On September 20, the Dartmouth football team began the 2003 season with the slogan "A Legacy Reborn." Today, almost ten weeks later, the Big Green (4-5, 3-3 Ivy) is gearing up to play Princeton (2-7, 2-4 Ivy) in the final game of Dartmouth's most successful season since 1997.
By beating the Tigers tomorrow, Dartmouth hopes to show that the legacy of the Ivy League's most successful football program (17 titles since the formal start of Ivy League play in 1956) has truly been reborn, even if it hasn't grown up yet.
Furthermore, a win over Princeton would give Dartmouth a winning Ivy League season for the first time since an 8-2 campaign in 1997, and put an exclamation point on the career of the senior class that has carried Dartmouth's reborn legacy to term through injuries, heartbreaking losses and desertion.
"Overall, they're a very good group," Big Green head coach John Lyons said of his seniors yesterday afternoon. "We have more seniors than we've had in recent years, and that we have so many that stuck it out is a big plus." Having "stuck it out" for four years, the Big Green seniors will look to team up with a talented group of underclassmen to stick it to Princeton.
"Clearly, our team wants to win this game," Lyons said. "It would be a great way to send off our seniors, and it'd be great to give momentum to the guys who are returning."
When Dartmouth kicks off against Princeton tomorrow on Senior Day, the Big Green's past, present and future will all be on display at the same time. On offense, all-time receptions leader Jay Barnard '04 (209 catches through last week's 26-21 loss to Brown), all-American tight end Casey Cramer '04 and all-Ivy fullback Scott Wedum will look to get the ball from quarterback Charlie Rittgers '06, who, as a redshirt freshman, could easily etch his own name in the Dartmouth record books by the time he graduates. Also, running back Chris Little '05 and wide receivers Andrew Hall '05 and Bob Murphy '05 will have their opportunities to show that the cupboard will hardly be bare in Hanover come 2004.
On defense, strong safety Phil Frost '04 will play the last game of his Big Green career the way he played his first game, along with every other game for the last four years -- in the starting lineup. Frost, linebacker Lyle Campbell '04, and defensive tackle Mario Avila '04 will play their last game at Dartmouth alongside a young group of Dartmouth defenders who hope to frustratee offenses together in the seasons to come, including free safety Clayton Smith '05, linebacker Josh Dooley '06, defensive end Derham Cato '05 and cornerbacks Mike Ribero '06, Chris Green '06 and Steve Jensen '05.
Together, all the Big Green players, young and old, offense and defense, will be united one last time, with the singular goal of taking out Princeton and putting the Ivy League on notice that Big Green is ready to reclaim its spot among the Ancient Eight's elite.
The Tigers, however, will not go down without a fight. "Princeton's record is deceiving," Lyons said. "They're 2-7, but they could easily be 5-4. They've been in a lot of close games." Overtime losses to Harvard and Yale and a last-second loss to Columbia on a Hail Mary pass have kept the Tigers frustrated at every turn during the 2003 campaign. However, Princeton's head coach, former Big Green offensive coordinator Roger Hughes, will have his charges fired up to end the season on a high note.
The Tigers' offensive attack starts with junior quarterback Matt Verbit. Verbit is fourth in the Ivy with a 130.7 QB rating, and, like Rittgers, has thrown for 13 touchdowns this season. However, Verbit is also the Ancient Eight's most sacked signal-caller, as the Tiger offensive line has given up 21 sacks this season. Cato, Ryan Conger '05, and the Dartmouth defense won't give Verbit any respite.
When Verbit can stay on his feet, he'll be looking for junior receiver B.J. Syzmanski (716 yards on 36 catches) and senior Blair Morrison (616 yards on 41 catches). On the ground, junior running backs Jon Veach (573 yards on 121 carries) and Brandon Benson (445 yards on 97 carries) will both try to find holes in the Big Green defense.
The Dartmouth defense, however, is more likely to create holes between ball-carriers' hands than it is to leave holes for their bodies. Over the past three weeks, the Dartmouth defense has forced 10 turnovers, while the Big Green offense has only coughed the ball up twice.
Turnovers have been a major problem for the Tigers, especially fumbles (eight lost fumbles in the last three games), and the Big Green defense will look to continue Princeton's woes. "One thing that's hurt them is that they turn the ball over a lot," said Lyons, "and we have to get some turnovers."
In talking with Lyons, it becomes obvious that no one in the Dartmouth locker room is taking Princeton lightly. "We can still come back from 0-4 to win five games," said Lyons, "and that's still out there for our guys to accomplish. We'll have to play well to get it done, but it would be a great end to the season, and it would give us momentum for next year."
With the seniors in search of an exclamation point on their careers, and the underclassmen in search of momentum for the seasons to come, all of the Big Green players and coaches will be searching for a season-ending win, a .500 season and a winning Ivy League record when they go on a Tiger hunt at Memorial Field tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.