Football finishes season tied for last place
In a heartbreaking end to a long and difficult season, the Big Green failed to convert numerous opportunities and fell to the Princeton Tigers 20-13 Saturday.
With the loss, Dartmouth dropped to 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the Ivy League, ending the year in last place for the first time since 1956. The team's losing record was its first since 1987 when it finished 2-8.
While the team began the year in impressive fashion, going 3-2 and losing to the University of Pennsylvania by only two points, it went on to lose four of its next five games.
A season-ending injury to running back Pete Oberle '96 that occurred against Cornell University contributed to the poor finish, as the team lost its leading rusher and one of the best backs in the 1-AA division.
The Tigers, by contrast, finished a successful season with an overall 7-3 record and 4-3 in the League, good enough for a third place finish.
Judging from the first quarter of Saturday's contest, it would have appeared that Dartmouth was heading for its fifth win and a strong finish to a disappointing season.
On the Tigers' opening drive, cornerback Brian White '95 blocked a punt, giving Dartmouth the ball at the Tigers' 35-yard line. Five plays later, running back Jon Clark '96 barreled into the endzone for a touchdown, giving Dartmouth an early 7-0 lead that was maintained through the end of the quarter.
Princeton fought its way back into the game in the second quarter. With 9:01 left in the half, Tiger receiver Marc Ross (2 catches, 65 yards) burned the Dartmouth defense and headed straight for the endzone, arriving just in time to catch a 51-yard pass from quarterback Harry Nakielny. After a missed extra-point attempt, Dartmouth led 7-6.
This slim lead was short-lived, however, as six minutes later the Tigers struck again, this time on a trick play. Having driven the ball to about midfield, the Tigers executed a fake reverse, with Nakielny throwing a high arching pass to wide receiver Dave Scroggin (4 catches, 71 yards).
Although the Dartmouth defenders managed to keep Scroggin out of the endzone, the Tigers nevertheless managed to score, punching the ball in from one yard out on the very next play.
Princeton then attempted a two-point conversion, but threw an incomplete pass, bringing the score to 12-7 at the half.
"There were a couple of big plays in the ball game," said Big Green Coach John Lyons. "The two long passes Princeton had-they made them. We had some opportunities to make some, and we just didn't make them."
By halftime, the Big Green had given up 270 yards of offense to Princeton while gaining only 100.
In the second half, the Big Green rose to the challenge defensively, giving up only 77 yards to the Tiger offense. Dartmouth defenders swarmed Princeton running backs B.J. Brucato and Bill Jordan, with linebackers Mark Abel '97, co-captain Josh Bloom '95, nose guard Zack Lehman '95 and defensive back White each getting more than eight tackles.
"Our defense played a heck of a game," said quarterback John Aljancic '97. "They did what they needed to do. I thought we ran the ball decently as well."
Indeed, while the Princeton running attack struggled in the second half, the Big Green rushers were displaying their talents in impressive fashion. The third quarter, though uneventful, gave a slight indication of this - it was the fourth quarter, however, which saw Dartmouth make a valiant last effort to win the game.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game occurred early in the final quarter when Aljancic fumbled the ball at the Tiger 48-yard line. Princeton linebacker Dave Patterson immediately scooped the ball up and rumbled down the field 52 yards for a touchdown.
"The fumble returned for a touchdown and the other turnovers killed us," Lehman said. "The chips didn't fall into place. As soon as we got things going, we turned the ball over."
It was at this point, with the score 20-7 in Princeton's favor, that the Dartmouth running game made its best showing. On Dartmouth's next drive following the fumble recovery, the Big Green, backed by the strength of Ambrose Garcia '97 and Zack Ellis '98, executed an 11-play, 72-yard drive.
The drive, which started from the Dartmouth 28-yard line, culminated in a 7-yard run by Ellis (13 rushes, 62 yards). Garcia (12 rushes, 63 yards) also made several key runs during the drive, which, after a failed extra-point attempt, put Dartmouth within 7 points of the Tigers at 20-13.
On the ensuing Princeton possession, the Big Green defense threw back Princeton rusher Jordan on a crucial third-and-2, forcing the opponents to punt. But the weak punt and a short return resulted in good field position for the Big Green at the Dartmouth 47-yard line.
A sack on third down - for a loss of 13 yards - squelched any chance of a Dartmouth drive, however. With 2:42 to play, Princeton had the ball on its own 27-yard line, needing only a few first downs to clinch a victory.
Amazingly enough, the Dartmouth defense once again rose to challenge, giving up only four yards on three plays. With only 1:29 remaining, the Big Green got the ball back.
Aljancic immediately hit wide receiver Matt Puryear '95 (6 catches, 99 yards) for a first down. On the next two plays, however, Aljancic threw two incompletes, with both passes intended for Puryear.
Then, on a fateful third down play, Aljancic was hit while throwing the ball, leading to an interception by Tiger defensive back Damani Leech. Princeton was able to run the remaining time off the clock to end the game at 20-13.
Despite the loss, and the many missed opportunities at the end of the game, the Big Green were able to outgain the Tigers on the ground, 195 to 176 yards, and had more first downs than their opponents, moving the chains 19 times as opposed to Princeton's 17.
"It came down to big plays," said co-captain Hunter Buckner '95. "You take away a few plays and we pretty much controlled the line of scrimmage. We aren't blaming anyone but ourselves. We could have come out of here with a win. This was a pretty good summary of what happened to us this season. . . in the tenth game of the year you have to make those plays. You just have to, and we didn't."