Out of the deep blues of 12 losses in the previous 13 games, Princeton scored 30 offensive points in 8:31 of possession time last Saturday to improbably shrink a 26-point Harvard lead down to three.
But even at a thinking man’s university like Princeton, it is not incumbent on the engineer of that rally to explain it as much as it is his duty to sustain it.
“I don’t know exactly what it was,” said quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12. “I just think no one was overthinking anything, trying to score a million points on one play. [We were] just playing the game we practiced all week.
“Like [offensive coordinator James] Perry has said for a year and a half. ‘That three touchdown flurry will come – trust it.’”
Now, can anyone at Harvard Stadium who saw it trust his or her eyes? The Tigers still gave up two fourth quarter touchdowns and fell to 1-2 in the Ivy League (1-5 overall) with a wild 56-39 loss. Exhilarating as that second half was, it only represented progress should it carry over into Saturday’s 1 p.m. game on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium against Cornell, still winless in the league.
“We’ll see whose program is making more progress,” said Princeton coach Bob Surace ’90. “Like us, Cornell has some impact seniors and good role-playing seniors and is playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores.
“They have thrown the ball well. To the eye, their defense can look pretty good except just like us, they give up big plays.”
Suddenly Princeton was making those plays last week, time after time. Flea flickers and end-arounds worked as they had been drawn up. Wornham settled into a remarkable passing rhythm with Shane Wilkinson ’13 (eight catches) and Matt Costello ’15 (six catches) while Chuck Dibilio ’15 repeatedly ran over tacklers of a Harvard defense that had previously given up only 65 rushing yards per game.
At the midpoint of the season – and midterm exam time of the semester – when freshmen’s bodies and minds often begin to wear down, Dibilio is getting better every game, adding five receptions for 65 yards against Harvard to 135 yards rushing on 22 carries.
“We usually try to send [substitutes] in, but he wasn’t wearing down,” said Surace. “He makes a guy miss after four yards [and] turns it into 12.”
With Brian Mills ’14, whose back seized up during a 48-yard second quarter run than ended with a Harvard fumble recovery, questionable for Saturday, Dibilio’s workload isn’t likely to diminish.
Dibilio’s 536 rushing yards are already a Princeton freshman record, as are both Costello’s 24 receptions and 291 receiving yards. The Tigers have moved the ball much of the season but just haven’t finished drives.
As the euphoria of the rally washed over the huddle, the bench, and the Princeton side of Harvard Stadium, it began to seem like a scripted, scoreless, three-series second quarter experiment with option quarterback Quinn Epperly ’15 had only delayed Wornham’s groove until after the half. But Surace, who plans to employ a similar package this week, believes the rest is for the senior’s own good.
“Hey, something helped me,” shrugged Wornham as he laughed. “I got a little rest and some time to watch and learn and calm down.
“Quinn did a good job, but I still wanted to get back in there as soon as I could.”
Indeed, after Wornham hit Dibilio on a flea flicker on the game’s first play, setting up the first of two touchdowns by the freshman, the entire offense acted like it couldn’t wait to get back on the field.
“The way Cornell plays, we have some opportunities to make some big plays,” said Costello.
The Big Red’s feeling probably is mutual. But at least Princeton’s fun level is rising, along with its offensive confidence.