about future games, and I told myself that I would keep doing so until we lost. We never did. Thus, serendipitously, I have a written record of what was a historic Princeton football season. A few highlights of these emails follow:
Right from the start, the game was shocking. Seldom have I seen such a dominant performance. We seem to be talented, very deep, and well coached. The running game was superb — we have three, maybe four, very good running backs. John Lovett can throw as well as run, though I am concerned about his propensity to run and try to get the extra yard, thus exposing himself to injury. We can’t afford to lose him. Let the speculation begin!
Monmouth was a considerably better team than Butler, yet we seemed to handle every challenge they threw at us. The defense made big plays when it counted, and our variety of offensive weapons was more than Monmouth could handle. That said, we’ve haven’t run anything tricky. I think that the coaches are saving some of these things for games when we find ourselves challenged; they don’t want video for other teams to analyze.
I have only a few comments about the Columbia game, as all three of our contests have been surprisingly similar. In each case, our opponent was highly touted, yet in each we’ve taken our foot off the accelerator with at least a quarter to go. We’ve had very few penalties, no turnovers, and no serious injuries that I know of. We are very physical and seem to wear the other team out. It’s hard to not think about the u-word. How good are we? Based on the results so far, I would have to say that we’d be favored to win every game we play from now on, except for maybe Dartmouth. At least we play them at home. Anything can happen in the Ivy League, though, and I wouldn’t be icing any champagne just yet.
I’m having trouble getting used to this. Another blowout much like the last three, only this time, when we took our foot off the gas, the car didn’t slow down. Late in the game we played three backup quarterbacks. They connected repeatedly with accurate throws to receivers whom we hadn’t seen before. Honestly, have you ever seen so few dropped passes? The 733 yards gained by Princeton were the most in program history, but then again, we’ve only been playing for 149 years.
After Saturday’s win vs. Brown, I can say with absolute assurance that we will not have a losing record this year. This was another blowout, and not unexpected. I was surprised that Lovett didn’t play. The buzz in the stands was that he has a left wrist injury. Considering that this was his first start, Kevin Davidson played a fine game at quarterback, but we all want Lovett back. We have five games left, and while we should be favored in each, none of them is a slam-dunk. (Basketball metaphor, I know.) The trick is to avoid looking ahead.
I’ve been sitting in a hotel room in Asheville, N.C., watching the ESPN+ telecast of the game. How lame can you get? This will likely be the only game this year that I won’t attend in person this year, and, given the way it went, I thought that my absence might have jinxed us. This one was a character-builder, for sure. Until the last three minutes when Harvard scored on two long pass plays, our defense was superb.
The weather forecast called for heavy rain and wind; the flaws that showed up in last week’s Harvard game were cause for concern; and there was fear that Princeton might be looking forward to next week’s matchup with undefeated Dartmouth. But, to evoke the sportscaster Warner Wolf, “If you had Cornell and 65 points, you lost!” Despite the offensive numbers, it was the defense that ignited things, with three first quarter interceptions — two on tipped balls. Cornell showed signs of being able to gain yardage, but after we started rolling, the fire went out of them. Lovett was his old self. When he’s right, he plays with an infectious abandon, and yesterday he was right, especially his running game.
After the game I had an overwhelming feeling of relief. These were two great teams with outstanding defenses. The Princeton defense didn’t allow a single point in the last 52 minutes of the game; and didn’t yield a first down in the last 25 minutes. I have felt all year that we have a way of wearing down the opposition. Whether this is due to better conditioning, more depth, or both I don’t know, but I think that it happened again today. I credit the coaching staff for coming up with a solid, risk-averse game plan and sticking to it.
Yesterday morning, a memorial service was held for legendary, 32-year Yale football coach Carmen Cozza, who had died earlier this year at the age of 87. With a few minutes left in the first half and the score 35-7 Princeton, the public address announcer asked all Yale alumni who had played for Cozza, to stand. I turned to my Yalie brother who had gotten us tickets on the Yale side and allowed that maybe for this game Ol’ Carm was better off under the grass. Together, the teams broke the scoring record for a Princeton-Yale game. Why did we win? Largely it was the result of an outstanding running game. Volcker was kept out due to last week’s concussion, but Eaddy and Quigley were superb, gaining almost 400 yards and accounting for five touchdowns.
Lovett got the job done, time and again targeting his favorite receiver, Horsted, who was superb as usual. Following Princeton’s surprisingly one-sided win over Butler in its first game, I concluded my email report with the following: “Let the speculation begin!” The speculation is over — let the celebration begin! I was elated with the win over Penn, but at the same time, I can’t help feeling a bit wistful. It’s been a great ride, and it saddens me that it’s over.
This was the first undefeated team since 1964. If Princeton has to wait 54 more years for perfection, I will be 128 and probably won’t be going to Indianapolis for the Butler game. Having arrived early at Jadwin Gym for a Sunday morning squash game, I went up to the football office and found a bleary-eyed Bob Surace ’90. I thanked him and his team for giving us such pleasure over the past few months. He was happy to hear it, and he gave me the distinct impression that it won’t be 54 years between perfect seasons if he has anything to say about it. I’m betting he’s right.