Just over a year ago, on Sept. 29, 2012, I was pestering the football team’s head coach, Bob Surace ’90. We were in Columbia’s football complex at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, where Princeton had just put up 33 points, the most it had scored since the previous October, and won a road game, something it had not done since 2009.
Less than a month into my sophomore year and new to the football beat, I was trying to get a quote from Surace, something along the lines of, “This is the biggest win of my career,” because nobody thought the Tigers’ offense would score so may points and that would have sounded good in my article. But Surace brushed the questions aside like it was no big deal. Looking back on the rest of the 2012 season, he was right.
Compared to what was in store for the Tigers, that game was small potatoes, but I see it as the dawning of the Bob Surace Era (if you don’t count his first two seasons, which I’m sure he’d be as happy to overlook as I am). It was the first time junior quarterbacks Connor Michelsen and Quinn Epperly clicked as a duo, with both putting up over 100 passing yards and Epperly finally running the ball like the Tigers had hoped he would. The fact that receiver Tom Moak ’13 was credited with throwing a touchdown shows that this was by no means a perfectly clean game, but that botched field-goal-turned-touchdown foreshadowed the way the football team now runs.
Plenty of weaknesses still exist, but Surace has learned to cover them up in a way that almost uses them to his advantage.
We don’t have a clear No. 1 quarterback? Ok, let’s throw the two best guys on the field. Maybe even at the same time. Surace’s “ninja” formation — one of the formations where he uses two quarterbacks — has been successful in terms of both yardage and keeping the defense guessing.
The special teams looked a little shaky in the first game? Ok, we’ll go for two on the first drive and take Georgetown by surprise. The Hoyas just took the lead on a fumble recovery and stopped us on third down? We’ll get our freshman punter to fake a punt and hit junior tailback Will Powers for a first down.
We need another running threat? Ok, let’s hand the ball to our star wideout, senior Roman Wilson, or maybe senior running back-turned defensive back-turned running back Brian Mills, who had 110 yards and a touchdown last weekend.
Not all of Surace’s gambles have paid off, but his willingness to try the inadvisable and the downright outlandish has made Princeton both exciting to watch and frustrating to play. The team has become more self-aware, mindful of its own weaknesses — I’m sure everyone on the field goal unit knows he may be called upon to pull a Moak — and able to exploit them. Add a lot of young talent to that formula and you’ve got a once-again-relevant Princeton football team.
Ok, maybe the young talent has more to do with it than anything else. But still.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that “ninja” was the formation in which Surace uses two quarterbacks. It is actually just one such formation, as this article has been updated to reflect.