The battle of the best: football team preps for big Princeton game

by Devan Fink | 11/8/19 2:00am

10-28-19-sports-football1-samhysa

The undefeated Big Green football team faces Princeton at Yankee Stadium tomorrow.

by Sam Hysa / The Dartmouth

In its 17 games dating back to the start of last season, No. 13 Dartmouth football is 16-1. No. 9 Princeton University football is 17-0. The one loss separating these two teams? The Tigers’ 14-9 defeat over the Big Green last November. 

Those five points in that game would ultimately be the differentiator. Since there are no playoffs, the Ivy League football championship is awarded to the school with the best record. The 2018 title came down to that single game. Had Dartmouth won, a new banner would have been added to the ring at Memorial Field. Instead, the team looks to redeem itself in another battle of undefeateds this Saturday. 

In the 2019 edition of the matchup between the two schools, the stage is significantly brighter. Rarely is Ivy League football on nationwide television, but this game will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU, so it can truly be said that this is exactly how the networks would have drawn it up. This game will also take place not in Princeton, not in Hanover, but in New York at Yankee Stadium, as the two schools commemorate the 150th anniversary of college football. Princeton played Rutgers University in the first-ever college football matchup on Nov. 6, 1869. 

Though the two schools currently boast undefeated records, head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 shied away from calling Saturday’s matchup the de facto Ivy League championship — though he did note that the game will have significant ramifications for how the standings finish. 

“It’s certainly two teams that are undefeated,” Teevens said. “It doesn’t get much better than that. The team that has success is going to have the inside track on a title. There’s a lot on the line for it.”

Wide receiver Drew Estrada ’20 offered a similar sentiment. 

“You can’t think ahead,” Estrada said. “We still have two games left [after Princeton]. But us both being undefeated teams, it’s going to have really big implications. If we were to win, we would have to focus on each game after that and not slip up. Like every week, the next game is the biggest game, and what we have to focus on is this game. But yeah, there’s a little bit more to this game, I feel like.”

Dartmouth is coming off an effort in which the team almost did slip up. After trailing for the vast majority of last Saturday’s game at Harvard University, the Big Green escaped unscathed with a last-second Hail Mary pass from Derek Kyler ’21 to Masaki Aerts ’21 to top the Crimson 9-6. The pass not only sent shock waves across the rest of the Ivy League, but the entirety of college football. The FCS named the pass the No. 1 play of the week. 

“It was exciting,” Teevens said. “Just a great example of playing to the end, being optimistic, and being competitive. Our guys did a great job. They could have stopped at any point. It certainly didn’t look bright when we fumbled the ball on the eight-yard line, but our defense buckled down, kept them out of the end zone. Kyler made a bunch of plays to get us down the field, and Aerts finished it off.”

Even in the win dubbed the “Miracle in Cambridge,” the Big Green offense took a hit when starting quarterback Jared Gerbino ’20 left the game in the first half due to a leg injury and did not return. This week, according to Teevens, Gerbino did practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, but his status for Saturday still remains unclear. 

“At this point, it comes down to how limited I am at practice and how the coaches feel about me not practicing much and then playing in the game,” Gerbino said. “It comes down to their feel. It’s one of these injuries that I’ve had in the past. It’s something I can push through, even though it’d be a little painful.”

If it were up to him, Gerbino said, he would be playing. 

“I’ve played my whole career to play in games like these,” he said. “But it comes down to the coaches’ perspective and if they want to play me after not playing much in practice or if they want to play Derek. I’m going to try my hardest to get back to normal, but if I can’t, I’m going to try to be [in] a supportive role on the sideline.”

Teevens, however, seemed to think that Gerbino will be ready to go. 

“Yes,” he said when asked if Gerbino will play on Saturday. “He’s a tough kid.”

Regardless, Dartmouth finds itself in a unique spot. With its two-quarterback offense, the loss of the “starting” quarterback may not be as significant as it would be to the vast majority of offensive units. But, whichever player is playing quarterback on Saturday — and if Dartmouth had its way, it would be both — it’s going to be tough for the team to move the ball against a tough Tigers’ defense. Princeton is second in the conference in rushing defense, allowing just 96.4 yards per game, and is also second in the conference in passing defense, allowing just over 223 yards per game. 

“We’ve had good success with big plays,” Teevens said. “They’re a very, very aggressive defense, so sometimes that opens them up to the opportunity for a big play. When Princeton has been scored on, it’s generally been a big play.” 

These were the plays on which Dartmouth was unable to convert last Saturday, but Estrada believes that the difference rests in the Big Green just needing to execute when the opportunity presents itself.  

“Last week, we had some trouble with the execution, which made it tough at the end,” he said. “[This week, we should focus on are] just starting off strong and finishing off strong in all phases of the game, offense and defense and special teams. Princeton is a really good team. They’ve shown it on film. Offensively, they’re putting up big numbers, and defensively, they’re one of the best defenses in the league. They have a ton of athletes, and they’re really well-coached.”

Still, no matter the outcome, the team is just excited for the experience of playing in such a unique venue for this important of a game. For Gerbino, a New York native, it will be especially cool playing in a ballpark that houses the team that he “grew up loving.” He, along with the rest of the team, will get to experience the ballpark’s special features prior to Saturday’s game.

“We’ll have the chance to take our players through and see some of the memorabilia and see some of the historical aspects,” Teevens said. “For a guy in any place in the country, they know the Yankees, they know Yankee baseball, they know Yankee Stadium. And as a young guy or an old guy, to have the chance to actually be in that facility, be in the locker room, be in the dugout, be on the field, it’s really special.”

The stadium, the atmosphere, the opponent — for Dartmouth football, all of it will converge tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. 

“This is the biggest game that I think the majority of us have ever played in,” Gerbino said. “It’s on a huge stage, probably in front of the most people we’ve ever played in, so I would say that this is the championship for us in this moment. You kinda just get the feeling that Princeton’s only loss is going to either come from us or nobody.”